With Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical Irish coming-of-age film ‘Belfast’ up for Best Picture this year, and this week’s indie film coming out on St. Patrick’s Day, it’s time to celebrate with a look at how Emerald Isle was immortalized on screen – with a native Mainer leading the charge.
This Mainer is, of course, John Ford. The legendary director of undisputed classics such as ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘Stagecoach’, ‘The Searchers’, ‘How Green Was My Valley’ and literally a hundred other films was born – like John Martin Feeney – in Cape Elizabeth first-time Irish immigrant parents of Generation 1 and grew up on Munjoy Hill in Portland. Before heading to Hollywood (and changing his name to the more American “Jack Ford”), Ford graduated from Portland High, where his nickname “Bull” is said to have come from his playing style on the American football field. Bulldogs. (And here, if you’re wondering why the Old Port pub’s name Bull Feeney’s sounds familiar, now you know.)
Ford rose through the ranks through the silent films, gathering a stable of actors (including a certain John Wayne) who would turn up again and again as Ford built a reputation as a no-nonsense, tough professional. But, for all John Ford’s relentlessness (see his belated one-word answers to director Peter Bogdanovich’s probing questions in a particularly hilarious interview), Ireland still brought out the softie in him.
Of course, John Ford’s idea of being a softie involves a legendary nine-minute bare-knuckle fight scene between Ford regulars Wayne and Victor McLagen. It comes from Ford’s 1952 classic “The Quiet Man,” where Wayne’s former Irish-American boxer returns to the homeland to reclaim his ancestral property after accidentally killing a man in the ring. The fight – a knocked-down, dragging, fence-smashing donnybrook surpassed perhaps only by Roddy Piper and Keith David in John Carpenter’s “They Live” – is down to Wayne’s love of local fiery redhead Maureen O’Hara, much to the displeasure of his brutal brother. And so the donnybrook.
“The Quiet Man” is Ford’s idealized Ireland. (While admiring Ford’s film, famed film critic Pauline Kael called it “terribly Irish, green and warm.”) by a fat, murderous Yank with a secret heart of mush. There is a faint, melodramatic romanticism to Ford’s Ireland, and one can imagine the notoriously taciturn Ford, dusty after shooting his latest Western, dreaming of escaping to a distant homeland where every last obstacle can be overcome with a manly punch, followed by a raucous reconciliation at the local pub, your daughter impressed and beaming by your side. As cynical as I am, on my only trip to Ireland, I made sure to visit the main location of “The Quiet Man”, a village called Cong, to immerse myself in cinematic history and toss a little Irish play into a local stream for good luck.
Of course, Ireland isn’t all folk fantasy and vaporous escapism. As Northern Irish-born director Branagh describes in “Belfast”, Ireland’s most trusted cinematic legacy is very bloody indeed. ‘The Troubles’ may seem like a particularly genteel depiction of Ireland’s decades-long battle for independence from England, but that conflict has raged through the heart of the country, leaving many bodies , including a disproportionate number of civilians.
For Ford, The Troubles emerged more memorably as 1936’s “The Informant,” which isn’t as likely to run the average St. Patrick’s Day marathon. The film (which won Oscars for Ford and leading man McLaglen) chronicles the downfall of a conflicted member of the Irish Republican Army, whose reluctance to kill a British soldier and love of an Irish prostitute oppressed led him to inform another man of the IRA to the English for 20 pounds.
McLaglen, a reputable ham, was reportedly prevented from indulging in his usual acting style by Ford engaging in a truly underhanded campaign of director-actor warfare. Keeping his lead man drunk or hungover and repeatedly spouting last-minute filming and script changes on McLaglen, Ford steered the actor straight into the character’s guilty and ethically confused mindset. tortured (and an Oscar for best actor). , for McLaglen’s performance is both showy and heartbreaking, as his repentant saddle pigeon quickly drinks his blood money.
Along the way, Ford still has room to portray Ireland in all its quaint Hollywood tinge, with street singers singing “The Rose of Tralee.” As a political statement, “The Informer” is equally muddled, the complexities of the country’s bloody conflict filtered through the studio’s desire not to offend and Ford’s own melodramatic instincts. Still, “The Informer” is as Irish as it gets. Well, Hollywood-Irish, anyway.
Ford made a number of other Irish films, although they are harder to find. “The Shamrock Handicap” follows a young Irish jockey, sent to America with his landowner’s prize-winning horse to win the big race. (No points for guessing if he wins both the race and the love of his Irish daughter.) “Hangman’s House” (also starring McLaglen) is Ford’s silent tale of love and revenge, all wrapped up set in the idyllic countryside of County Wicklow. And 1937’s “The Plow and the Stars” sees Ford return to the theme of The Troubles, although the studio demands he cast Hollywood stars Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster, and a little more political softening, Ford would have enraged. “(RKO) completely ruined the damn thing,” Ford roared after the film’s release. (It’s not so bad.)
So while “Belfast” plays in your local cinemas (or whatever premium streaming service you use while you wait for the pandemic to pass), don’t forget Portland’s deep and vital roots in Irish cinematic tradition. . (Especially since my own Irish mother wasn’t impressed with Branagh’s film.) Maybe even visit John Ford’s statue on Pleasant Street, where you can practically hear Ford grumbling that an obese film critic is doing too many stories about his photos.
“The Quiet Man” can be watched just about anywhere (Hulu, Spectrum, Paramount+, Epix), while “The Informer” can be rented for a few bucks through Apple TV. The same goes for “Hangman’s House” (albeit for double the rental fee of “The Informer”), while you can watch “The Plow and the Stars” on The Criterion Channel. The silent “The Shamrock’s Handicap” can be streamed for free on YouTube.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.