Monday, March 17, 2008

Two Views of Ireland

Director John Ford came up with two representations of the Irish in film, and they show both ends of the spectrum between the violent circle of vengeance that has plagued that culture for hundreds of years, and the sentimental portrait of a witty caricature. “The Informer” (1935) and “The Quiet Man” (1952) give us not necessarily opposing views of Ireland, both show repressive aspects to their society, but between them give a fuller picture so much so that they should probably be shown together.

Both are excellent films, and despite being the products of Hollywood, because both are directed by a man whose family came from Ireland, who spoke Irish Gaelic himself, they carry an authenticity that most Hollywood films do not have when depicting a foreign land. “The Informer” is gritty, stark, and reflective of the German expressionist school of film. Victor McLaglen, who won the Academy Award for his performance, is a bumbling, flawed, irascible man, a man of little intelligence, whose betrayal to the police of a friend turns him into a haunted, and hunted, man. He turned in the fellow for the reward money, to finance immigration for himself and his prostitute girlfriend to America. He squanders the money instead, his guilt chasing him through the foggy night. In the end, confessing his crime to the betrayed man’s mother, played by Una O’Connor, the IRA catches up with McLaglen and shoots him like a dog. His arms held out in rapture for being forgiven by the Madonna-like sorrowing O’Connor, this lowly, lying, desperate ape of a man becomes Christ-like, and dies for his own sins.

Mr. McLaglen returns in “The Quiet Man” as a boasting, selfish, brawler, the bossy brother of Maureen O’Hara, without whose permission she cannot marry John Wayne. McLaglen, despite similar attributes to his bedeviled character in “The Informer” is here a comic figure, and actually likable despite his irascibility. Maureen O’Hara is a spitfire, able to hold her own with her bullying brother, and John Wayne is the American who has returned to the land of his birth to settle down. This time it is Wayne who is the haunted character, an ex-boxer who caused the death of a competitor in the ring, and who runs from his guilt, and all violence, to this peaceful Irish countryside.

Though we have dependable Ward Bond along as the parish priest, the rest of the cast are Irish, members of the distinguished Abbey Players. They, more than the color picture postcard scenery, give this film its charm. The stereotype of the hard-drinking, brawling Irish is more than winked at. Particularly in the famous scene where Mr. Wayne drags Miss O’Hara across the hills and fields, as townspeople swarm to watch, and the sweet village lady graciously offers Mr. Wayne a stick, “to beat the lovely lady,” we know we are being gloriously kidded by a culture that delights especially in laughing at itself.

Soon Mr. Wayne trades Maureen O’Hara for Victor McLaglen in a cross-country boxing match that wildly entertains the locals and ironically squares things between him and his brother-in-law. Barry Fitzgerald as the village matchmaker and bookie is a gem in this film. His coy smile at Maureen O’Hara as she sings at the spinet and suddenly bursts into what must have been genuine laughter at him, is delightful. The kindly act of brotherly love when the Catholics of the neighborhood pretend to be Protestants so that the visiting Church of Ireland bishop won’t remove the local vicar, played by Fitzgerald’s real-life brother Arthur Shields, and cheer him as he drives by, is a reminder that enmity and vengeance are not part of everyday life for everyone on this island.

“The Informer” is bleak; “The Quiet Man” is romantic confection, and both films together illustrate a more complete picture of a culture of fierce nationalism, religious passion, humor, oppression and human flaws than they would taken separately. Ford and his vision of his ancestral homeland is the glue. It is through his skeptical, and romantic, eye that we see this culture which has come to personify this feast day of a Christian saint.

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