John Ford – Dreaming The Quiet Man – Interview with Se Merry Doyle

It was an argument over the merits of The Quiet Man that sent filmmaker Se Merry Doyle on a seven-year journey of rediscovering the John Ford classic. Paul Byrne gets big-leggy.

At the Dublin premiere of John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man last Sunday, Se Merry Doyle was plainly taken aback at the rapturous reception. And the raucous laughter throughout.
“Thankfully, all the laughter was in the right place,” smiles the Irish filmmaker, “but it was the warmth that people felt about the film itself that I think came through. We all sat down to The Quiet Man straight afterwards, and it was like coming home. The documentary had whetted our appetite to revisit this film 60 years after it premiered here in Dublin, and I actually felt pretty emotional afterwards. Which is rare for an Irish filmmaker, I know…”

Having tackled another Irish icon, Patrick Kavanagh, with his 2004 directorial debut, No Man’s Fool, and worked as editor on documentaries about Stevie Wonder, costume jewelry, The Uncle Jack and Fleetwood Mac, Se Merry Doyle felt he was ready to take on a film as iconic as The Quiet Man. Especially after one of his colleagues dismissed the film as crass paddywackery.
“And I didn’t really have any strong argument back,” says Merry Doyle. “I thought to myself, okay, let’s go and see what this film is made of. And whether or not it deserves to be loved or loathed.”

Merry Doyle’s documentary opens with a quote from the notoriously private John Ford, letting us know that his personal life is own bloody business, but, if there is a film where Ford does lift back the curtain, it’s The Quiet Man.
Here was a film that offered up a fantasy world for this gruff son of Irish immigrants who met and married in Portland, Maine. In The Quiet Man, John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an Irish-American returning to the place of in Innisfree, where he falls in love with local lass Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). But true love rarely runs smooth. Especially in the wilds of Ireland.

A heady, hearty mix of David Lean and John Hinde, The Quiet Man a film all about a coming home. And it’s in stunning Technicolor. Not that Paramount seem to care, having failed, as yet, to restore Ford’s picture to its original glory. Hopefully, Se Merry Doyle’s documentary may spark them, especially given that heavyweight film fans Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich are amongst those in the film singing The Quiet Man’s praises.

PAUL BYRNE: Your documentary went down a treat on Sunday night, at the John Ford Ireland screening. Is it the film you first imagined seven years ago?
SE MERRY DOYLE: Most films I make have a fairly definite approach, but that wasn’t really the case here. I remember with Live Alive-O, I took at least five shots – including filling the canal with people’s memorabilia or bags of roses going down the Liffey – and not knowing exactly where I would use them, but knowing that they would be in the film. This was a new departure for me, because I had shot all that early stuff with Nancy, down in Cong – crazy Nancy coming out of the shop – and I was initially going to examine the back story to The Quiet Man and also why it was considered stereotypical here. And so it was really intended as a much smaller affair – a half-hour on RTE, that sort of thing.
So, that was the beginning of it. It came out of an argument with a colleague, where he felt the Ford film was rubbish, and when I first set out to make a documentary about the film, I was going to call it The Quiet Man: A Milestone Or A Millstone?. And it was going to be a much more local film for a smaller, let’s call it Irish audience. And that really wasn’t going anywhere, but the more I started digging into John Ford, his films, his family, his parents coming from Ireland – reading Luke Gibbons’ book, and Joseph McBride’s In Search Of John Ford – the film then grew beyond the local, and it grew and grew into a mixture of the heritage of the film across the world, and also zoning in on John Ford’s 20-year struggle to make it, and why.

Ford also indicated that the film was kind of autobiographical, and a personal message from him to the world, which he thought was going astray. There was a lot of ideas that grew and grew, and I had no idea when I shot that footage with Nancy seven years ago that the film we have now would come out of it.
I did realise what I was doing two years ago – I had a firm line, especially after interviewing Scorsese and Bogdanovich, Joseph McBride. That’s when the heart of the film really came into focus.

Did your relationship with The Quiet Man change over the seven years?
Absolutely. I can hardly watch that film in the way I used to. The more I got into it, these small little footings into the film, you can tell that Ford was up to something here. As Joseph McBride said, Ford had a great line, “I pose as an illiterate – don’t tell anyone about this’. He knew that Hollywood like his big ideas,but Ford was a major intellectual. There’s a great line that didn’t make it into the documentary, from Joe Dowling, “The Quiet Man is no more about Ireland than Hamlet is about Denmark”. For Ford, the one place he knew in his heart was Ireland, but this is a film that could apply to anywhere in the world at the time. And so, although it seems to be a simple film, there are layers to it there if you want to dig deeper.

A lot of great art is about belonging, and coming home. That yearning to find your true self through your roots…
I think Ford, although a romantic, that boxing scene that he added to Maurice Walsh’s original tale, that was his reaction to the horrors of war, and what it can do to us. The idea that you can kill a guy and it’s just going to sell a few more papers tomorrow, and Ford saw that happening in American culture, and he just wanted to go back, to a better, purer time. He was yearning for a kind of closure, where all wounds could be healed.

You don’t fly, so, you got a slow boat to New York – six weeks on ocean – for this film, later driving across America, to get to Monument Valley, to catch up with Bogdanovich, Scorsese. Did that affect the pace of your film too?
I think it might have, yeah. I’m always asking cameramen to do a slow pan, as slow as you possibly can. And I would always add, “If you’re think you’re going too slow, slow down”.
Niall Tobin came up to me after the screening on Sunday, and he said he loved how the story unfolded, and that I got him to different places without signposting the way. There was a journey in it, and I think that’s an Irish thing. We’re certainly known for our talking, and it counters John Ford’s opening quote, “My life is nobody’s business but my own”.
It was very hard to make a film about a film. It had to work for people who hadn’t seen The Quiet Man, people who could get the gist of it. That’s why I used the original trailer, to give you the basic story. That gave me the freedom to divert into Ford’s own story, the Irish immigrants in America, how they were treated, those early days of Hollywood.

Ford would have loved Nancy Murphy, Cong’s unofficial and highly entertaining spokesperson. Add to that the wry, dry Feeney brothers – Ford’s distant relations – and it must have been hard not to have their inclusion turn proceedings into a Father Ted episode.
I knew early on that Nancy was the real star. Right from the start, I was telling people, Nancy is the star and she’s also the running gag. Every time we’re just at the edge, when we can’t take any more intellect, Nancy has to be brought back in, to create mayhem again.
I was keen with the Feeney brothers to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I was aware that they might look like gobdeens, but once they opened their mouths, you realized that there was a lot more to them.

Ford was the kind of guy who wasn’t afraid to call a spade a little fuckin’ shovel. Were you taken aback by any war stories from those who worked with him? Most seemed to both love and fear him, including the formidable Ms. O’Hara.
Absolutely. There was one guy who stood up to him, saying, “Fuck you, Ford! You can’t get away with that!”. I forget which film set it was, but Ford broke down and cried. He knew when he went to far. He was a malevolent as well, he really was. There you have John Wayne, who Ford was unimpressed with over his not having gone to war, or his right-wing politics, but, you know, they were still family. I think that’s what Ford created around him; a surrogate family. And once you were in that family, he stayed loyal to you.

Have you shown your 90-minute rebuttal to that colleague that sparked it all?
No, no, not yet. That’ll be a fun screening. The funny thing is, a lot of the high-end film critics weren’t kind to The Quiet Man, and Luke Gibbons was really the first person to say, I think it’s time we took another look at this film. Luke recognized early on that this was a special film, and so did Ruth Barton.
I’ve worked with a lot of Irish directors, such as Cathal Black and Joe Comerford, and I’m sure they felt the films they were making was an attempt to get away from the heritage filmmaking of The Quiet Man. They wanted to bring realism to the picture, and The Quiet Man was pretty much a punching bag at the time. But I think Irish filmmakers have come around now, and they recognise the beauty of the film. It’s akin to Pink Floyd being hated by the punks, but gradually being embraced again.

We’ll have to get on to little Marty about restoring the print. The Quiet Man looks like third-generation VHS up there on screen…
Don’t talk to me. It’s just shocking, and the clips you see in the documentary, we paid a lot of money for them, and it was the best quality we could get. Of all the film companies out there, a friend of mine who works in France, restoring classic films, he said that Paramount are the ones who don’t pay enough attention to their back catalogue.
Even when my doc is projected, there’s a scene where Maureen O’Hara is walking through a parting crowd, and at the very top of that frame, in the distance, is like a circle of women, like a coven of witches. Ford always liked to pepper his films with these little details, but here, it’s lost. If we could get into that print, it would really rock.

Words – Paul Byrne

John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man is out June 15th