For many Irish Americans, the watching of John Ford’s ‘The Quiet Man” is as much a part of the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day as Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a part of Christmas. Both movies, depict an idealized time and place that was much simpler than today, or in fact ever was, but the basic themes of the importance of values and friendship still speak to us. Not to be overlooked in our enjoyment of “The Quiet Man” is the very complex man who gave us this movie, Irish American John Ford.
John Ford was born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth Maine on February 1, 1894. His parents were Gaelic speaking immigrants; Ford’s father, a saloonkeeper and a Democratic Party Ward boss, was born in Spiddal County Galway, his mother from the isle of Inishmore in the Aran Islands. Despite being one of eleven children, several of his siblings not surviving childhood, Ford grew up in reasonably comfortable surroundings. However, the slights and offenses that he and his family endured as Irish Americans in Yankee dominated New England forged a pugnacity that would mark his later life. In an era when all Americans were expected to assimilate, Ford took a defiant pride in his heritage and culture. As actor and fellow director, Orson Wells would observe, “(Ford) had chips on his shoulder like epaulets.”
John Ford entered into a career in film after following his older brother Francis, (who was the first to take the stage name of “Ford”) an already established actor and director of silent films, to California in 1914. He began a three year apprenticeship where he learned his craft through being an assistant, handyman, stuntman and occasionally an actor. In 1917 he was given his first film as a director “The Tornado” a film in which he also starred. Per Ford, Head of Universal Studios Carl Laemmle gave him the job of director with the recommendation “Give Jack Ford the job—he yells good”. It is unlikely that Mr. Laemmle realized at the time that this 23 year old young man who “yells good” would go onto to make over 140 films and win six Academy Awards. Ford’s first film would also set the theme for the movies John Ford is most associated with: the West and the Irish. The film was a western where Ford himself played a cowboy who earns a $5,000 reward, which he sends to his mother in Ireland so she can keep the family home.
Ford was a pioneer in location shooting and the “long shot” where his characters are framed against a vast natural terrain such as Monument Valley, Utah, an area still called “John Ford Country”. However, perhaps an even greater trademark of Ford is the inclusion of Irish American values in his films: Duty, Loyalty, Family and the preservation of one’s heritage within a bigger and sometimes hostile society. These are themes that are to be seen whether the subject matter was a coal mining town in Wales in “How Green was my Valley”, as isolated western cavalry post in “Fort Apache”, the struggles of an old time party machine politician whose world is changing in “The Last Hurrah” or Ireland during the Black and Tan wars in “The Informer.” Many of Ford’s films are filled with Irish immigrants who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that future generations may advance up the social ladder, however never at the sacrifice of their cultural identity. Ford also brought a sympathetic, and revolutionary for his time, view to the challenges of other minority groups including African Americans and Native Americans. Even in his Academy award winning film “The Grapes of Wrath” concerning Oklahoma farmers forced to leave their farms during the Great Depression, Ford saw parallels to Ireland’s Great Hunger. Ford also lived the values of loyalty and family off the screen; Ford and his actors bonded in an extended family (sometimes called John Ford Stock Company) that he used again and again is his pictures, and more than a few actors whom other directors rejected thinking their marquee value had passed could always find work with John Ford.
Another theme embraced by Ford not only in film, but his personal life was that there was no conflict between being proud of one’s heritage and patriotism to ones county. At the outbreak of WW II, John Ford joined the United State Navy where his talents as a Director were used to make morale boosting documentaries, two of which earned Academy Awards. Ford was present on Omaha Beach on D-Day, landing himself with a team of Coast Guard Cameramen filming the landing while under fire themselves. In addition to being cited for bravery, John Ford eventually attained the rank of Rear Admiral.
While many great directors cite John Ford as their influence and consider him one of the great directors of all time, some, unfairly applying today’s standards to works produced half a century ago, regard his work as “Politically Incorrect” rather than realizing how revolutionary they were in the context of their own time. Others criticized works such as Ford’s “The Quiet Man” as overly simplistic or depicting an Ireland that never was, and missing the point this is not a story of Ireland , but a poetic story of a child of immigrants longing for a connection to his heritage. Ford tells us this when the character Sean Thornton says “Since I was a kid livin’ in the shack near the slag heaps , my mother’s told me about Innisfree …. Inishfree became another word for heaven to me.” For those who still don’t understand that distinction, perhaps all that is left are John Ford’s words to Eugene O’Neill “If there is any single thing that explains either of us , it’s that we are Irish.”
Historian – Neil F. Cosgrove
Did You Know That
- The “Quiet Man” may have set a record for family connections in one movie. John Ford’s brother Francis played the old man on his deathbed who makes a recovery when the fight breaks out in the last scene. Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields (Rev. Playfair) were brothers, Maureen O’Hara’s two brothers played the young Fr. Paul and the IRA Commandant, John Wayne’s sons and daughters are the children at the horse race, Victor McLaglen son was an assistant director.
- The Quiet Man was filmed in Cong, Co Mayo where many of the landmarks seen in the movie can still be found.
- Arthur Shields (Rev. Playfair), a protestant, was a volunteer who took part in the Easter Rising in 1916. He was captured and interned at Frongoch concentration camp.
- John Ford had great difficulty in getting a studio to back “The Quiet Man.” Republic Pictures, known for low budget B-movies, finally agreed provided Ford, Wayne and O’Hara would do a money making western first, the result was “Rio Grande”. Still Republic placed a strict condition on Ford that the movie be no longer than two hours. The film came in at two hours, nine minutes. When screening the picture for Republic Studio executives, Ford stopped the movie at the two hour mark, just before the climatic fight scene. Knowing they had been had, the executives agreed to run the film at the full length.
- The film won two Academy Awards, Best Director for Ford and Best Cinematography and the only Best Picture Nomination for Republic Studios (it lost to The Greatest Show on Earth).
- Barry Fitzgerald (born William Joseph Shields) holds a singular distinction in film, being the only person nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the role of “Father Fitzgibbon” in Going My Way. Fitzgerald won the Best Supporting Actor, allowing fellow Irish American Bing Crosby to win Best Actor for the same movie. The Academy rules were subsequently changed to prevent being nominated twice for the same role.