Long Gray Line, The (1955): John Ford’s Fictionalized Biopic of Irish West Point Officer, Starring Tyrone Power

John Ford directed The Long Gray Line, a fact-inspired biopic of the life of Marty Maher, shot in CinemaScope.

In one of his popular vehicles, Tyrone Power stars as the scrappy Irish immigrant whose 50-year career at West Point saw him rise from dishwasher to non-commissioned officer and athletic instructor.

Maureen O’Hara, one of Ford’s favorite leading ladies, plays Maher’s wife and fellow immigrant, Mary O’Donnell.

The film co-stars Ward Bond as Herman Koehler, the Master of the Sword (athletic director) and Army’s head football coach (1897–1900), who first befriends Maher.

Milburn Stone appears as John J. Pershing, who in 1898 swears Maher into the Army. Harry Carey, Jr., makes brief appearance as the young cadet Dwight D. Eisenhower. Philip Carey plays (fictional) Army football player and future general Chuck Dotson.

Actress Betsy Palmer makes her screen debut as Kitty Carter.

The phrase “The Long Gray Line” describes, as a continuum, all graduates and cadets of the Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Many scenes were shot on location at West Point, including the “million dollar view” of the Hudson River near the parade grounds.

The film was the last one in which actor Robert Francis appeared before his death at age 25 in an air crash. His rising stardom had reached third billing behind Power and O’Hara at that time.

The tale unfolds as the reminiscences of Master Sergeant Martin Maher (Tyrone Power), who first came to West Point in 1898 as a civilian employee. Arriving from Ireland, Marty begins as a waiter. When he realizes that enlisted men receive better treatment, he signs up and joins the U.S. Army. Capt. Koehler (Ward Bond), impressed with his boxing skills, assigns him to be assistant in athletics instruction.

Marty meets Mrs. Koehler’s cook, Mary O’Donnell (O’Hara), also recently arrived from Ireland. They marry and settle into a house on campus. Marty becomes a corporal, and Mary saves enough money to bring his father (Donald Crisp) and brother (Sean McClory) to America.

Tragedy strikes, when Mary becomes pregnant, but the baby dies only hours after birth, and then learns she may never have another child–the cadets become their children.

Over time, Marty continues to earn the love and respect of cadets such as Omar Bradley, James Van Fleet, George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Mahers grow close to the family of “Red” Sundstrom, a West Point cadet killed in WWI.

Years later, Marty is still at West Point, and James “Red” Sundstrom, Jr. (Robert Francis), along with the sons of others whom Marty had trained, has become a cadet.

At the outbreak of World War II Sundstrom confesses to Marty that he has illegally married his girlfriend which could disqualify. Although his marriage is annulled, Sundstrom resigns from West Point to join the regular U.S. Army.

Later, Mary attempts to view one of the parades, but her poor health forces her to watch from her porch. She quietly dies while Marty is fetching her shawl.

On Christmas Eve, Marty prepares for a quiet evening but is joined by a group of cadets. Kitty (Betsy Palmer) arrives with Red, Jr., who has earned his captain’s bars in Europe and wants Marty to pin them on.

Faced with retirement, Marty heads to Washington to see the President (a West Point graduate). He is met by the Superintendent of the Military Academy along with several high-ranking officers on his return to West Point. Bemused by the attention, he is taken to the parade field.

The story concludes with full dress parade in Marty’s honor. As the band plays Irish tunes, the people Marty loves, both living and dead, join the parade to honor him.

Even Ford’s fans criticize the film as being too conventional and sentimental, aiming to be a rousing tribute to West Point. Though claiming to be a truthful biopic, there are a number of inaccuracies.

Maher was not sworn in by U.S. Army Captain John J. Pershing. Pershing was a West Point instructor in 1897, but in 1898 and 1899 he served in Cuba and the Philippines. The representation of Maher’s family at West Point is incorrect,  showing his over-aged father trying to enlist in the US Army in 1917. Although Maher’s father came to West Point, he had died in 1912. Maher had three brothers, not one, who also served in the U.S. Army: one private and two NCO’s.

Cadet Sundstrom was a character created for the film: The only real West Point graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor during WWI was Emory Jenison Pike from the 1901 Class, who received the award posthumously. However, it is correct that any son of a Medal of Honor recipient is eligible for appointment to the US Military Academy.

Maher did not appeal to the sitting President (Dwight Eisenhower) to stay with the U.S. Army beyond retirement age. Maher retired from the U.S. Army in 1928 after 30 years service, and then remained at West Point as civilian until 1946.

 

Cast
Tyrone Power as Martin Maher
Maureen O’Hara as Mary O’Donnell
Robert Francis as James N. Sundstrom, Jr.
Donald Crisp as Old Martin
Ward Bond as Captain Herman Koehler
Betsy Palmer as Kitty Carter
Philip Carey as Charles “Chuck” Dotson (as Phil Carey)
William Leslie as James Nilsson “Red” Sundstrom
Harry Carey, Jr. as Dwight D. Eisenhower
Patrick Wayne as Abner “Cherub” Overton
Sean McClory as Dinny Maher
Peter Graves as Corporal Rudolph Heinz
Milburn Stone as Captain John J. Pershing
Erin O’Brien-Moore as Mrs. Koehler (as Erin O’Brien Moore)
Walter D. Ehlers as Mike Shannon
Willis Bouchey as Major Thomas