Pros: Fine story telling, character development. Scenery of West Point
Cons: Some historical half-truths, over-reliance on Irish stereotypes.
The Long Gray Line starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara is one of those 1950s movies directed by John Ford that will never, ever, ever be made again.
Full of Irish lyricism and suffering, the self-deprecating humor for which the folks from The Emerald Isle are known and the overt and outrageous sentimentality found in just about every John Ford movie ever made, THE LONG GRAY LINE is not just the story of Irish immigrant Martin Maher, but rather, it is the story of the United States Army as it is transformed from a frontier force in the late 1890s to a powerful mechanized army in WW II and beyond.
At the center of the story is Tyrone Power, himself a first generation American and the son of a well known Irish actor, playing Martin Maher, Jr. Marty, as he comes to be known emigrated to the USA and landed in NYC at Ellis Island. With an introductory letter, he heads north to the United States Military Academy at West Point for a job in the Cadet Dining Hall. It is there where we viewers first meet him. It is also there where the viewer immediately realizes that Maher will never make it as a waiter, because be breaks far too many dishes. With each one he breaks, he gets deeper in the hole and eventually he owes far more than he could hope to repay on his meager salary. So Marty Maher does what so many immigrants before him did, he enlists in the U.S. Army. Fortunate enough to be assigned to West Point, he pulls guard duty and other military tasks that put him in a position to meet the young cadets who hope one day to graduate and become officers in the United States Army.
As time moves on, Marty remains at West Point and eventually begins to climb the enlisted ranks. His first promotion is to Corporal and that is also about the time that he first lays eyes on the woman he knows he will marry. His target is the fiery haired and beautiful Maureen O'Hara, playing what else, a recent arrival on American shores. Working as a maid in Officer's Housing, she knows of Marty, but has also been noticed by Marty's immediate superior, a German Sergeant played by Peter Graves (prior to his role on the original Mission Impossible TV series). To keep this short, Marty wins Mary O'Donnell's hand and as a non-commissioned officer, he is granted permission to wed.
Newly married and installed in married NCO's quarters, Marty is also assigned to the Field House working alongside "the Master of the Sword" played with ineffable charm by that other stalwart of Ford westerns and war movies, Ward Bond. At this time in West Point's history, the Master of the Sword is none other than Major, later GEN John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. Marty's duties as his assistant is to teach cadets how to swim in the academy pool. There is a hilarious scene where several cadets gang up on Marty and toss him in. To their dismay and Marty's embarrassment, they find out that Marty can't swim. The instructor can't swim and it falls to the students to rescue him!
As the movie progresses, it is obvious that Marty has come into contact with some of the largest names in 20th century military history. We meet a young George Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower and many others, some who will become founding members of the Army's fledgling Air Service (later the Army Air Corps, Army Air Forces and US Air Force). There are also the fictional characters utilized to populate the story line and provide dramatic tension.
There is the young former enlisted cavalryman who wins his place at West Point, but who is failing mathematics and may be turned out of the Academy. Should that happen, he will be forced to return to the ranks, a prospect he dreads. Instead, Marty and Katie and the now arrived Martin, Sr. played with classic charm by character actor Donald Crisp, conspire to introduce the young cadet to a woman who teaches high school math. They become a couple and when the four year curriculum is cut a year short to provide new lieutenants for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) being sent to France in 1917, he graduates with his class and marries his tutor. Unfortunately, he does not return from the trenches and all his expectant widow has is his posthumous Medal of Honor. When she delivers a son, he will be guaranteed admission to the academy because of the legacy of the medal.
All throughout the U.S. involvement in WW I, Marty repeatedly tries to transfer to a line infantry unit, where he hopes his experiences as a senior Sergeant will help to keep younger soldiers alive. Just as many times as he applies, his requests are refused and the army tells him that he is more useful helping to train the cadets who will one day be army officers.
In the immediate aftermath of WW I, Marty almost leaves the Army to enter business with his brother in NYC. He is tired of the poor pay and the way he is treated by the commissioned officers serving on the Academy's faculty. Just short of leaving, he is convinced to stay and remains at West Point.
The inter-war years pass slowly and Marty continues to receive promotions. On the eve of the U.S. entrance into WW II, he is shown as a Technical Sergeant. He has trained two full generations of West Point cadets. When war breaks out, he again requests active service and is again denied.
He is promoted to Master Sergeant and is named The "Master of the Sword," a rare honor for a Non-Commissioned Officer. Still a non-swimmer, he continues to teach the Australian crawl, the breast stroke and back stroke to a new generation of cadets who are none the wiser. There is a typical Irish anger scene when Marty, cleaning up in the field house sees a civilian in his early forties put out a cigar on the building's marble floor. When he confronts the stranger and reminds him of where he is, the stranger points out that he is the nation's youngest Governor. Unfazed, Marty storms off, wondering when the Commandant of Cadets will call him in for a royal a**-chewing.
World War II ends and Marty Maher and his beloved Mary are still at the Point. They are beloved by cadets, who use them as sounding boards and for advice on everything from relationships to who decorates the best Christmas tree. The couple attend every cadet parade on Saturday on The Plain, that huge grass field where every ceremonial event and parade are held by the Corps of Cadets.
One Saturday, a fatigued and less than well Mary asks her husband to fetch her a glass of water, while she rests before they climb the hill to watch the cadets parade past. As Marty heads for the kitchen and Mary squints to look out the door and into the mists beyond, the viewer gets the impression that she is looking back on her life with Marty Maher and the early 20th century history of West Point. Before Marty can return with the water glass, we see Mary's hand fall off the arm of the chair and it is in that moment that we see Ford's sentiment and love of the Irish family again come to the fore.
A confused and once again single Martin Maher must now face his future alone.
In reality, by the time Mary O'Donnell Maher died at West Point, Marty had already retired from the Army and was working as a custodian on the grounds. Because he knew so many generals in both the Army and the Air Force, he was allowed to remain in government housing, even after his retirement. That favoritism would never happen today.
There is a touching scene near the end of the movie where Marty is called to Washington, D.C. Because the movie was filmed in 1955, it can safely be assumed that he has been summoned by none other than Ike himself. He chats with Marty and then packs him off back to his beloved West Point. It can also be assumed that this is John Ford's artistic deviation from history and Marty's real biography.
Marty is shown as an elderly Master Sergeant and Tyrone Power played the role to the hilt throughout the movie. He uses his brogue and mannerisms to maximum effect and one can see him as the real Marty Maher.
The John Ford Rolling Stock Company, as his band of actors was often called, shows itself to maximum advantage as well. Ward Bond is a standout in his brief role as Black Jack Pershing. Maureen O'Hara is completely believable as
Mary O'Donnell Maher. There is also a very young Harry Carey, Jr. cast as the young Dwight Eisenhower, who even as a cadet is beginning to experience hair loss that others joke with him about.
This is truly a movie of its time and will appear dated to modern viewers. The dialog may appear corny and stilted and the seeming innocence of the young cadets may defy credulity. But it is also a movie about one man and his role in an institution that has played a huge part in modern American military and world history. It is an excellent movie for those of Irish descent and while every Irish cliche in the book is used and played on shamelessly by John Ford, it should be remembered that he was Irish himself. He also knew what viewers back then wanted to see.
This is a great movie if you're feeling nostalgic about your own heritage or a period in our history long since gone. There is no gratuitous sex or violence. No computer generated imagery. What there is within the two hours of this movie is some really great story telling, a lot of Irish folklore, some downright historical inaccuracies and a helluva great story about an Irish immigrant who came to West Point to wash dishes and instead wound up influencing the lives (for the better) of thousands of cadets who went on to become eminent leaders in their own right.
Watch The Long Gray Line for a tear-jerking and nostalgic look at "the Old Army," West Point and the officers and soldiers whose job it was turn out this nation's warriors.
A FINAL NOTE:
Master Sergeant Martin Maher, Jr., U.S. Army (Retired) died at West Point in 1961. He is buried with his wife and his grave is within a two minute walk of the pyramidal monument that contains the bones of another famous soldier, Brevet Major General of Volunteers, Lt. Colonel of the 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer.
The house that Marty and Mary lived in for almost 40 years still stands at West Point. After Marty's death, the Army decided that it would NOT be assigned to another married NCO. It stands today as a memorial to a soldier who gave so much to so many, but who never heard a shot fired in anger.