Director Sé Merry Doyle talks to Charlene Lydon about his new film Dreaming The Quiet Man, which is released in cinemas this Friday.
John Ford’s 1952 classic The Quiet Man is often a controversial issue with Irish people. Though we may be proud of Ireland’s involvement in the classic Hollywood film, the exaggerated cultural stereotypes it portrays can sometimes offend. The film has become the subject of acclaimed filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle’s (Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien, Alive Alive-O) latest documentary. I sat down with Sé as he put the finishing touches on his new film Dreaming The Quiet Man.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the documentary is the inclusion of an interview with Maureen O’Hara who has broken her silence about her time working on The Quiet Man for a very candid and, indeed, delightful interview. Now ninety years old, O’Hara often avoids discussing the film as, Sé explains, ‘she doesn’t like anyone taking on The Quiet Man because she doesn’t think they [filmmakers] can get it.’ Despite her reported misgivings she talks animatedly, honestly and fondly about her time working on the film, her rather complex relationship with John Ford and her admiration of the The Quiet Man. Sé was pleased with how the interview brings the documentary together. ‘She just gave the most wonderful interview. You can feel the energy. She has some extraordinary insight into the film’. Her insight into John Ford himself was invaluable to the documentary, Sé adds. ‘She knew all the nuances and she knew what a bastard he was. As she would say, he was the greatest son-of-a-bitch, but he was the greatest director as well. For me, as a director, it was a proud moment. I just thought, somehow, as the last person who could throw light on John Ford as a friend, that was really powerful. If I hadn’t had it in the film I would always have been thinking, ‘oh man, I wonder what Maureen O’Hara would have said.’
The genesis of the documentary is a rocky one, as Sé explains. It started out as sort of an argument against the film’s detractors. ‘When I hear someone say it’s a piece of tosh, I say, “how could you say that? This film was made by John Ford!” He’s regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers in the world ever. How could he make a piece of tosh about the country his parents were born in? And that was really enough to get me going on it.’
Sé attended the anniversary celebration of the The Quiet Man in the ifi with all the Quiet Man ‘maniacs’ who were also in attendance. After shooting some footage of that event Sé then travelled to Cong in Co. Galway where the film was shot to take a look at the lasting effect the film has had on the town. This trip was made before any funding had been secured, and the team consisted of just himself and a cameraman. ‘We just hung around and I met Nancy and Jack Murphy who own Cohan’s hardware store, which, in the film, was Cohan’s pub, and they were just incredibly ordinary but very exciting people. The reason I went to Cong was because everybody involved was very old and I was afraid that they were going to die. It’s what you call time-dependent material.’
With this renewed sense of urgency, Sé, armed with a pilot of the footage from Cong and from the anniversary screening, began to seek financing but found it more difficult than anticipated. ‘There was no interest from any of the institutions that we went to. They were all so prejudiced against the film… People at rté felt it was too local, that it was a silly Irish film. They just didn’t get it.’
It was with Alan Maher, (Irish Film Board) that Sé finally got the penny to drop with someone, ‘Alan immediately got what the argument was, what my hope was. I wanted to shoot a lot of stuff, do a lot of interviews. It was a chance encounter with him, maybe it’s like that with a lot of films. There’s always somebody who gets it and you hope that it lands and it landed on him.’ With the bsé/ifb on board, Sé secured further funding from bai and tg4. The documentary then began to take shape and a host of John Ford admirers were interested in coming on board to discuss why The Quiet Man is indeed more than just a bit of blarney!
Upon assembling the first strands of the documentary Sé realised that the documentary he really wanted to make was not a defence of the film, but rather a film about John Ford and his ‘obsession’ with Maurice Walsh’s story. In demonstrating the passion Ford felt for making The Quiet Man, the reputation it has for being a scourge on the Irish international identity could perhaps be waylaid and replaced with the respect that Sé feels it deserves. With the title changed from The Quiet Man: Millstone or Milestone to the less contentious Dreaming The Quiet Man, the documentary had found its focus, and instead of a debate, it had become a celebration of the film itself and the cinematic master and enigmatic figure, John Ford.
Central to the documentary is the notion that The Quiet Man is really a masked biography of the director himself, who was born in America to Irish parents who raised him with songs and stories from their homeland and whose mother idealised Ireland. Sé explains, ‘What I’m propagating is that he turns this film into his own biography.’ Sé goes on to point out some of the similarities between the central character Seán Thornton (played by John Wayne), and John Ford himself. ‘Ford was a very cantankerous man and his outsider spirit is explored in the film. His obsession with Mary-Kate – he was having an affair with Katherine Hepburn at the time, whose name was Kate and his wife’s name was Mary.’ Sean Thornton’s yearning for Ireland, the idealism surrounding it and the feeling of being an outsider in the place you considered ‘home’ are all aspects that Ford could relate to and are important in understanding the intentions of the film.
The segment that was screened for me spoke volumes about the content and central discussion in the film. The segment included a typically colourful and impassioned interview with Martin Scorsese in which he discusses the scene where Seán Thornton (John Wayne) first arrives on the train in Castletown. Seán walks through the train station to find the horse and cart that will bring him to Inisfree and Scorsese makes the point that Seán is literally walking from the real world to the fantasy/mythological world that is Inisfree. Sé points out ‘Inisfree is not Ireland. Castletown is, but Inisfree is an imaginary place that goes back to pre-Ireland, pre-Christian ritual and all that sort of thing. So he’s playing with all these rituals. But at the same time, Seán Thornton is an American. John Ford knows that the central character is an American who has a dewy-eyed vision of Ireland and the Irish people are playing up to the American’s stereotype of us. So he’s playing with that.’
One of the more common criticisms of the film by its detractors is that Ford has created a damaging mockery of Irish cultural identity. This point is effectively countered by Sé by proposing that Ford is celebrating the mythological elements of Irish culture and playing with the idealism that is often attached to the ‘homeland’ of so many Americans, Ford included.
The documentary takes a look at many areas of interest for Quiet Man fans, but is also historically interesting for any cinéphile or indeed any Irish person. The effect the film has had on Cong is remarkable and the archive footage that is included in the documentary from the making of the film is an invaluable look at Ireland in the ’50s. Interviews with Cong locals Jack and Nancy Murphy are insightful and endearing, and contrast well with the archive footage, which shows the glamour and excitement in the air at the time of shooting. It was unlike anything rural Galway had seen before and the impression the film made on the local economy is still evident some sixty years later.
Now putting the finishing touches on what he describes as ‘the most difficult piece of work I’ve ever done’, the film Sé has created is unlike any other documentary about The Quiet Man. Neither a defence or a detraction, the documentary attempts to reconcile the cultural hyperbole with the knowingly playful use of stereotype and idealism that Ford perpetrates within the film. Sé concludes ‘I suppose all I can say about The Quiet Man is that I’m trying to open a door. Obviously anyone who loves the film will enjoy it, but it will open a whole new perspective on what they were saying. There was a genius at work here, and Ford did spend the guts of twenty years getting it to happen’.
This article first appeared in Film Ireland: The Winter Issue – Issue 135