The gem of the new "Ford at Fox" set is this 1933 melodrama filled with Ford's favorite themes. Profoundly sad, moving and sentimental, this film marks the beginning of Ford's mature style in the sound era.
The story involves a small town mother, Hannah Jessop, played to perfection by Henrietta Crossman in the role of a lifetime. Norman Foster turns in a surprisingly subtle performance as her son, Jim, who is engaged to be married to the daughter of a local drunk. When Hannah finds out about this, she signs Jim up for the draft, whereupon he is shipped off to war. During a brief layover in his home town, Jim learns that his fiancee is pregnant, but he is killed in France before being able to return home to marry her. The rest of the film deals with Hannah's coming to terms with her relationship with her son during a visit to France to visit his grave.
"Pilgrimage" has been referred to as a "women's picture", which might surprise casual viewers more familiar with Ford's macho stories of tradition in the face of battle. What is remarkable about the film is that Ford's direction keeps the story from ever becoming mawkish or overly sentimental, preferring instead to portray the strong and noble qualities of his characters. Hannah Jessop is a remarkably defined character, helped in no small part by the incredible performance of Henrietta Crossman (it is truly surprising that she didn't have more of a career in films). Ford steers clear of cloying, manipulative sentimentality by portraying Hannah as a flawed woman, driven to despair by her own sense of self-righteousness. In one scene, she expresses regret over hiding her selfishness under the guise of "Christian" values. Realizing that her stubbornness has cost her son his life, she shows her change of heart by helping out another young couple whom she meets in France, and whose situation resembles that of her own son and his fiancee.
To dismiss "Pilgrimage" as a "women's picture" is to deny the raw emotional intensity of what Ford accomplishes here. He puts his audience, as well as his characters, on an emotional rollercoaster by indulging in his penchant for rustic, "cornball" humor between the film's more heart-wrenching moments. The extended visit to France provides a good opportunity for some "small town folks in a strange land" type of humor, which is interesting in pitting the stereotypical rustic types against the "sophisticated" urban types. In doing so, Ford draws an interesting parallel between the clearly distinct types of films so popular during the period in which the film was made (directors like Ford and Capra tended to portray smaller, even rural environments, while Lubitsch, say, or Stevens, focused on an upper-middle to upper class urban milieu). It has the effect of giving the film a truly encompassing, human-epic feel. There is a particularly funny moment at a shooting gallery, in which Hannah surprises the onlookers with her sharpshooting skill. It ends with a ridiculous bit of corny humor that is so silly and good-natured that it's impossible not to laugh.
Stylistically, Ford plays with some of the classical conventions in which he was working. An unusual approach used early on in the film features the actors speaking directly into the camera, rather than looking slightly off-screen in the direction of the character to whom they're speaking. It seems to have been an effect that Ford abandoned, as it really doesn't turn up in his later work, or even in the later scenes of this film.
The cinematography, by George Schneiderman, is gorgeous, particularly in the rural scenes. Ford frames his actors in deep focus shots, allowing the backgrounds to sprawl out behind them for as far as the camera can see. There is one scene, in particular, where Norman Foster's character leaves his home at night to meet with his fiancee, that shows the influence of F.W. Murnau and of German Expressionism in general which had so affected Ford's style in the late 1920s. Indeed, the theme of the film resembles those he dealt with in his seminal 1928 work, "Four Sons".
Ford's theme of Catholic guilt is very heavy throughout the film. There is a scene in particular, in which the mayor of the town tries to convince Hannah to make the trip to France to pay tribute to her son, and to represent the town. He shames her into going, playing on her guilt, while in the next scene, as he is seeing her off on the train, tells her how "proud" the whole town is of her. There is a particularly painful scene in which Hannah tells the other mothers with whom she is traveling that she doesn't deserve to be there, as she feels so wracked with guilt over her son's actions. The theme of guilt runs heavily throughout the film, serving as a catalyst for several of the film's major plot turns. As usual with a Ford film, the characters develop organically from their environment, rather than serving as pawns in the plot. Several other Fordian elements are present, including the presence of a family dog which follows Hannah around in moments of distress, and which plays an important symbolic role in the final scene.
There is no denying that Ford had developed into a full-fledged artist with a distinct style during the 1920s. In the silent film medium, his masterworks such as "The Iron Horse", "3 Bad Men" and especially "Four Sons" stand as a testament to that. With the coming of sound, however, Ford-like so many other directors-had to take time to re-adjust and to develop his style within the new medium of the talking picture. With "Pilgrimage", he emerges fully formed, displaying the kind of breadth and scope of subject matter which has earned him the reputation as America's finest filmmaker.
"Pilgrimage" is available on DVD through the "Ford at Fox" collection, in a pristine restored print. The disc features an optional commentary track by Ford biographer Joseph McBride, and comes with my highest recommendation.