|Run Time: 95 min. | b/w
Director: John Ford
Stars: Henrietta Crosman, Heather Angel, Norman Foster, Marian Nixon
A touching, delicately wrought tale of an iron-willed woman living with an uneasy conscience after she sends her son off to war in order to prevent a marriage she doesn’t approve of. Beautifully directed by John Ford.
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I happened to catch "Pilgrimage" this past weekend during AMC’s (American Movie Classics) John Ford Marathon. This is the story of a Arkansas farm woman and her son. When the son starts to exert some autonomy and expresses his desire to marry a girl who comes from a family that the mother thinks is trash, she enrolls him in the army. Meeting his fiancée at a train station while being transported by the army, she tells him she is pregnant; he is unable to get leave to marry her. He is killed in the Battle of the Argonne Forest.
The remainder of the movie deals with the mother’s reconciliation with her wrong and the love she has for her son, and the eventual reconciliation she has with her "daughter-in-law" and her grandson.
The majority of the movie takes place in France where the mother (wonderfully played by Henrietta Crosman) is taken as part of a program for mothers to visit the graves of her sons.
John Ford, who is considered an action director and a man’s director, does a wonderful job directing the women on their voyage of discovery in France.
Also of note in the cast: Lucille La Verne as a Carolina hill woman who is on the France trip, and Hedda Hopper playing a stuck-up society mother. Heather Angel is in the cast in a small role
If it turns up on cable, don’t miss this one. Please make allowances for the acting styles – after all, this was 1933.
"Pilgrimage" works at several levels.
It is "a woman’s film" in that it is very emotional.
It presents a cast of superb actors, generally unknown to modern audiences, with the exception of Heather Angel, whose role is actually small despite her second billing.
It is a surprise, too, because its director was John Ford, much better known for such action pictures as "The Searchers" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," or such dark melodramas as "The Informer."
There is a remarkably talented child actor who grew up to become the daddy of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Jay Ward.
Marian Nixon, billed down the list, but with a strong and important role, is not only beautiful, but poignant and touching. She deserves to be considered in the pantheon of great actresses who didn’t quite make the top ranks.
Perhaps because of the lack of major names, perhaps because of the time frame of the action, perhaps because of the weepiness of the plot (which I do not say in a pejorative sense), "Pilgrimage" is almost unknown today, but I consider it quite good, definitely worth seeing again.
"Pilgrimage" is sadly one of John Ford’s least appreciated masterworks. I think this one is better than Ford’s other film of the year, "Doctor Bull" (his first collaboration with Will Rogers). "Pilgrimage"’s undeserved obscurity is due to the fact that most pre-1935 Fox films are highly inaccessible and very hard to find on video. This is something to be lamented because this is such a lovely piece of work in need of reappraisal.
For me, what is so fascinating about "Pilgrimage" is the scene in which Hannah Jessop, a hard-hearted mother who mistakenly enlists her son Jim to the army, talks to her son on his grave. Hannah asks Jim to forgive what she did to him and she falls on his grave in a fog-covered, Murnau-inspired tracking shot. This is hardly an aberration. In Ford’s work, the living often communicates with the dead in complex ways.
In "Judge Priest", there is a marvellous scene where Will Rogers talks to his wife on her tombstone. Far from affirming his long-lost wife and her children, the scene illustrates Priest’s loneliness and celibacy and the transitory attitude toward his life. As much as reconciling and healing tensions, Ford’s heroes are extremely lonely and sometimes their loneliness often leads to self-destruction (a classic example is Ford’s sublime swan song, "7 Women"). In "Young Mr. Lincoln", Abe Lincoln talks to Ann Rutledge on her graveyard. By doing this, Lincoln finally surrenders to her and carries her past spirit into his mythic status.
Ford’s most personal works feature a deeply felt Catholicity. He redeems the dead as much as the living, and a new era is built on past mistakes and sacrifices. But what’s so remarkable about "Pilgrimage" is that unlike Lincoln and Priest, Hannah forgets her status as a true mediator and creates a disharmony that purports to be order. Lincoln and Priest’s roles as mediators are far more subtle and complex in their grasp of their own intolerant communities. Still, Hannah recovers and after her pilgrimage, she finally meets Jim’s son and embraces him. And in the end a sense of harmony and security is born of Hannah’s pilgrimage and self-discovery.
The only other time that I recall John Ford doing a film where women are the protagonists is his last film of Seven Women. Pilgrimage which is set in pastoral rural America is far more a film that could be typical of John Ford even if the men aren't at the center.
Before Darryl Zanuck took over Fox films and merged it with 20th Century Pictures to form what it is today, Fox Films was known as the red state studio. In the early sound era, it's major stars were Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor and a rustic film like Pilgrimage was very typical product for Fox even if Rogers and Gaynor don't appear.
Veteran stage actress Henrietta Crosman stars in Pilgrimage, a rather hard bitten farm woman who lives only for her son Norman Foster. She thinks Foster is slumming when he courts Marian Nixon although God only knows why, Nixon and father Charley Grapewin aren't living any better than Crosman and Foster are. Still she does what she can to break them which includes going to the local draft board and saying she doesn't need an exemption for her son. Foster is off to France where he's killed in the Argonne, but he leaves behind an unmarried and pregnant Nixon who has Crosman's grandchild.
If such a story were to happen today Crosman would be in some kind of group grief counseling. Her guilt overcomes her grief however and she becomes harder and meaner than ever. It's only when she goes to France on a Pilgrimage with other Gold Star mothers that she's finally able to come to terms with her loss. And something else happens over there that speeds up the healing process.
Three other women should also be recognized, Heather Angel as a young woman whom Crosman befriends in France along with Maurice Murphy, future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who is Murphy's society mother and Crosman's fellow rural rustic Lucille LaVerne who scandalizes all of the ship by smoking her corncob pipe.
I'm surprised that Janet Gaynor wasn't in this film, it was definitely her kind of material. She could have either played Nixon or Angel's part though the role would have had to have been built up.
The cinematography shows an idealized rural America almost like a moving landscape painting that John Ford always so painstakingly worked on to get that rural paradise effect.
Although dated somewhat in technique, Pilgrimage is a universal story and actually could be done for more modern wars like Vietnam or the two actions in Iraq. And Ford does a lot better with this women's picture than he did with Seven Women.