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The making of ‘John Ford – Dreaming the Quiet Man’

The mak­ing of ‘John Ford – Dream­ing the Qui­et Man’  Star­ring: Mau­reen O’Hara, Mar­tin Scors­ese, Nar­ra­tion Gabriel Byrne.

Avail­able on Ama­zon UK — Dis­trib­u­tor Ele­ment Films

All the stu­dios told Ford: ‘The Qui­et Man’ was a sil­ly lit­tle Irish sto­ry that nobody would pay to see, boy were they wrong!” Mau­reen O’Hara.

Why it too 7 years to make ‘John Ford; Dreaming the Quiet Man’ documentary.

It took John Ford almost twen­ty years to raise the finance to make his most trea­sured project ‘The Qui­et Man’, so I should not feel too dis­cour­aged that it took a mere sev­en years for this fea­ture doc­u­men­tary to reach the screen. By the time of its com­ple­tion, it fea­tured lumi­nar­ies like Mau­reen O’Hara, Mar­tin Scors­ese, Peter Bog­danovich, Jim Sheri­dan, and nar­ra­tion by Gabriel Byrne. The stun­ning loca­tions and peo­ple of the West of Ire­land where Ford shot his film in spec­tac­u­lar Tech­ni­col­or in 1951 enveloped the sto­ry­line. Add to the mix the music of Ger Kiely and Pad­dy Moloney of the Chief­tains and you have a film that has attract­ed a lot of peo­ple who want­ed to take part in a doc­u­men­tary cel­e­brat­ing  John Ford’s most per­son­al film ‘The Qui­et Man’ .

You had this sense of tremen­dous per­son­al involve­ment in the film from Ford. It’s hard to define but beneath all the com­e­dy and the ener­gy and the tremen­dous beau­ty of the land­scapes, beyond all that there was a sense that Ford was cre­at­ing a whole world out of his head, out of his heart, and mold­ing it into some­thing that he wished to be true”. Jay Cox

The Qui­et Man is poet­ry. Jack Nichol­son said when we were doing The Depart­ed, “God gave the Irish the words, the Ital­ians the music”. I said, “Yeah”, you know, you just lis­ten to it and it sounds like music and that film is filled with it, The Qui­et Man”. Mar­tin Scorsese

Like all good Irish sto­ries, the ori­gins of the doc­u­men­tary found its begin­nings in the after­math of a heat­ed dis­cus­sion. A col­league was argu­ing that ‘The Qui­et Man’ was a lot of roman­ti­cised rub­bish, that stereo­typed the Irish race across the globe as a bunch of no good drinkers who loved noth­ing more than to drink them­selves sense­less, fol­lowed with a big brawl. Here was some­one ridi­cul­ing a film that I had grown up with, like so many peo­ple across the world. Year after year, ‘The Qui­et Man’ is lov­ing­ly rolled out on TV at Christ­mas or Saint Patrick­’s Day to the delight of its many fans. I found myself defend­ing the film, clutch­ing at une­d­u­cat­ed guess­es as to its mer­its. Giv­ing it my best shot, I answered that it was direct­ed by John Ford, recog­nised as one of Hol­ly­wood’s great­est direc­tors, and fur­ther­more, his par­ents were born in Ire­land, so why would he make a film that would, in effect, shame and mock his own heritage?

Some Irish peo­ple hat­ed it for a long time because they thought it made us look like puck­oons and idiots but I would say it’s por­tray­ing fair­ly accu­rate­ly an Ire­land of the time where peo­ple were con­tained with­in a fear­ful reli­gious world and Ford was com­ing back to kind of say, look here’s the guy, he’s been to Amer­i­ca, he’s John Wayne, he’s com­ing back and he’s not com­ing back to free Ire­land polit­i­cal­ly but he’s com­ing back to free the soul of Ire­land and Mau­reen O’Hara from the oppres­sive bloody fam­i­ly that she lives in.” Jim Sheri­dan.

I was raised by peo­ple who their think­ing came from maybe a small vil­lage in Sici­ly very sim­i­lar let’s say to a small vil­lage in Ire­land, you have to under­stand where the rela­tion­ships between men and women, male and female come from in that world in order to accept the behav­ior of the char­ac­ters in The Qui­et Man.” Mar­tin Scorsese.

The argu­ment with my col­league on the mer­its of ‘The Qui­et Man’ end­ed in stale­mate but, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, an unlike­ly event was to occur, one that was to cap­ture my inter­est and imag­i­na­tion: ‘The Qui­et Man’ fan club had announced an event to mark the 50th anniver­sary of the film. Suit­ably intrigued, I decid­ed to attend and went along with cam­era in hand. I met with what can only be described as a bunch of ‘Qui­et Man’ mani­acs! They not only showed the film but also announced the win­ners of the Mau­reen O’Hara and John Wayne look-alike com­pe­ti­tion. It was all a bit of harm­less fun, but you could not help but be tak­en in by the enthu­si­asm and zeal of this group of peo­ple and their unfail­ing love for a film that had become so trea­sured in their lives. The basic sto­ry of ‘The Qui­et Man’ revolves around a Yank, Sean Thorn­ton (John Wayne), who has returned to his parent’s home­land ‘Inn­is­free’. He har­bours a dark secret and wish­es to start a new life when he meets with the girl of his dreams, Mary Kate Dana­her (Mau­reen O’Hara). The only obsta­cle is her jumped up farmer of a broth­er, Red Will (Vic­tor McLa­glen), who attempts to thwart Thornton’s desire. Sean Thorn­ton’s secret is that he killed a box­er in Amer­i­ca and has promised to nev­er fight again. He is faced with the dilem­ma of los­ing Mary Kate if he does not fight her brother.

The pic­ture has an extra­or­di­nary feel­ing right from the begin­ning. A warmth, an inti­ma­cy, a per­son­al com­mit­ment that’s a rare in pic­tures. You just feel that Ford’s heart is in this pic­ture, more than in any oth­er pic­ture he ever made I think. He nev­er made a film remote­ly like it. Nobody ever did.”  Peter Bog­danovich

In many ways the plot of ‘The Qui­et Man’ mir­rors Ford’s own life. His par­ents’ pover­ty forced them to emi­grate from Con­nemara in the West of Ire­land to Amer­i­ca in the after­math of the Great Famine but they nev­er let their chil­dren for­get the tra­di­tions, sto­ries and rit­u­als of their home­land. Ford was obsessed with his Irish roots and through­out his career made sev­er­al Irish themed movies in Amer­i­ca like ‘The Informer’ and ‘The Plough and the Stars’ but in the ‘lit­tle sto­ry’ by Mau­rice Walsh he found the per­fect vehi­cle to make his most per­son­al film, in the very loca­tion where his par­ents grew up. He revised the sto­ry and made the hero a suc­cess­ful Yank, like him­self, return­ing to Ire­land to claim his heritage.

The Qui­et Man is very decep­tive, before the film begins Wayne has killed some­body in a fair fight in Amer­i­ca. So he comes to Ire­land as a killer, as an Oedi­pal char­ac­ter com­ing back to the land of his birth, like Oedi­pus in the Greek Myths”. Jim Sheridan.

I think on some lev­el Ford want­ed to go back to Ire­land, and I think he iden­ti­fied very, very strong­ly with Sean Thorn­ton. I mean, his real name is Sean. The idea of an Amer­i­can who comes to reclaim his land, reclaim his her­itage and finds strife and mon­ey prob­lems and obsta­cles and also falls in love. It’s kind of a leg­end. It’s kind of a myth­ic pic­ture. It has a feel­ing of a fable. It isn’t total­ly real­is­tic and yet it plays real­is­ti­cal­ly but it has a kind of a fable like qual­i­ty”. Peter Bog­danovich

I trav­eled to Cong in Coun­ty Mayo, which had served as the prime loca­tion for ‘The Qui­et Man”. With no resources for research or devel­op­ment, I arrived in the small town aid­ed on cam­era by my friend Colm Hogan who lived near­by and more impor­tant­ly had waived any fees, hap­py to set­tle for food and drink as rec­om­pense! We stood on the main street which was like a shrine to ‘The Qui­et Man’. Every shop, pub and restau­rant, was named after char­ac­ters or aspects of the film. I was quite lit­er­al­ly dropped into Quietmansville!

I asked a passer­by if they knew of any­body who had worked on the orig­i­nal film. It was sug­gest­ed that I track down Jack Mur­phy, own­er of the local shop ‘Cohans’ which was used as the main pub in ‘The Qui­et Man’. Dur­ing the film­ing, John Ford had com­man­deered Mur­phy’s shop, renam­ing it ‘Cohans’ and Jack had under­stand­ably left the sign up when the film­ing ended.

With cam­era rolling, I knocked on the door of Cohans pub. Out came Jacks sis­ter, Nan­cy, whose first immor­tal words were: “What’s this doc­u­men­tary for, is there a fes­ti­val or some­thing?” She invit­ed me into her shop and while we wait­ed for Jack, she showed me some of the mem­o­ra­bil­ia from the film that she had on sale. She had a vast array of T‑shirts, mugs, trin­kets and pho­tos, all relat­ing to the film. The cam­era loved Nan­cy and she was imme­di­ate­ly a star, amus­ing and endear­ing in the way she inter­viewed a bus­load of Amer­i­cans who came into the shop. “I think the Amer­i­cans love com­ing in here to hear us telling them lies, I real­ly think they do!” Her broth­er, Jack, final­ly arrived and pre­sent­ed me with a lit­tle book he pub­lished on ‘The Qui­et Man’ and told sto­ries of how he was an extra and had trans­port­ed the cast in his sta­tion wag­on. As the sun went down on a won­der­ful day, Jack recalled Ford as a man “you didn’t want to mess with” and how dif­fi­cult he was, but he admired him because “he was such a per­fec­tion­ist and got the job done.”

Buoyed up by the mate­r­i­al and ideas we had cap­tured on film I went into the edit room and cre­at­ed a small trail­er to show poten­tial investors the mer­its of a doc­u­men­tary on ‘The Qui­et Man’. The idea was reject­ed by every broad­cast­er and fun­der in Ire­land. Five years lat­er, Alan Maher from the Irish Film Board was in our office to talk about anoth­er project and just as he was leav­ing I asked would he have a look at the short pro­mo. Bin­go, he imme­di­ate­ly loved the idea and with­in months we had a full bud­get. With addi­tion­al finance from the BAI and TG4 in place, inter­views and loca­tion film­ing in Ire­land went into full swing. We cap­tured Des McHale the author of sev­er­al books on ‘The Qui­et Man’ tak­ing a bus load of tourists around Cong and telling them how he had stud­ied every frame of the film and sourced all the orig­i­nal loca­tions. In Ford’s ances­tral home of Spid­dal in Con­nemara, we met Ford’s cousin, Nora, a native Irish speak­er. Nora worked on the film as a lin­guist and remem­bered Ford com­ing to Spid­dal, dur­ing breaks from film­ing, vis­it­ing his cousins and his father’s cot­tage, “he spent hours look­ing out to sea and tramp­ing the very same roads his father walked”. A stone’s throw away from Nora’s home, Ford’s cousins the Feeney’s’ showed us Ford’s father’s dilap­i­dat­ed cot­tage which became the mod­el for Sean Thornton’s ‘White O’ Morn’. We met more sur­viv­ing extras from the film, like Bob Foy, who had the role of deliv­er­ing the over­ly large mar­i­tal bed to Thorn­ton. Sto­ries of the film abound­ed: John Ford cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly turn­ing on the elec­tric­i­ty sup­ply which was rushed in spe­cial­ly for the film, replac­ing the oil lamps; the extras get­ting dou­ble the aver­age wage; the excite­ment of Hol­ly­wood light­ing up the sleepy vil­lage and the many sto­ries of Ford and how he over­saw the whole thing like a gen­er­al in the field of battle.

John Ford statute Portland MaineHe knew that Ire­land was a metaphor for a form of life that he thought was rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing and he knew that if he went to Ire­land he could find those forms of life still alive and that they could be remold­ed into an imag­i­na­tive form that would awak­en echoes in a lot of bosoms and so it was the imag­i­nary island of The Qui­et Man that he knew would with­stand the test of time.” William Dowl­ing.

The final hur­dle I had to over­come in order to make the doc­u­men­tary was get­ting to Amer­i­ca to con­duct some prime inter­views. The prob­lem was that I have a long held fear of fly­ing, that began when an air­craft I was on caught fire and end­ed my Jet Set lifestyle. My pro­duc­ers came up with the solu­tion! They booked me the cheap­est berth on the Queen Mary to New York from where I then trav­eled by car with my cam­era­man Patrick Jor­dan to Los Ange­les, stop­ping along the way to cap­ture some stun­ning imagery in Mon­u­ment Val­ley in Ari­zona, Ford’s home away from home and the set­ting for most of his westerns.

He shot nine films there and it was kind of his place real­ly. He dis­cov­ered it for Stage­coach. It had nev­er been used before. It was so iden­ti­fied with him that a lot of peo­ple thought they couldn’t use that loca­tion because it would be like pla­gia­rism.” Peter Bogdanovich.

We cap­tured sev­er­al inter­views with Ford’s friend, the direc­tor Peter Bog­danovich, Joseph McBride, author of ‘Search­ing for John Ford’, Mar­tin Scors­ese a long time admir­er of Ford and Pro­fes­sor William Dowl­ing, who has to be the most pas­sion­ate writer on ‘The Qui­et Man” I have ever encoun­tered. All the con­ver­sa­tions we had built up a pic­ture of Ford as a com­plex genius who, by cre­at­ing a pub­lic per­sona of him­self as the most dif­fi­cult direc­tor in Hol­ly­wood, man­aged to hide his most per­son­al feel­ings from the world, but who bared his soul in ‘The Qui­et Man’.

The Qui­et Man as it came out, is a per­ma­nent way real­ly, in John Ford’s career, of say­ing about all the oth­er films, and I mean here ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ andHow Green Was my Val­ley’, I’m not that John Ford. I remem­ber where I came from and I remem­ber the val­ues of where I came from and I’ve made a film to show you what those val­ues are. It will sur­vive me and it has”.  William Dowl­ing

Peter Bog­danovich, a close friend of Ford, had made a doc­u­men­tary on him, but admit­ted that he was the most dif­fi­cult per­son he ever had to inter­view. We acquired won­der­ful archive from Peter show­ing him fail­ing mis­er­ably to elic­it a direct answer to any of his questions:
Bog­danovich: “How did you film Stage­coach”? Ford: “With a cam­era”.
Bog­danovich realised that Ford hat­ed talk­ing about his work in film and pre­ferred that you fig­ure it out for your­self, but he also knew that Ford was high­ly intel­lec­tu­al and that his films were laced with sub­tle but pro­found com­ments on soci­ety at large.

He didn’t talk much about what he believed in but in his films, fam­i­ly and tra­di­tion and respect for the past, belief in tra­di­tions, he hon­oured that. He wasn’t a great fam­i­ly man him­self. I mean that was the irony of it. His fam­i­ly life was sort of dif­fi­cult I think. Both his son and his daugh­ter were not hap­py peo­ple and I don’t think the mar­riage was that hap­py but in his movies, it’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry.” Peter Bog­danovich

Bog­danovich gave an illu­mi­nat­ing insight into Ford’s mind and what was per­son­al­ly at stake for him by reveal­ing his inner self in ‘The Qui­et Man’. He point­ed out Ford’s endur­ing love affair with Kather­ine Hep­burn, whom he called Kate, and how he could not bear break­ing up with his wife Mary. “It is no coin­ci­dence that Mau­reen O’Hara’s name in the film is Mary Kate”. He gave the back­ground on how John Wayne is Ford’s alter ego in the film and why Ford gave Wayne the name of his Irish cousin, Sean Thorn­ton. Ford once showed Wayne some footage and asked was he hap­py with his per­for­mance Wayne replied “I’m just play­ing you, Pappy!”

The core notion com­ing out of the Bog­danovich inter­view was that ‘The Qui­et Man’ was a film lit­tered with script­ed allu­sions to Ford’s life and reflect­ed his desire to cre­ate his own per­son­al ‘Innisfree’.The imag­i­nary world of  ‘Inn­is­free’ and the impor­tance of fam­i­ly and tra­di­tion was a cen­tral theme for the writer Joseph McBride:

Moth­ers are very impor­tant to John Ford. In ‘The Qui­et Man’ there’s a beau­ti­ful lit­tle scene where John Wayne comes back and he sees the home where he was raised and he hears the voice of his long dead moth­er and it’s his imag­i­na­tion. It’s very beau­ti­ful but it’s sort of what moti­vates him to come back home. He’s com­ing back to his moth­er in a sense even though she’s gone but her voice emanates from the land­scape. It’s almost like Ire­land is his moth­er”.  Joseph McBride

In New York, Mar­tin Scors­ese told us how great­ly Ford’s films have influ­enced him and how the box­ing scene in ‘The Qui­et Man’ had a big bear­ing on how he shot his own film ‘Rag­ing Bull’. He teased out the ten­sions that the return­ing Yank, Sean Thorn­ton, is liv­ing through as he tries to come to grips with the strange Irish cus­toms of the dowry and why he must fight Mary Kate’s broth­er, Will Danagher, if he is to suc­ceed in win­ning the woman he loves.
“He kills a man in a ring and he’s a good man, Sean, you know, and it’s hard to live with him­self after that so he goes back to his roots and then he has to be accept­ed with­in those roots and he has to then play out the rit­u­al, and the pow­er of the woman in the pic­ture is very strong, the nature of her resis­tance result­ing in the best kiss in motion pic­tures. All the resis­tance and the accep­tance is there, all in one, but she has to deal with it that way. He’s got to deal with it that way. That’s the nature of who they are and where they are. He, of course, is the out­sider and wants to for­get where he’s been and what he’s done but he’s got anoth­er box­ing ring to deal with, not her but the lifestyle, the peo­ple. He’s also got to deal with him­self. He’s got to come to terms with him­self.”  Mar­tin Scorsese

William Dowl­ing believes that in ‘The Qui­et Man’, Ford was mak­ing a state­ment about the new men­tal­i­ty sweep­ing across Amer­i­ca after WW2. He detest­ed the country’s new found love of the dol­lar and pow­er and felt it to be a betray­al of the Amer­i­can Dream that the ear­ly set­tlers, like his par­ents, believed in. Dowl­ing explains how Ford artic­u­lates this is in the dowry sequences in ‘The Qui­et Man’. He believes that Thornton’s refusal to fight for the dowry is the most mis­un­der­stood scene in the film. Dowl­ing real­ly lights up the screen when he describes Sean Thorn­ton drag­ging Mary Kate through a field and drops her at the feet of Red Will Dana­her, declar­ing: “you can take her back, its your cus­tom not mine!” and then pro­ceeds to burn Danaher’s mon­ey in the furnace.

Many fem­i­nists at the time regard­ed this ‘drag­ging’ scene as a chau­vin­is­tic act on the part of Ford, in par­tic­u­lar, the moment when a woman runs up to Thorn­ton and says: “Here’s a stick to beat the love­ly lady with”, but Dowl­ing sees this as Fes­tive Com­e­dy, the build up to wel­com­ing Mary Kate and Sean Thorn­ton as ful­ly fledged mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty of Innisfree.

‘The stick to beat the love­ly lady with’, That was John Ford’s type of direc­tion, which the whole audi­ence under­stood and knew what it meant. Maybe you didn’t but the audi­ences did (laughs)”. Mau­reen O’Hara.

The most impor­tant inter­view I had was with the won­der­ful Mau­reen O’Hara which came about after sev­er­al years of unsuc­cess­ful requests. Luck arrived after I inter­viewed her nephew, Char­lie Fitzsi­mons, in LA and he put in a good word for me and on my return jour­ney on the Queen Mary, word came through that Mau­reen would be avail­able for an exclu­sive interview.

We filmed Mau­reen at her home in Glen­gar­iff, West Cork. It was an hon­our to have an exclu­sive inter­view with the only liv­ing mem­ber of the main cast. There are too many incred­i­ble nuggets about her mem­o­ry of the film to cat­a­logue here but need­less to say, Ford and his obses­sion with ‘The Qui­et Man” was nev­er far from her mind: “He could be the mean­est, the hard­est, but he was the great­est direc­tor of them all”.

Maureen O'Hara

Mau­reen O’Hara & Sé Mer­ry Doyle

Mau­reen recalled the one time she lost her tem­per with Ford was in the horse rac­ing  scene where he kept telling her to stop blink­ing and she replied: “What would a bald head­ed son of a bitch like you know about keep­ing your eyes open in the sun and when I said it I thought I was going to be assas­si­nat­ed. Every­body thought that’s the end of Mau­reen but he start­ed to laugh and every­body thought, thank God Maureen’s safe”. 

Mau­reen elab­o­rat­ed on one of the most impor­tant aspects of the mak­ing of ‘The Qui­et Man’ fam­i­ly: “Well I don’t know of any oth­er films that were ever made that involved so much of a fam­i­ly. They were all in love with the one thing, Ire­land, you know. It was a love affair”.

It real­ly was a fam­i­ly affair: Maureen’s two broth­ers played the IRA parts; John Wayne’s chil­dren had a cameo in the horse race scene; Bar­ry Fitzger­ald was the Match­mak­er and his broth­er, Arthur Shields, was the Rev­erend Play­fair; Vic­tor McLaglen’s son, Andrew, worked on the pro­duc­tion end; and Ford’s own broth­er, Fran­cis, played Dan Tobin and his son, Pat, worked as a pro­duc­tion assis­tant. To round it all off, Ford deployed the famed Abbey Play­ers for all the minor roles. “It was like a home movie in front of and behind the cam­era, I think the whole world felt that”. Mar­tin Scorsese.

Mau­reen, along­side her broth­er Char­lie and John Ford, com­posed the lyrics for the film ver­sion of ‘Inn­is­free’ and she recit­ed them for me on cam­era. She became very emo­tion­al that she could remem­ber them so well:

Oh Inn­is­free, my island I’m return­ing, from wast­ed years across the Irish sea and when I come back to my own dear island I’ll rest beside you grá mo chroí”. 

Before leav­ing Mau­reen, I had to ask her about the great con­tro­ver­sy that has built up over the years in regard to what she whis­pered in John Wayne’s ear at the end of the film that got such a star­tled reac­tion from him. Bog­danovich reck­ons it had some­thing to with sex. When I asked Mau­reen what she said, she replied: “You can ask but I will not tell. Ford instruct­ed me to say some­thing to Duke and I said, ‘ok, on one con­di­tion, that you swear that nev­er in any time in your life will you reveal what was said.’ I did what I was sup­posed to do and to this day they nev­er told and I will nev­er tell, but Ford got the look from Duke that he wanted.”

The mak­ing of ‘John Ford – Dream­ing the Qui­et Man’ threw up a lot of rev­e­la­tions about Ford and what moti­vat­ed him into the mak­ing of his film. In the end it was a film where Ford sur­round­ed him­self with his fam­i­ly of actors and tech­ni­cians to make his most per­son­al film. Our doc­u­men­tary had its world pre­mier at the Cork Film Fes­ti­val with Mau­reen O’Hara as our spe­cial guest. The Opera House was packed to capac­i­ty break­ing the record pre­vi­ous­ly set by Wern­er Herzog’s ‘Griz­zly Man’. The night was an over­whelm­ing suc­cess with sev­er­al stand­ing ova­tions but the endur­ing mes­sage to me was the desire of so many, young and old, express­ing their desires to see or rewatch the film ‘The Qui­et Man’ with a new sense of inter­est in Ford’s per­son­al moti­va­tion in mak­ing it. The film the had it’s Amer­i­can pre­mier at the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art in New York, pre­sent­ed by Gabriel Byrne. Last but not least the Irish lan­guage ver­sion had it’s pre­mier on TG4. The jour­ney was now complete.

The whole point of ‘The Qui­et Man’ was to make a film that would stand per­ma­nent­ly as a com­ment on his entire career as a Hol­ly­wood direc­tor, and it was to annun­ci­ate his free­dom from that world. ‘The Qui­et Man’ as it came out is a per­ma­nent way real­ly in John Ford’s career, of say­ing about all the oth­er films, and I mean here The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was my Val­ley — all the so-called great films, the ones that are shown in film soci­eties, I’m not that John Ford. I remem­ber where I came from and I remem­ber the val­ues of where I came from and I’ve made a film to show you what those val­ues are. It will sur­vive me and it has.William Dowl­ing.