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. 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 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *