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Last November I reviewed a Twilight Time disc of an animated film called When the Wind Blows, which contained an excellent documentary about the film's animation expert, Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien. Its director Sé Merry Doyle has another film-related Blu-ray disc out now, that's tries to solve the puzzle of a great film director.
John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man examines the growing sphere of interest around John Ford's 1952 feature The Quiet Man, the Republic Picture that was filmed on location in Ireland with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. The movie is on the 'best of' list of everyone concerned; for better or for worse it has a strong feeling about life and human nature. It deals with the universal issues of family and the search for meaning and happiness by reaching into the past, which is axiomatically accepted as a better place than the present.
The show is much more than an overview of the movie, although parts of it do resemble a 'making-of' docu. The narrator is actor Gabriel Byrne. We do see clips from the film and old home movie footage of the crew on location. Doyle does locate a few bits of archived John Ford interviews, which of course tell us less than nothing. The cranky director stonewalls interviewer Peter Bogdanovich; in a much older interview bite he tells a camera that he just did movies to make a living: "I'm not what is called a career director." Doyle's cameras watch tourists crawling all over Utah/Arizona's Monument Valley, presenting the old saw that John Ford's visions of that landscape re-invented the myth of the West for modern audiences. In telling the story of life he goes to Portland, where Ford's Irish immigrant family had to struggle against prejudice against Catholics. Interviewer Martin Scorsese 1 lets us know that Ford's movies were some of the first he liked; he says that the Irish in America, being the first wave of immigrants, broke the ground for those that would follow. In Portland we see a statue of Ford, sitting in a director's chair and holding a pipe.
Doyle interweaves the story of Ford with the making of the movie in 1952, and with the state of things in Ireland now. Everybody remembers Ford as a mean spirited SOB, even Maureen O'Hara. At his parties Ford commanded his guests to sing, as if he were a lord of the land. A daughter of John Wayne remembers Ford being a scary presence in his eye patch, which Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan says made him look like an Irish Cyclops. People love Ford's movies but everyone seems afraid of him. We're told that Ford was loyal to his wife but equally faithful to his 'friend' Katharine Hepburn; the lead character in The Quiet Man combines their first names, Mary and Kate. O'Hara remembers getting odd poetic letters from Ford, not mash notes exactly but rather creepy expressions of his fixation on her.
The history of the film's genesis is covered, from a trip Ford made to Ireland in 1921 (where it is presumed he gave money to the Irish rebels) to a twenty-year effort to film the book by Maurice Walsh. To do so he had to drop all references to 'The Troubles." Wayne, Ford and O'Hara had to agree to make a cheap cavalry picture for Republic before Herbert Yates would pay to send an expensive Technicolor unit to Ireland.
The first interview with a modern Irishman is a lady who speaks in Gaelic. We're given a tour of a house Ford's parents lived in. As if visiting the Holy Land or returning like a prodigal son, Ford showed his relatives great respect. Irishmen explain that he was emotional about everything. The idea of returning to the source, to the roots, to the place where everything was still pure and clean, must have been the appeal.
We also see the little town where the movie was filmed. It hasn't so much changed as re-imagined as a center for Quiet Man tourism, with souvenir shops and locations renamed with names from the film and the proprietors beaming with pride about the movie. The abandoned train station is still there. Biographies of Ford often talk about how the Navajos of Monument Valley treated him like a great man, when the fact is that Ford's films brought a needed economic boost to the tribes, employing many and paying good wages. The Quiet Man paid three times the normal pay to the locals; of course Ford is remembered as a God.
We get an expert or two that preaches some film history at us, and perhaps a bit too much recapitulation of the movie. But most of the interview bites are built around understanding Ford's overpowering love for his Mother Ireland. A plaque stands on a rock wall where John Wayne sat for a shot in the movie; with the exception of a phone line the view is the same. The little cottage is idealized, as are the rolling green hills, the quaint ox carts and Maureen O'Hara's red hair. Relatives of the stars are packed into the movie as well; we hear from Charlie Fitzsimons, the son of Charles Fitzsimons, who plays a substantial role. Without saying it outright, the docu explains the essential conservative appeal of Ford's whole fantasy. Once John Wayne's Sean Thornton leaves the train station he might as well be in the 19th century, in an Irish Brigadoon. He must adjust his thinking to the local customs, not just to get along, but to make himself a permanent part of the community. The courting rituals, the idea of the Dowry -- they're all antiquated notions that cannot be ignored. Mary Kate's furniture and baggage aren't consumer goods, but precious 'things' that define her life. Unlike identity-challenged Americans, these old country people Know Who They Are. Sean wants to abandon the complications of modern life. He embraces his heritage, does what has to be done and wins the right to enter heaven, across the brook up the path to his cottage.
The town of Innisfree is a place where nobody dies. Sixty three years later, practically the only person left standing from The Quiet Man is the unsinkable Maureen O'Hara. But at the end of the movie, they're all there waving at us. They're dead and gone but the spirits remain. It's a John Fordian notion of ancestor worship, this sentimental ghost curtain call, and it cuts right to the heart. 2
In its way John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man explains the 'old warrior' Ford's retreat to the womb of tradition, the past, everything he loves; he comes off as an artist desperately in need of validation, at least on the family level. The movie hasn't suffered because critics have from time to time blamed Ford for perpetuating every myth about Ireland save for the Leprechauns. We know this is a personal fantasy, an Irish Utopia where everybody is a cute stereotype and the pubs are lined with amiable eccentrics that make fun of the English. Women must be won, customs obeyed and beds broken; life is about clean, natural desires, not 'lifestyles. The Quiet Man is a more personal movie than anything Fellini ever made. Ford knows what he likes and knows how he wants things to be: bright and simple.
Director Sé Merry Doyle builds John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man from a smooth progression of interesting material. The attractive interviewees have relevant things to say. Every few minutes we see more devastatingly beautiful images of Ireland and Monument Valley -- as extreme a landscape contrast as one could imagine. Doyle is a superior feature docu director in that the themes and messages seem to come together naturally -- the 'thesis' is there but the show is not laid out in a rigid schematic. We're busy being entertained by things like an Irish woman on the street, who talks about John Wayne's odd way of walking, and then proceeds to imitate him. The show is more than 'added viewing' for those studying The Quiet Man. If Ford's film were lost and nobody could see it, the docu would still have something to say.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man is a fine-looking video, with crisp new interview and location footage and decent-quality film clips. The clips from the actual movie don't look nearly as good as the new feature Blu-ray out from Olive, but they'll suffice. Most of the time we're looking at fascinating old photos, good interviews and travelogue-worthy footage of Irish locations. It's a pleasant and informative experience. It goes without saying that it's the perfect gift movie for the many fans of The Quiet Man.
Unused clips provide a sidebar selection of extras. Eight additional minutes of Maureen O'Hara interview are present, along with a piece on the costumes (4 min.), a visit with extra Maureen Coyne Cashman, who plays a woman in Francis Ford's house (2 min.), a bit on the film's sheepdog (:40), pieces about extra May Murphey (:90) and Jack Heanue and John Daly in the race sequence (2:40), and an annual Fan Club celebration (2:00) complete with lookalikes for Sean Thornton and Mary Kate. A trailer wraps things up.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. In Singin' in the Rain Cosmo Brown says that in Hollywood, "You have to show a movie at a party, it's a Hollywood law." So it is with movie docus and Martin Scorsese.
2. George Lucas of course borrows this for his galactic ghost finish of his Star Wars films. The first time around (in Return of the Jedi?), the trick almost works.
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