The Long Gray Line is a 1955 American Technicolor drama film in CinemaScope directed by John Ford based on the life of Marty Maher. Tyrone Power stars as the scrappy Irish immigrant whose 50-year career at West Point took him from a dishwasher to a non-commissioned officer and athletic instructor. Maher was buried there in January 1961.
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 a brief appearance as the young cadet Dwight D. Eisenhower. Philip Carey plays (fictional) Army football player and future general Chuck Dotson. In addition, actress Betsy Palmer makes her screen debut as Kitty Carter.
The phrase "The Long Gray Line" is used to describe, as a continuum, all graduates and cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Many of the scenes in the film 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 the time of his death.
The movie is framed as the reminiscences of Master Sergeant Martin Maher (Tyrone Power), who first came to West Point in 1898 as a civilian employee. Arriving from County Tipperary, Ireland, Marty begins as a waiter. When he realizes that enlisted men receive better treatment than do hired laborers, he immediately signs up. Capt. Koehler (Ward Bond), impressed with his boxing skills, wants him as an assistant in athletics instruction.
Marty meets Mrs. Koehler's cook, Mary O'Donnell (Maureen 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. Mary becomes pregnant, but the baby dies only hours after birth, and Mary learns that she may never have another child. The cadets become the children they will never have. 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 World War I.
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 Sundstorm confess to Marty that he has illegally married his girlfriend which could disqualify him from graduating. Although his marriage is annulled, Sundstorm resigns from West Point to join the regular U.S. Army. Later, Mary attempts to view one of the parades she so loves 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 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.
After Marty is faced with retirement, he heads to Washington to see the President (a former cadet) about the matter. He is met by the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy along with several high-ranking officers on his return to West Point. Slightly bemused by the attention, he is taken to the parade field. The film concludes with a full dress parade in Marty's honor. As the band plays a series of Irish tunes, all the people Marty loves, both living and dead, join the parade to honor him.
Variety called The Long Gray Line "..a standout drama on West Point". Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film sentimental but a rich and rousing tribute to West Point, and likens Power's Martin Maher to "'Mr. Chips with a brogue."Maher was not sworn in by US Army Captain John J. Pershing. Pershing was a West Point instructor in 1897, but between 1898 and 1899 he was serving in Cuba and the Philippines.
The representation of Maher's family at West Point is incorrect, even showing his over-aged father trying to enlist in the US Army in 1917. Although Maher's father did come to West Point, he had died in 1912. Maher had three brothers, not one, who also served in the US Army: one private and two NCO's.
Cadet Sunderstrom was created for the film. The only historically real West Point graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I was Emory Jenison Pike from the Class of 1901. He, like the fictional Sunderstrom, received the award posthumously. However, it is factually correct that any infant son of a Medal of Honor recipient is eligible for an appointment to United States Military Academy.
Maher did not appeal to the sitting US President (implied to be Dwight Eisenhower) to stay with the US Army beyond compulsory retirement age. Maher actually retired from the US Army in 1928 after 30 years service. He then remained at West Point as a civilian employee until 1946.
Maher's wife died in 1948, not earlier as shown in the film.