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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 1


Eugene O’Neill and John Ford:
Their Long Voyage Home

Richard Compson Sater
Ohio University, Athens, Ohio

Eugene O’Neill rarely went to the movies. In general, he disliked the film versions made from his plays, with one exception: the 1940 film adaptation of his S.S. Glencairn plays: The Long Voyage Home, directed by John Ford. This paper offers an introduction to the Glencairn plays and a discussion of their adaptation into film.

Several questions surface immediately. What do the source plays and the film have in common? What changes were made by the screenwriter? What can a play do that a movie cannot, and conversely, what can a movie do that a play cannot? Finally, if they were to arm-wrestle, which would win?

Four one-act plays make up the Glencairn cycle – “Bound East for Cardiff,” “The Long Voyage Home,” “In the Zone,” and “Moon of the Caribbees,” written between 1914 and 1917. The plays share the same locale, a British tramp steamer, and the same core cast of characters. The spirit of the sea – and the impact of fate on the men who have chosen to sail – is central to the plays. The “home” named in the title may be a real journey’s end, a myth or memory, a dream or death.

Let me begin with a brief synopsis of each play to give you a sense of the source material.

In “Bound East for Cardiff” (written in 1914), the S.S. Glencairn is aimed toward the Welsh port city as the play begins – but becalmed because of thick fog. The central figures are Yank and Driscoll, and the entire action takes place in the forecastle of the ship. Yank is dying, the result of a mishap – descending a ladder into the hold, he had fallen and nearly killed himself. If the ship were not stopped by the fog, perhaps the crew would reach Wales in time to get Yank the necessary medical attention.

As it is, however, he lies in his bunk and his friend Driscoll attends his last moments. Yank recalls their adventures, the hardships of the sailor’s life, and his dream that he and Driscoll would leave the sea and set themselves up together on a farm in South America. Just before his death, Yank sees a “pretty lady dressed in black” (“Bound East” 198) coming for him. Upon his death, the fog lifts.

In the second play, “The Long Voyage Home” (written in 1917), the Glencairn sailors are in London after a lengthy voyage. The entire action of the play takes place in a bar on land, and the sailors are outnumbered – only four of them, up against twice as many civilians in the bar. One of the sailors, Olson, has determined not to ship out again; he is going home to Sweden to see his aging mother and take over the family farm. To insure that he gets home, he has vowed not to drink any alcohol on shore. Sober, he keeps company with several drunken shipmates.

The proprietor of the bar has agreed to shanghai a sailor for the slave-driving captain of the ship Amindra, which is set to sail to Cape Horn the following morning. Olson is the unlucky victim; at the urging of a prostitute who has been making friendly advances, he drinks a glass of soda that has been drugged and passes out. He is robbed and delivered to the ship and – it is implied – certain death on a hazardous voyage. Olson’s drunken friends remain unaware of his fate, in spite of their attempts to protect him.

The third play is “Moon of the Carribbees” (also written in 1917), O’Neill’s own favorite of his one-act plays (Sheaffer, Playwright 383). Primarily, it focuses on the Englishman Smitty, one of the quietest sailors, and introduces the fact that there is some mystery in his past – perhaps romantic disappointment – which weighs heavily upon him and distances him from the rest of the crew, to an extent. It is the least plotted and most episodic in nature, and therefore comes closest to capturing the “spirit of the sea” O’Neill wanted (Clark 58).

In an unnamed West Indian port, the sailors relax on their anchored ship with some local prostitutes who smuggle rum on board. Although one of the young women is taken with Smitty, he resists her advances. An exuberant, impromptu dance culminates in a fight among the sailors over the women; one jealous sailor draws a knife on another in the melee, but all ends calmly. Smitty, finding little solace in conversation or a bottle of rum, remains in his blue funk.

The fourth play, “In the Zone” (also written in 1917), is the most plotted and therefore, O’Neill believed, the most contrived of the four (Clark 56). It is the only play which is set in a specific time: the early days of World War I, as the ship navigates through German territorial waters in 1915, when the chance of detection by an enemy ship is a real danger. The cargo is also specified; the Glencairn carries munitions, and the fear of the crew is palpable. The hysteria of war is the dramatic backdrop for the drama which unfolds in the forecastle of the ship.

Smitty is seen hiding a small box in his personal trunk, which he keeps locked – regarded by the rest of the crew as an insult, a violation of the sailor’s code of trusting his mates. When the crew confronts Smitty about his actions, he denies any wrongdoing but refuses to open the box. The crew restrains him and searches the box, only to discover a faded flower and a packet of old letters. Driscoll reads the letters aloud, addressed to Smitty from his former fiancée, who broke off their engagement because Smitty had reneged on his promise to refrain from alcohol consumption. Embarrassed by the truth, the crew unties Smitty, who is left to his own tortured grief as the play ends.

The four short plays share the same locale and the same core cast of characters – Driscoll, Cocky, and Ivan appear in all four plays. Smitty and Olson appear in three, and so on. The plays were first performed as a cycle in 1924, and O’Neill approved. Though not originally conceived as inter-related episodes, the four plays fit together well, and O’Neill even suggested the name for the cycle, which has stuck: S.S. Glencairn.

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Director John Ford took an option on the plays in early 1940, and O’Neill met with Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols to discuss the project. O’Neill liked Ford – they were both Irish, and both had been sailors in the old days. The film was made that summer, and United Artists released it later that same year. The title chosen for the film is one of O’Neill’s most simple yet profound and poetic. “[L]ike the title of Long Day’s Journey into Night, [“The Long Voyage Home”] uses a metaphor of movement through space to suggest a process which is at once aimless, self-revealing, and self-defeating” (Orlandello 91) for the sailors of the Glencairn. Of the four titles, it is the one that best and most generally suits the film.

The film was a critical success, though not a popular one, and it remains one of the best adaptations of the playwright’s work. O’Neill saw it and (in a letter to his daughter Oona) praised it as “an exceptional picture, with no obvious Hollywood hokum or sentimental love bilge in it. I like very few pictures but I did like this one. John Ford . . .  is one of the best directors in the game . . . . And Dudley Nichols . . . also did a good job. Between them, they managed to keep the spirit of my plays in spite of the changes they had to make – bringing the story up to the present war, etc.” (Letters 513).

The film is evocative and richly-nuanced, faithful to O’Neill’s thematic intent, and very much a collaborative effort from the filmmakers. Nichols skillfully blended the plays into a seamless whole, carefully choosing highlights from each of the plays and crafting a suspenseful, action-filled tale of men at sea. Ford directed with his customary attention to detail, using his “stock company” to his advantage. If you’ve seen a John Ford film from the 1930s or 1940s, you’ll recognize a number of the faces – including John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Arthur Shields, and others.

Photographer Gregg Toland caught the images in beautifully rich black-and-white, a style that has been described as “expressionistic.” In the visual arts, the term refers to a movement from the early twentieth century that developed as a reaction to Impressionism. Unlike the Impressionists, who were concerned with the outward appearance of a subject at a moment in time, Expressionist artists (generally speaking) attempted to portray in their work a sense of inner feeling, frequently somber or painful, through the use of vivid colors, stark and stylized designs, symbols, and distortion.

In filmmaking, expressionistic technique manifests itself in contrast, particularly in regard to lighting and surprising camera angles. These are especially prominent in The Long Voyage Home. Toland achieves the cinematic equivalent of chiaroscuro, an Italian term referring to the use of light and shadow in the visual arts. (The photographer would reach a pinnacle of this style with Citizen Kane in 1941.)

An interviewer in 1955 asked Ford why so many of his films shared the same thematic center, that of  “‘a small group of people thrust by chance into dramatic or tragic circumstances,’” and Ford said: “It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face to face with something bigger than themselves. The situation of the tragic moment forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace.” (Orlandello 89)

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Four plays translated into one film … what’s in it and what’s left out? What changes have been made to the source material? What can the film do that the staged plays can’t? And vice-versa – what are the advantages of experiencing the Glencairn plays as staged performances?

First, let’s examine the plays as source material. The setting, of course, is the same – the British tramp steamer, S.S. Glencairn. The cast as sketched by O’Neill in his detailed stage directions provides a good descriptive basis for the characters in the film.

Driscoll is a strong, powerful, blustering Irishman in the plays – the same can be said for Thomas Mitchell’s performance onscreen. Olson is the innocent, trusting Swedish sailor who wants to go home to his family’s farm; John Wayne (rather surprisingly cast) fits the bill quite well.

Other characters, identified by their nationalities and individual personality quirks, are faithfully reproduced in the film, including Smitty (played by Ian Hunter), Yank (Ward Bond), Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald), Swenson (John Qualen), and the Cockney prostitute Freda (Mildred Natwick). Enough of O’Neill’s own words remain intact in the film, and Dudley Nichols captures the same flavor in the new dialogue.

Each play is given its due within the chronological, episodic framework of the film. Although the emphasis varies considerably, the basic premise of each play becomes a key vignette in the film. It opens with “Moon of the Caribbees,” with the ship anchored in a West Indian port and a native chant wafting over the waters. Prostitutes smuggle rum on board; the sailors drink and dance and fight. Smitty laments some romantic disillusionment. Approximately fifteen minutes of screen time relate to “Moon of the Caribbees.”

“Bound East for Cardiff comes next; the ship – at sea once again and bound for the U.S. to pick up a cargo of munitions – encounters a storm, and Yank is injured. He dies in his bunk, attended by his friend Driscoll. About twelve minutes of screen time correlate to O’Neill’s play.In the Zone comes next; as the ship carries its dangerous cargo through German waters, the crew becomes suspicious of Smitty’s secretive actions regarding a small tin box. He is bound and gagged as the crew search the box. Driscoll reads the letters to the crew. About twenty-one minutes of screen time elapse for this section.

“The Long Voyage Home is given the most screen time. The last twenty-five minutes of the film are dedicated to the crew’s attempts to insure that Olson will make it home. They stop at a bar to pass the time until Olson’s ship sails. The prostitute Freda distracts him and he drinks a glass of ginger beer that has been drugged, and he is hustled off to the ship Amindra. This section of the film is the most faithful to O’Neill, incorporating the situation, characters, and much of the dialogue directly from the play.

Like the plays, the film is as much about atmosphere and mood as it is about plot. This atmosphere is established in part by the international melting-pot of the crew and the use of music – such as the native chant and sea chanteys sung and played by the crew – but primarily through the cinematography of Gregg Toland. His images convey the mood of the spirit of the sea in stunning visual terms. Life at sea is an interesting juxtaposition: the expansiveness of water on all sides of the ship contrasting the tight quarters. This sense comes across clearly, from the claustrophobia of sleeping in a cramped forecastle to the monotony of the routine.

The film shares some key thematic concerns of O’Neill’s plays: the unpredictability of fate in the lives of the sailors, the mystery of the sea, the lure of death. The ultimate “home” is in fact death, and the Glencairn sailors seem to rush headlong toward it. They talk regularly of home – their lack of it and their longing for it – yet they do nothing to make this dream a reality. The men are frequently shadowy figures against this evocative canvas, with death always a possibility given the dangers of sailoring, particularly during a time of war. O’Neill’s conviction that the sea is a pure hypnotizer is clear; sailors are bound to the sea and there is no escape, save death.

The male camaraderie that is so predominant in O’Neill’s plays is made especially clear in the film. Some critics have noted that The Long Voyage Home is almost homoerotic, supported not only by the workings of the plot and the treatment of women in the film but also by Toland’s provocative photography.

Though there is much common ground between the plays and the film, there are three key changes made by Dudley Nichols in his screenplay. The first is the emphasis on a strong interconnection of action – something that is absent in the plays as individual entities. Since they were conceived as individual plays, the connections between them are mostly unspecific; the identity of the crew and the ship itself are constants, and there are suggestions of interrelated plot elements, such as Smitty’s unrest in Moon of the Caribbees being explained by the letters discovered in the tin box of In the Zone.” In the film, Nichols has crafted a tightly-woven episodic story that firmly unites the actions of the four individual plays into one coherent whole.

The second major change is the updating of the timeframe of the story from World War I to World War II. In 1940, the war was two years old and the U.S. had yet to enter the fight, but the country was painfully aware of the cost of war in Europe, and tensions ran high. The plot of the film was thus given a contemporary context that increased the urgency and relevance of the action. An added scene involves the bombardment of the Glencairn by German fighter planes, an exciting sequence that could never even have been envisioned by O’Neill in 1917.

A third major change is one of focus. Though it can’t be said that the film has a happy ending, Nichols shifted the emphasis so that – at least for one of the Glencairn sailors – the “long voyage home” isn’t necessarily the life journey ending with burial at sea. In the play, Olson is targeted as the sailor to be shanghaied. The film conforms to this plot element but adds a twist. Once his shipmates discover Olson’s fate, they go after him and manage to retrieve him from the Amindra. The catastrophe instead falls to Driscoll, who ultimately offers himself in place of his shipmate so that Olson can return to his home and his mother (something O’Neill would never have permitted to happen). The last half hour of the film builds such strong dramatic tension, it is almost unbearable to watch.

Other changes made include more in-depth characterizations. For example, the British sailor Smitty is given a fuller history in the film, being revealed as a man with a wife and children and a Royal Navy officer’s commission, all of which he has lost because of alcoholism. And another example: the character of Olsen is revealed gradually as naive and trusting. His innocence is reinforced by such details as the fact that he alone of the Glencairn crew is not present in the forecastle during the interrogation of Smitty – which makes his gullibility at the bar (where he is duped by the prostitute) all the more poignant.

A movie, obviously, can create a degree of realism that is simply impossible in a staged production, but a movie is a fixed entity. It is the same thing every time you see it; although your response to it may change with every viewing, it remains static as a work of art. A film is much more likely to find a broad audience than a production of a play, certainly true with the advent of video and DVD.

The Long Voyage Home was shot in black-and-white, which emphasizes contrast – particularly in terms of Toland’s rich, expressionistic style. It also reminds the audience that it is watching a film – particularly these days when black-and-white is uncommon. The film also includes a music score to emphasize and reinforce the action as well as the atmosphere. Of the plays, only Moon of the Caribbees has an equivalent – the native chant that runs throughout the play is specified in the stage directions – but the film score (by Richard Hageman) was specifically composed to underscore the onscreen narrative.

One example regarding its effectiveness: the use of the popular song “Harbor Lights” at the beginning of the film. It is a melancholy song about two lovers who have parted, one who has sailed away, and one – the narrator – who is left ashore. Fragments of the song turn up elsewhere in the film, most prominently at the end, offering an ironic comment on the action and of the sailor’s lot in life.

Part of the soundtrack is the use of sound effects also. A storm at sea doesn’t necessarily need musical accompaniment because it is already dramatic enough. In the scene depicting the burial of Yank at sea, the elements of wind and rain drown out the prayers of the captain, but by this time, a man is dead and the captain’s words are meaningless. It’s a complex emotional moment, caught brilliantly in less than a minute of screen time.

We generally watch a play production from one angle, usually from a seat in a theater of some kind. Our point-of-view is thus fixed; from our seat, we can observe the action as it moves from place to place around the stage. A film, on the other hand, does the moving for us. Close-ups and long shots allow specific emphasis on even the most subtle actions that would be lost in a stage production – the terror in the eyes of a condemned man, for example, or the headline of a newspaper.

Camera angles give us perspective. Low-angle and wide-angle shots (for which Toland was famous) create a sense of awe in the viewer and reinforce the power of the image. One startling example can be seen in the sequence adapted from In the Zone where Smitty is tied up. Toland emphasizes the helplessness of Smitty and the power of Driscoll and the other sailors simply by framing the former from above and the latter from below.

Editing – piecing together the shots that tell a story – is crucial to a film. A one-act play unfolds in real time, but a film uses a technique known as continuity editing – logically building a story through interconnected shots. We’re able to follow a story that compresses a month in the lives of the Glencairn sailors into 105 minutes. The fade-out and fade-in suggest passage of time. The technique of crosscutting – rapidly cutting from one image to another occurring at the same time in a different place – creates a tension that is nearly impossible to create with any degree on success onstage. In the scene depicting the aerial bombardment of the Glencairn by the German bombers, we never see the planes, only the fear and confusion of the sailors. Crosscutting shows us what is happening at different places on the ship at the same time.

We have specific expectations for a film. A play in production is much more of a wild card, but there are decided advantages to experiencing the Glencairn plays in a theater if the opportunity presents itself – or even being read as literature. As mentioned earlier, the construction of the film script deflates the plays as individual entities – events from the four plays are simply links in the chain in a story about sailors on a ship during a war. But watching a production, one can savor O’Neill’s attention to realistic detail and development of character. The plays are like miniature portraits, and each stands complete unto itself.

Unlike the static nature of a completed film, a performance of a play will be different every time. Actors will respond to each other and to the audience; the production of a play becomes an organic thing, always changing, however subtly. The skill of the playing and the spectacle of production can influence the audience. The play is open to a different interpretation by every production team; possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the director, designers, and the cast.

The emphasis in the plays is different in terms of characters. The identity of the crew runs through the four plays and unites them, rather than elements of plot, but there are no heroes in O’Neill’s quartet. There are central characters, but they do not accomplish heroic deeds. Smitty is presented as ultimately heroic in the film because he is given an opportunity to redeem himself for his failures in life. In “Moon of the Caribbees and “In the Zone,” Smitty is not given such an opportunity. O’Neill was after something bigger: he wanted to achieve what he referred to as “a higher plane of bigger, finer values” . . . Smitty is ultimately “much more out of harmony with truth, much less in tune with beauty, than the honest vulgarity of his mates,” O’Neill said, and ultimately, the only hero of the play is the “spirit of the sea” (Clark 83).

The plays are more direct in their treatment of elements that were difficult to show in films of the 1940s, particularly in regard to prostitution. The women who board the ship in “Moon of the Caribbees” clearly are selling more than fruit and bottles of rum. O’Neill could be much more frank in his plays because the theater had no production code as Hollywood did.

And finally – since one is more likely to encounter the Glencairn plays in the pages of a book rather than onstage these days – there are several pleasures in store for the astute reader. It’s easier to pick up on the marked dramatic rhythm of O’Neill’s works – reading the play gives one the leisure to examine the workings of the plays to see what he does and how he does it. Also, O’Neill’s stage directions contain some of his most beautiful and poetic prose. So evocative is it that you can put on a complete and vivid production in your head better than anything that could be brought to life onstage, and O’Neill knew this. The closing lines of “Moon of the Caribbees” serve as a case in point: “There is silence for a second or so, broken only by the haunted, saddened voice of that brooding music, faint and far-off, like the mood of the moonlight made audible.” (“Moon” 474).

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O’Neill rarely went to the movies and in general despised the film versions made from his plays, but he did profess that The Long Voyage Home” was his favorite. It remains one of the most effective adaptations of O’Neill, faithful to the spirit of the original works. Ford’s attention to detail as a director insured a well-crafted film. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, screenplay, cinematography, editing, musical score, and special effects, though it failed to win in any category. Ford did win the New York Critics Award for the film, however, and he won Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards for The Grapes of Wrath, which also appeared in 1940.

Which is better, the film or the plays? There is no right answer. The plays and the film are distinct works of art in their own right – each with its own merits and faults – that converge at key points. O’Neill once told a reporter, “‘Talking pictures seem to me a bastard which has inherited the lowest traits of both parents. It was the talkless part of The Long Voyage Home – the best picture ever made from my stuff – that impressed me the most’” (Sheaffer, Artist 546). Ford’s film is solid, entertaining, and suspenseful on its own – it provides a visual reference point for the plays and it is easy to see why O’Neill favored it, particularly the “talkless parts” that attached beautiful images to the words he wrote.

Now it’s your turn. Read the plays. Then watch the film and see what you think.


Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Revised Edition. New York: Dover, 1947.

Mitry, Jean. Interview with John Ford in Cahiers du Cinema 45, March 1955 translated by Andrew Sarris and reprinted in Interviews with Film Directors NY: Avon, 1967, p. 195 [quoted in Orlandello 89].

O’Neill, Eugene. “Bound East for Cardiff” in Complete Plays 1913-1920. Edited by Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America, 1988.

––. “In the Zone” in Complete Plays 1913-1920. Edited by Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America, 1988.

––. Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill. Travis Bogard, editor. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

––. “The Long Voyage Home” in Complete Plays 1913-1920. Edited by Travis Bogard. New York: Library of America, 1988.

––. “The Moon of the Caribbees” in The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Random House, 1955.

Orlandello, John. O’Neill on Film. East Brunswick, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1982.

Osborne, Robert. 50 Golden Years of Oscar. La Habra, CA: ESE California, 1979.

Place, J.A. The Non-Western Films of John Ford. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1979.

[This is an edited version of a paper that was originally presented as the inaugural offering of a literature-on-film program at the Athens, Ohio, Public Library, in conjunction with a screening of the film in March 2001 or thereabouts.]



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