Sunday 18 February 2018

Why they shouted at 'The Quiet Man'

John Ford's The Quiet Man celebrates its 60th anniversary next month, and next week a fascinating new documentary will be released that gives a new insight into the making of that iconic and much-maligned movie.

Sé Merry Doyle's John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man includes interviews with such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Jim Sheridan and Peter Bogdanovich, as well as the recollections of original cast member, Maureen O'Hara.

Her salty and typically unvarnished memories of working with the notoriously cantankerous Ford make the documentary worth watching on their own, but Doyle's film also puts into perspective a movie that's often been misunderstood in the country where it's set.

Though everyone was flattered when Ford and his stars O'Hara and John Wayne came to Galway and Mayo to shoot a major Hollywood picture in the summer of 1951, the finished product caused some controversy in the old country.

Locals were not amused by Ford's depiction of them as drunken, cunning, capricious brawlers, and neither were they greatly thrilled by the use of Irish stereotypes that had long been popular with the ruling British.

In a famous scene, Wayne's character dragged O'Hara's by the scruff of her neck across a field, and a woman appeared to helpfully hand him a switch, saying "here's a stick to beat the lovely lady with".

This was not how 1950s Ireland liked to see itself, and the sunny, joyful, spontaneous country it represented bore little relation to the poor, drab, priest-ridden, emigration- ravaged reality.

But in a way the film's Irish critics were completely missing the point. Ford wasn't trying to make a movie about contemporary Ireland: he was painting his own precious dreamscape of a land that had been described to him in sentimental recollection by his emigrant parents.

The Quiet Man was by some distance his most personal film, and despite the huge reputations of classics like The Searchers and Stagecoach, it was the one that remained the most important to him right to the end of his life. He spent 20 years trying to get a studio to back it and it only got made because of the star power of his old friend, John Wayne.

Ford had begun dreaming of making the picture way back in 1936, when he bought the rights to a story called The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh, which had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. He got a script together, and tried to persuade various studio heads and producers to back him, but for the guts of two decades no one wanted to know.

His plans to shoot on location in Ireland seemed to particularly gall Hollywood power brokers. "You're in Ireland and we're in America," RKO distribution boss Ned Depinet told him in 1945, "and I'm not going to pay for that".

The project was shelved but in 1950 a saviour appeared in the unlikely shape of Herbert Yates, a former tobacco baron whose film studio pumped out cheap, formulaic westerns and little else. John Wayne was under contract to them in 1950, and wanted out. But unable to do so, he tried to improve his lot by persuading Ford to join him.

Ford and Yates struck a three- picture deal. Yates hated the Quiet Man idea, dismissing it as a "phony art-house picture", but he agreed to let Ford make it if his first movie with the studio turned a profit.

Ford borrowed O'Hara from Fox to co-star with Wayne in Rio Grande, which became a big box office success. He was finally free to travel to Ireland to shoot The Quiet Man.

The Ford players arrived in the old country in the early summer of 1951, establishing themselves in Ashford Castle. The shoot got under way on June 7, and most of the exteriors were done in and around the village of Cong, Co Mayo. Wayne played Sean Thornton, an Irish-American boxer who travels to Ireland to reclaim his family's old farm in the townland of Innisfree. There he falls for a firebrand beauty by the name of Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara), but faces opposition from her pugilistic brother Squire Will Danaher (Victor McLaglan).

The presence of Wayne, Ford and O'Hara in Mayo caused a huge stir across Ireland. For the director in particular, it was a kind of homecoming.

A reporter from The Connacht Tribune was astonished to hear Ford break into Irish during an interview, unaware that his parents were from Spiddal and the Aran Islands, and that Gaelic had been spoken in his Maine home.

With its rousing music, roaring Technicolor, staged fights and heightened drama, the finished film was certainly unique. As Peter Bogdanovich says, "He never made a film remotely like it -- nobody ever did."

Some saw silliness and empty melodrama in the film's histrionics, others joyful ribaldry reminiscent of The Taming of the Shrew. When it came time for the film's premiere, Ford made sure it took place in Ireland.

In the intervening years the film has been derided by some for its cheesy stage-Irishness. It may not have pleased everyone here, but The Quiet Man went down a bomb in America. It made almost $4m at the US box office, was nominated for seven Oscars and won Ford Best Director.

The film struck a real chord in that country of emigrants, and not just the Irish ones either.

In Doyle's documentary, Martin Scorsese remarks that "the idea of the old world was very strong in my life, it was a certain way of doing things and behaving with each other, and so the people who felt that way automatically responded to this picture".

And for Irish-American academic William Dowling, The Quiet Man was "Ford's way of saying, I remember where I come from".

The Quiet Man is a unique film, with a look, tone and atmosphere that can only really be compared with Ford's own later westerns, and perhaps the plays of John Millington Synge. Maybe it wasn't very accurate, but it was potent enough to persuade hundreds of thousands of Americans to come to Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s looking for their own personal moment in Innisfree.

Ford remained intensely proud of the film for the rest of his life, and so did his band of players. As O'Hara puts it: "I don't know how many other films that were ever made where everyone was in love with the whole thing -- Ireland, you know. It was a love affair."

Tomorrow night, June 10, the IFI will screen The Quiet Man in conjunction with IFTA and as part of their John Ford Film Symposium. John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man opens in selected cinemas next Friday.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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