Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford wrote:
Pilgrimage deals with a possessive mother, Arkansas farmer Hannah Jessop sends her son to his death in World War I rather than lose him to the girl he loves. Although stark and corrosive in its lack of sentimentality, Pilgrimage has tremendous emotional power that it became a commercial success and even recieved some good reviews when released in the summer of 1933. But as a “woman’s picture” and four-handkerchief weepie, this is the kind of movie that is never taken seriously by intellectuals who automatically sneer at those genres, and it had all but vanished from the landscape of film history, remaining unseen for decades.
…Pilgrimage belongs without question on a shortlist of the director’s greatest films. What’s so fascinating from a biographical point of view is the way it departs from Ford’s usual tendency to idealize motherhood. From the first film he directed, The Tornado, in which he played a cowboy who brings his mother over from ireland, Ford habitually treated his mothers with iconic reverence. … When an interviewer once asked Ford why “the theme of the family” is so important in his work, he replied simply, “You have a mother, don’t you?”
But while Ford celebrates the bedrock values of traditional family life, his films also mourn the inevitable dwindling and loss of such values. The theme of the destruction of family was present even in his first feature, Straight Shooting, but it became an increasing preoccupation after Ford reached middle age and had to face up to the many imperfections of his own family life. The departure for Ford in Pilgrimage is that it locates the source of destruction within the family itself, in a mother whose excessive devotion and pathological jealousy literally cause her son’s death… Pilgrimage is unique among surviving Ford films for making a deeply flawed mother its central focus.
Ford’s blend of filmmaking styles in Pilgrimage is masterful and daring. Jim’s suffocation in the Argonne Forest is metaphorically foreshadowed by the early sequences at the family farm in Three Cedars, Arkansas. Strongly echoing Murnau, as they did in the World Wara I movie Four Sons, Ford and his longtime cinematographer George Schneiderman use a painted sky and studio sets of misty, soft-focus fields and marshes to give Jim’s life with his mother a feeling of stifling confinement. Then, when Hannah is coaxed into joining a boatload of other Gold Star Mothers to make a pilgrimage to France, the film opens up like a flower. The visual expansiveness of the film’s second half contrasts sharply with the claustrophobic nature of the scenes in Arkansas.