Having acquired a slightly dubious copy from one of the murkier side-streets of Ebay, I’ve spent the afternoon watching Pilgrimage (1933), directed by John Ford. It’s a wonderful film.
The story is simple. Mrs Hannah Jessop lives in a small town in Arkansas and disapproves of her son’s relationship with the daughter of the town drunk. It’s 1917, so she schemes to have him sent off to fight in France (while other mothers are doing all they can to keep their sons from going to war). As his troop-train is leaving, he learns that his girl-friend is pregnant. He promises to return, but is killed by a collapsing trench in France.Ten years later, the mother is still bitter, but is persuaded to go with other “Golden Mothers of America” who have lost sons, on a pilgrimage to the war graves. She goes unwillingly, but the trip makes her think deeply about herself, and what she has done, and when she meets a young American in trouble, she finds a chance to redeem herself.
Two things turn this potentially very sentimental tale into a great film. The first is the performance of Henrietta Crossman as the mother. She plays a hard, and often unpleasant woman, but you’re always aware of the emotion she’s repressing. When she’s harsh to her son, or to the grandson she won’t acknowledge, you sense her longing and her desperate need. There aren’t many actresses who can do so much – but her IMDB entry is a list of forgotten pictures, none commercially available on DVD. A bit of googling suggests that she was originally a noted Shakespearean actress. I can believe it.
The second factor, of course, is John Ford‘s direction. This film has many of the features that you find in his later films. There’s an evocative picture of small-town life, where the mayor is also the barber, but can rise to an official occasion with dignity. There’s the appreciation of military ritual – a moving French ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, for example. There’s the mixture of moods – quick switches from sentimental melodrama to physical horseplay to seriousness. Above all, there’s the respect for the actors and characters that you always get in Ford – and the ability to place them just so in the frame without it seeming contrived.
Come to think of it, there may be a third factor in the film’s success – the dialogue is by Dudley Nichols, who went on to write the screenplay for Stagecoach, among others.
From a historical point of view the film is interesting. This is 1933, but there’s no disillusion, and no sense of futility. The war is seen entirely in terms of sacrifice. The son’s death is not heroic – he was just doing his duty when a shell explosion buried him under a trench wall. The film is about the healing power of remembrance and pilgrimage.
I bet there are British films of the time with similar attitudes – but it’s so damn difficult to get to see them.