With Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical Irish coming-of-age film “Belfast” contending for best picture this year, and this week’s Indie Film coming out in print right smack on St. Patrick’s Day, it’s prime time to celebrate with a look at how the Emerald Isle has been immortalized on screen – with a native Mainer leading the charge. 

That Mainer is, of course, John Ford. The legendary director of such undisputed classics as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers,” “How Green Was My Valley” and literally a hundred other films was born – as John Martin Feeney – in Cape Elizabeth to first-generation Irish immigrant parents and grew up right on Portland’s Munjoy Hill. Before heading to Hollywood (and changing his name to the more all-American sounding “Jack Ford”), Ford graduated from Portland High, where it’s said his nickname “Bull” came from his playing style on the Bulldogs’ football field. (And, here, if you’re wondering why the name of the Old Port pub Bull Feeney’s sounds familiar, now you know.)

Ford worked his way up through silent films, gathering together a stable of actors (including some guy named John Wayne) who would show up again and again as Ford built a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-driving professional. But, for all John Ford’s cantankerousness (see his late-in-life, one-word answers to director Peter Bogdanovich’s searching questions in one notably hilarious interview), Ireland always 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. That’s from Ford’s 1952 classic “The Quiet Man,” where Wayne’s Irish-American former boxer returns to the motherland to reclaim his ancestral homestead after accidentally killing a man in the ring. The fight – a knock-down, drag-out, fence-smashing donnybrook outdone only perhaps by Roddy Piper and Keith David in John Carpenter’s “They Live” – comes about because of Wayne’s love for fiery local redhead Maureen O’Hara, much to the displeasure of her brutish brother. And thus the donnybrook. 

“The Quiet Man” is Ford’s idealized Ireland. (While admiring Ford’s film, noted film critic Pauline Kael called it “fearfully Irish and green and hearty.”) It’s an emerald warren of chattering, boozy old priests, impossibly proud and beautiful colleens, and rich, unspoiled lands that can only be tamed by a big, bruising Yank with a secret heart of mush. There’s a swoony, melodramatic romanticism to Ford’s Ireland, and one can image the infamously taciturn Ford, dusty from shooting his latest Western, dreaming of escape to a far-away homeland where every last obstacle can be overcome with a manly punch-up, followed by a roisterous reconciliation at the local pub, your impressed and glowing girl by your side. Cynic though I am, on my one trip to Ireland, I made sure to visit “The Quiet Man’s” main location, a village called Cong, to bask in the cinematic history and toss a small Irish coin in a local stream for luck. 

Of course, Ireland isn’t all folkloric whimsy and gauzy escapism. As Northern Irish-born director Branagh portrays in “Belfast,” Ireland’s most reliably cinematic legacy is very bloody, indeed. “The Troubles” might sound like a particularly genteel description of the decades-long battle over Irish independence from England, but that conflict raged through the heart of the country, leaving a whole lot of bodies, a disproportionate number of them civilians. 


For Ford, The Troubles most memorably emerged as 1936’s “The Informant,” which isn’t as likely to run on the average St. Patty’s Day marathon. The film (which won Oscars for Ford and leading man McLaglen) is about the downfall of a conflicted member of the Irish Republican Army, whose unwillingness to kill a British soldier and love of a downtrodden Irish prostitute lead him to inform on another IRA man to the English for 20 pounds. 

McLaglen, a noted ham, was reportedly kept from indulging in his usual acting style by Ford engaging in a truly devious campaign of director-actor warfare. Keeping his leading man either drunk or hungover and repeatedly springing last-minute filming and script changes on McLaglen, Ford steered the actor right into the tortured character’s guilt-ridden, ethically muddled state of mind (and a best actor Oscar.) It comes across, as McLaglen’s performance is both showy and heartbreaking, as his repentant stool pigeon quickly drinks away his blood money. 

Along the way, there’s still room for Ford to portray Ireland in all its Hollywood-tinged quaintness, complete with street corner singers crooning “The Rose of Tralee.” As a political statement, “The Informer” is equally muddied, 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’re harder to come by. “The Shamrock Handicap” follows a young Irish jockey, sent to America with his landowner boss’ prize horse to win the big race. (No points for guessing if he wins both the race and the love of his Irish gal.) “Hangman’s House” (also starring McLaglen) is Ford’s silent tale of love and revenge, all set among the idyllic wilds of County Wicklow. And 1937’s “The Plough and the Stars” sees Ford returning to the theme of The Troubles, although studio demands that he cast Hollywood stars Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster, and some more political softening, reportedly enraged Ford. “(RKO) completely ruined the damned thing,” Ford roared after the film’s release. (It’s not that bad.)

So while “Belfast” is playing at your local theaters (or whatever premium streaming service you use while waiting out the pandemic), don’t forget Portland’s own deep and vital roots in the Irish film tradition. (Especially since my own Irish mom came away from Branagh’s film unimpressed.) Maybe even visit the John Ford statue on Pleasant Street, where you can practically hear Ford grumbling that some egghead film critic is making far too much of a fuss over his pictures. 

“The Quiet Man” can be watched pretty much anywhere (Hulu, Spectrum, Paramount+, Epix), while “The Informer” can be rented for a couple of bucks through Apple TV. Same goes for “Hangman’s House” (although for double “The Informer” rental fee), while you can watch “The Plough 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.

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