Updated: Jul 13, 2022
Anyone who’s heard of John Ford probably knows him primarily as a director of classic Hollywood westerns and the adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath that you watched in your high school English class. Those more familiar with his work often find him to be a detached sort of boorish conservative mythmaker or a comedian whose sensibilities are often childish and aggressively lowbrow. None of these generalizations are inherently incorrect, in fact they have a fair amount of basis; the Irish-American director saw himself first and foremost as a comedy filmmaker, pasting his gags onto otherwise typical Hollywood stories.
However, a quick glance at his filmography can tell you that this isn’t entirely the case: what of The Grapes of Wrath? The Searchers? The Informer? The Fugitive? They Were Expendable? All of which are movies that carry a fair amount of weight and do little to lighten the load. More important than disproving Ford himself (an easy task) is understanding what inspires his legions of famous devotees, many of whom praise his cavalry trilogy, including the apparently lightweight and comedic John Wayne vehicles Rio Grande and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. These devotees included Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and even Orson Welles who is famously quoted as saying, “I like the old masters … by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”
Understanding what these filmmakers (and to an infinitely less interesting degree, myself) see even in Ford’s “lesser” work is to find the presence of a formal and often nonchalant subjectivity, a world in which ideas are physically manifested. To make this claim and to show just how deeply personal this manner of creation can be for Ford, one need only refer to The Quiet Man.
Originally, Ford intended to make The Quiet Man immediately after another of Ford’s Irish movies, The Informer, achieved quite a lot of success and even earned him Best Director at the 1936 Academy Awards. This was not to be and funding wasn’t secured until 1951. Adapted from a short story, the screenplay for The Quiet Man follows a boxer who returns to his native Ireland from America after accidentally killing his opponent in the ring. Despite this seemingly sorrowful and intimate conceit, the movie plays primarily as a romantic comedy about John Wayne (the boxer, Sean Thornton) and Maureen O’Hara (Mary Kate Danaher). The years the movie spent in limbo led to numerous script revisions, which made Thornton increasingly reminiscent of Ford, apparently at the director’s request. In his biography, Searching for John Ford, Joseph McBride points out that Ford faced internal battles that mirror Thornton’s. McBride states that both Ford and Thornton are “in flight from violence, material success, and the unexpected consequences of the American Dream.”
For Ford, these issues came in the form of his experience in the military during World War II, a series of apparently monetarily driven westerns at the end of the 1940s (the aforementioned cavalry trilogy), and the sorry state of Hollywood during McCarthy’s blacklist. Other autobiographical elements are less abstract, Connemara (a region in Ireland that Ford claimed was “where [his] people come from”) was selected as the filming location and Thornton’s love interest was renamed Mary Kate, a combination of Ford’s own wife, Mary, and Katharine Hepburn, who Ford had carried a torch for since their meeting on the set of Mary of Scotland.
However, Ford would never be so brazen or vulnerable as to make a movie overtly about himself, which is where where the subjectivity of the film’s environment becomes a necessity. Given Ford’s reservations, the material world in The Quiet Man is only a representation of the aforementioned personal feelings, rather than a straightforward autobiographical statement. These feelings manifest in the forms of symbolic characters and occurrences. What sets The Quiet Man apart from Ford’s other work, however, is how obvious it allows itself to be. Fantasy elements abound and the movie subtly calls attention to its own artifice.
In the movie’s opening scene, Thornton asks for directions to Inisfree at a train station and a crowd of locals quickly begins debating this topic, yet they come to no useful conclusion. Suddenly, Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) arrives and, without a word, picks up Thornton’s bags and begins to walk away before finally speaking, “Innisfree, this way.” In the course of this scene, only Sean appears to be able to see Michaleen, given the uncanny way in which no one else even acknowledges his arrival or departure. Here begins my insistence that The Quiet Man is a pure fantasy film, one designed to play out the deepest feelings of its director, but more than that, one deeply informed by Ford’s own fractured Irish cultural identity (he was born in America and often romanticized the island nation). Consider the basic structure of Thornton’s journey: he abandons his life of suffering and guilt in America and arrives in the picturesque and natural world of Ireland, where Michaleen guides him to his much romanticized ancestral village.
With this in mind, I think a direct line can be drawn to the celebrated Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The chorus in one of his most famous poems, “The Stolen Child,” is as follows: “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” I admit it may seem pretentious to connect this to a romantic comedy, but McBride cites those who knew Ford well in establishing that Ford was an avid reader of Irish literature, so the connection may not be quite so absurd as it seems. Given that Michaleen continues to perform strange, possibly supernatural tasks (including carrying on a conversation with his horse), the connection may be more than just symbolic. Michaleen could very well be a literal “faery” that takes Sean from his troubles.
The fantasy elements don’t end there. This romantic dreamscape, shared by Ford and his fictional counterpart, is established by narration from Sean’s mother, previously clarified to be long dead. She describes White O’Morn (Thornton’s ancestral cottage) and the town of Innisfree before they are shown to the audience. Her reminiscences illustrate perfectly the land that appears before Sean, almost too perfect to be real, as if she were creating Innisfree from beyond the grave.
I could cite a laundry list of other fantasy elements to bolster my point, from Mary Kate’s strange connection to the wind to the timelessness of the setting (Ford, possibly as a taunt, cuts a character off before he can say the year). At one point, Sean even declares that the name “Innisfree” is synonymous with “heaven.”
Rather than waste precious words exploring each of these and their implications in detail, however, I will focus on two that stand out to me: Thornton’s boxing flashback and Francis Ford’s portrayal of Dan Tobin. In what I would confidently say is the most experimental sequence Ford ever directed, he cuts sporadically, disregards the 180º rule, and makes extensive use of wildly unrealistic lighting techniques as he shows the night that changed Sean’s life. We see only what Sean remembers of the fatal knockout; the setting is nothing but the ring and all beyond is impenetrable darkness. This Ford’s world and nothing outside it exists. If Ireland is the land Ford chose to make his own, then there is no America. The setting exists only as a representation of its themes.
Within the landscape he has created, Ford can fulfill whatever wish he likes, whether it be finally uniting with a lost love or preventing his own brother’s death, which he does during the film’s climactic fight between Thornton and Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Francis Ford, John’s older brother, plays the town eccentric, Dan Tobin, who, by the film’s end, is shown to be on what he supposes to be his deathbed. When the brawl comes into earshot, Tobin leaps out of bed, pushes past the priest, and pulls on trousers before dashing outside to watch the fight. A comedic moment in the context of the movie to be sure, but one that speaks volumes in regards to Ford’s use of his fantasy landscape.
Clearly nearing death, as can clearly be seen by his appearance in the movie, Francis would only live for two more years after filming The Quiet Man. In the world of his films, John is able to save his brother from this. Francis can cheat death and return to the world, full of vitality. Such is the nature of Ford’s world.
So what does the Irish fantasy of The Quiet Man mean for the rest of Ford’s work? No other film Ford ever made can be said to be half as autobiographical as The Quiet Man, yet they can be just as deeply personal. It is in the humorous moments that Ford will show his hand. The most juvenile derailments often cover something so personal that Ford can’t let himself treat it earnestly. Ford does not speak directly to his audience and may not have been capable of speaking directly to himself, so his films do the talking for him. His landscapes, moments of quiet, slapstick escapades, and every other moment in between what, to almost any other filmmaker, would be the “meat” of the story. Ford’s poetic subjectivity is not self-indulgent or performative, but quiet enough to go unnoticed. Ideas become physical space, such as Stagecoach’s iconic uses of Monument Valley or the picturesque meanderings of Wagon Master. It is the fantasies and divergences that compose almost the whole of The Quiet Man that occupy the most profound areas of his other work.
Bogdanovich, Peter. John Ford. University of California Press, 1978.
Freytag, Chance. “All the Songs Are Lost: The Ethereal Ireland of John Ford.” 2020. Student paper.
McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford. St. Martin's Press, 2001.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Stolen Child.” W.B. Yeats, edited by Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, 2000, pp. 4–5.