Rare Bird

Gallant Journey and the limits of auteurism
by Andrew Tracy  posted February 17, 2009
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Shorn of its polemical edge, auteurism has become something of a growth market these days. While few would argue that competent journeymen from the Hollywood stables such as Victor Fleming or John Sturges were the equals or, perish the thought, betters of Hawks or Ford, the recently released books on the former pair (by Michael Sragow and Glenn Lovell, respectively) now allow them to share shelf space with the latter two, mutual benefactors of a now vastly expanded notion of auteurism. "The new tide in cinephilia goes that way," writes Quintín in Cinema Scope. "The second-rate directors weren’t that bad, and when we are out of second raters, we go for the third class, and so on down the ladder. Once we’ve reached the bottom, there is only one step left—to say that maybe the great directors weren’t so great after all." While less professionally sardonic types might not paint so bleak a picture, it’s hard to deny the core of truth. When does cinephilia become a self-defeating principle, a purely fetishistic accumulation rather than a pursuit of quality and knowledge? When does auteurism’s personalization of artistic achievement start producing biographical fantasias rather than discerning readings of actual works?

A self-incriminating case in point: after penning an article on William Wellman’s "major" (read: most readily available) films, this writer was able, through the good graces of Turner Classic Movies, to view a far wider selection of Wellman's efforts from the 1920s through the '50s—and discovered there, predictably, material so vastly differentiated that it handily obstructs any reading of Wellman as a cohesive artistic persona. Indeed, if any characteristic quality could be ascribed to Wellman across his oeuvre, it’s an ostentatious suppression of expressive moments or movements: cutting off Fredric March and Carole Lombard’s heads behind tree limbs or concealing them in darkness behind wire mesh in Nothing Sacred (1937), bisecting Henry Fonda’s face at the eyeline with a hat brim in the crucial letter-reading scene in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), remaining outside the swinging doors of a saloon while the climactic gunfight of Yellow Sky (1948) takes place inside.

If this is a genuinely personal motif, it’s a somewhat perverse one—and in a discourse that almost helplessly equates personalization with quality, it’s pretty thin stuff to storm the pantheon with. To properly sing Wellman's praises (and they deserve to be sung) requires a shift in focus from the imagined man to an evident work: Gallant Journey, from 1946, one of the most moving and lyrical of American films, made with a gentle selflessness that stands at quite striking odds with Wellman's colorfully hard-bitten reputation. However, the film's subject—John J. Montgomery, the aviation pioneer who made the first manned flight in a glider in 1883—unavoidably raises the biographical temptation once more. Wellman of course fashioned his offscreen legend on his (perhaps embroidered) exploits as a pilot during World War I, and his filmography is dotted with aviation films, from the unavoidable milestone of Wings (1927) through such variegated fare as Central Airport (1933), Island in the Sky (1953), and The High and the Mighty (1954), to his last, purportedly autobiographical, film bearing the name of his legendary wartime squadron, Lafayette Escadrille (1958).

If Wellman's evident personal interest in the topic, as well as his producing and co-writing credits on the film, could well designate Gallant Journey as a personal testament, the film's fascination is the way it both vindicates and transcends the notion of personal genius, in its narrative no less than its style. What elevates Gallant Journey above not only Wellman's other aviation films, but even Hawks's fulsomely canonized Only Angels Have Wings (1939)—as well as the generic subseries of 1930s-'40s "great man" films celebrating scientific achievement, such as Fox's The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), MGM's diptych Young Tom Edison and Edison, the Man (1940), Warners' Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), and Preston Sturges's strange one-off The Great Moment (1944)—is that it shears itself of generic trappings the better to serve its true subject: the wonder, exhilaration, and majesty of flight, the overwhelming physical sensation of taking leave of the earth. Conflict and conquest, the agon of struggle and overcoming that is the stuff of both these "discovery" narratives and narrative itself, are not the film’s concern. Though celebrating human ingenuity and vision and duly recording their impediments, Wellman's film is ultimately not about progress but communion—technology as a means of propelling human beings into new worlds of sensation, allowing them to briefly touch the distance that vaults above them.

It’s likely for this reason that Wellman quickly dispenses with the silly, contemporary framing device with which the film opens—a crowd of young boys given an impromptu lecture on Montgomery's achievements by a loquacious old codger—thus clearing the decks of the requisite list of "firsts" and other such milestones that constitute the scorecard of history. Gallant Journey is kept aloft not by the booming steps of progress but by the dreamy, far-seeing gaze of Montgomery, played by Glenn Ford in his first leading role after returning from wartime service. Ford's dependable stoicism and likeability has always contained another, more elusive and mysterious quality. Whereas in later films this will often manifest itself as neurosis, rage, or desperation, in Gallant Journey he employs it to give the sense that Montgomery is not quite of this world, that his enforced confinement to the earth (after he is diagnosed with an acute case of vertigo) causes him actual, physical pain.

It's this element of uncontrollable compulsion in Ford that propels Montgomery’s quest beyond the tiresome platitudes of progress, yet the film is no mere pathological chronicle. Rather, few films have so emphasized the role of community in realizing a project—community not as an isolated, self-sufficient cadre of "professionals" as in Howard Hawks or a hierarchical fount of tradition as in John Ford, but as a group of mutually dependent, differently talented individuals willing to organize their lives around a shared dream. While Montgomery is the locus of that dream and the chief architect of its realization, he is surrounded by people who selflessly devote themselves to his work, and, indeed, make it possible: his wife Ginny (Janet Blair), who never once questions Montgomery’s fevered dedication to his work and shares equally in its thrills; aerial daredevil Dan Mahoney (Jimmy Lloyd), who takes over as pilot after Montgomery is unwillingly grounded, flying the glider from a height of 4,000 feet after taking it aloft with a balloon; fathers Ball and Kenton (Charles Kemper and Arthur Shields), the heads of Santa Clara College, who provide Montgomery with the funds and workspace to labor on his aircraft.

Gallant Journey is not about obstacles and triumph, but faith and support; not about the isolated genius of one man, but the community that helps fuel and nurture that genius. The typical hazards that dot these narratives are passed over quickly by Wellman, not simply for reasons of expediency but to poignant effect: Montgomery’s doubting father (Charlie Ruggles) reduced to speechless wonderment and pride when Ginny informs the family that Montgomery’s first glider actually flew; Mahoney’s tragic death when the glider is damaged; Montgomery and Ginny finally, joyfully, deciding to wed after years of working side by side, a momentous event conveyed by two words ("Will you?"). Grief, doubt, and tragedy are neither absent nor ignored in this story, but they are indissolubly bound up with the ecstasy that these people ceaselessly pursue, an ecstasy that unites the man in the plane with the awed, overjoyed observers on the ground. And Wellman truly makes the audience feel that ecstasy. Aviation films typically derive their thrills from sudden peril, risks taken, catastrophes averted (or not); the sky as a place of eternal peril, a challenge, and an obstacle. Wellman, conversely, attempts to convey the wonder of simply being aloft: Montgomery's first, modest flight down a gentle slope is as thrilling as Mahoney’s towering descent from the clouds, Wellman's long, flowing takes and Marlin Skiles's beautiful theme according each voyage its proper sense of majesty.

If going ever further, ever higher, is Montgomery's aim, it is thus fundamentally disconnected from a concern with worldly achievement (Ford wonderfully conveys Montgomery's awkwardness when posing with the showboat Mahoney for publicity photos). Montgomery's halting, distracted attempt to summarize the future benefits of aviation for Henry Travers's skeptical farmer is given short shrift by Wellman; it’s when this somewhat inarticulate, tight-lipped man softly rhapsodizes about soaring through the "cathedrals" he sees in the clouds that the film’s true theme is given voice. Hollywood’s industrialized cinema found one of its natural subjects when trumpeting the conquests of technology and the consolidation of worldly power; in Gallant Journey, a craftsman and his equally besotted helpers employ their skills to both literally and figuratively take leave of the world. The spiritual element inherent in the film hardly needs articulation—which is what makes a zoom-in nod to a crucifix and Montgomery’s final, ghostly flight toward a literal (backdropped) cathedral in the clouds two of the film’s few flaws.

Nevertheless, the agnostic piety with which Wellman infuses the film makes it unlike anything else produced by his peers, or, indeed, by himself. Gallant Journey is one of those rare birds that feels cut off from nearly all the contexts from which it emerged, neither the culmination of a genre, nor readable as a single filmmaker’s personal text, nor really an exemplar of collaborative achievement, despite its celebration of same. Other Wellman films deal with communities or collectives engaged in common pursuits—The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Battleground (1949), Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty, or even the distaff camaraderie around Barbra Stanwyck in Lady of Burlesque (1943) and the hard-luck wagon train in Westward the Women (1951)—but in those instances, the groups are bound together by the pure functionalism of survival, the dictates of genre, or combinations thereof.

Past a certain point, searching for recognizable trail markers across an oeuvre's uneven terrain may be somewhat misguided. If Gallant Journey's remarkable atypicality is useful for anything beyond its delicate beauty, it's to suggest how many of the finest films around us may exist in between the narratives we write to make sense of them.  


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Courtesy Columbia Pictures
Glenn Ford in Gallant Journey, directed by William Wellman
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Andrew Tracy is the managing editor of Cinema Scope and a contributor to Cineaste, Film Comment, and Reverse Shot.

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