John Ford is an intriguing part of cinema history; inventor of the Western genre he was a notoriously horrible man to work for but, as is often the way, was one of the greatest directors of all time. John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man focuses on the dedication and passion a usually emotionless Ford put into making a film nobody else cared to make. The aim is to show that as well as being a full-time bastard Ford had a softer side, a side that comes through in his unlikely pet project The Quiet Man.
For those not in the Irish cinematic loop, The Quiet Man is one of the most successful films made about the country. Released in 1952 and consciously ignoring the troubling political situation, it tells the story of an American man (John Wayne) who returns to Ireland to find his family roots. In the process, he finds a fiery red-haired Irish lass while she’s tending to her sheep on Technicolor green grass with a thatched-roof cottage in the distance. So far, so twee. It’s an unashamedly idyllic version of a cutesy Ireland that has stuck in the international psyche ever since. Ford himself was of Irish heritage and this documentary strains itself to draw comparisons between Wayne’s character and Ford’s real-life return to his homeland.
It’s an aim that the filmmakers almost achieve but one of the glaring hurdles is that almost everyone involved in making The Quiet Man is now dead. What we’re left with is a less than satisfying stream of anecdotes from the one remaining cast member and some high brow hearsay and analysis of the original film from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Jim Sheridan. The links become quite tenuous, at one stage interviewing the son of a man who vaguely knew Ford. Riveting. While it’s generally interesting enough it can feel messy as it progressively forgets to focus on Ford and ends up feeling like an enthusiast showing you their favourite bits of the film and telling you why they’re great.
In fact the most interesting part is a revisit to the town of Cong, where the film is set. It has become a haven for Quiet Man fans and, as one local shop owners suggests, the tourists ‘come here to hear the Irish tell them lies’. It’s the most inadvertently poignant line, showing how a small town has built an artificial identity around Ford’s film to cater for what fans expect of Ireland. These scenes hint at what a more in-depth version of this film could have been but perhaps that would be missing the point. For all it’s shortcomings Dreaming of a Quiet Man is more of a tribute than an investigation, like looking through someone else’s photo album.
In a nutshell: A sentimental tribute to a sentimental film that leaves fans feeling as if they’re with old friends and leaves everyone else confused.