When John Ford was making The Quiet Man on location in the west of Ireland, the studio head in Hollywood looked at the extravagantly gorgeous footage — which would win the 1952 Oscar for color cinematography — and complained, “Everything’s all green.”
It had taken Ford, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, 20 years to persuade anyone to bankroll the “silly little Irish story,” as Maureen O’Hara, one of its stars, dryly noted. And even then the director had to soft-pedal the IRA politics that informed the 1933 Maurice Walsh story that the movie was based on, and he had to fight to use Technicolor, the better to illuminate his Arden of green hills, blue sea and red hair.
I thought that by now The Quiet Man, once considered a font of offensive drinking-and-brawling stereotypes by many native Irish, including my dad, would have disappeared into the mist.
It has been 60 years since Ford arrived in Cong in County Mayo — spurring the installation of electricity and phone lines — to shoot his sexy culture clash and love letter to Ireland. Cong, the stand-in for the fictional Inisfree of the movie, is still such a tourist magnet that the Irish had to designate a decoy Quiet Man cottage, complete with creepy O’Hara and John Wayne mannequins, because fans seeking keepsakes were dismantling the original chunk by chunk.
Standing on the little bridge where Wayne’s Sean Thornton hears his dead mother’s voice, it struck me that Ford created the most potent cinematic images of two countries, Ireland and America, indelibly shaping our dreams.
“The Irish Cyclops,” as he was known for wearing a black eye-patch, was the Old Master of diametrically different landscapes, lush in the love story shot in Mayo and dusty in the Westerns shot in Monument Valley.
“It’s so ironic that his people left Ireland because they couldn’t survive in the arid land during the famine,” Joseph McBride, the author of Searching for John Ford, told me. “But then Ford portrayed the American Dream as this prehistoric desert, and he portrayed the old country as green and fertile.”
In 1965, Joan Didion wrote an homage to the iconic Wayne character conjured by Ford and other directors: “In a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and polarizing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more; a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it.”
Wayne was, Didion wrote, “the perfect mold” into which Ford could pour all “the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost.”
The Duke tamed the American West. “Manifest Destiny on the hoof,” as Garry Wills put it in John Wayne’s America, adding that he became the “pattern of manly American virtue,” even though he avoided serving in World War II.
In The Quiet Man, Wayne tames the fiery O’Hara. As he drags his obdurate bride across a field to fling her at the feet of her obnoxious brother, a woman hands him a branch, saying, “Sir, here’s a good stick to beat the lovely lady.” It’s the most controversial line in the movie.
But O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher is usually the one socking the peace-seeking Yank. As the actress points out in Se Merry Doyle’s 2010 documentary John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man, the tongue-in-cheek line summed up the cantankerousFord’s brutal methods with actors.
The director, the son of parents who fled Spiddal in County Galway, was born John Martin Feeney near Portland, Maine. His father was a bootlegger. He adopted the name Ford, but later liked to imply he was from Galway, his name was Sean and he spoke Irish, getting O’Hara to speak gibber-Irish with him to impress the crew.
As the newspaper editor in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
McBride hails Ford as “our national mythmaker, our Shakespeare.”
Reviewing Fort Apache for The Nation in 1948, James Agee viciously wrote: “There is enough Irish comedy to make me wish Cromwell had done a more thorough job.” But Ford’s characters — and the land was always a character — are vivid archetypes.
Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times said the Irish were the Indians of imperial Britain who became cowboys in America. The right-wing Wayne told Playboy in 1971 that the cowboys didn’t steal the land, because the Indians “were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” Ford told the BBC in ’68, “My sympathy is all with the Indians,” even though he veered between demonizing and valorizing them.
In searing works like How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath, the director was deeply influenced by his parents’ exile.
“He was always dwelling on the breakup and collapse of family, community and traditional American ideals,” McBride said, “which makes him interesting and modern in a sense.”
MAUREEN DOWD is a columnist for The New York Times.