Having directed 137 films and won more ‘Best Director’ Oscars than any other filmmaker, acclaimed Irish-American director John Ford is a filmmaker worth celebrating.
Next month, over June 7-10, the Irish and international film industry will do just that when the Irish Film & Television Academy (IFTA) host the inaugural John Ford Ireland Symposium in honour of the director who gave us such classics as ‘The Quiet Man,’ ‘The Searchers,’ The Informer’ and ‘Fort Apache’.
Dr Liam Burke of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at NUI Galway is the Symposium’s Lead Reseacher and has been busily putting together the event over the past number of months. He talks to IFTN about why John Ford should be celebrated; what those in the industry can look forward to, and his key considerations in programming the symposium’s series of events.
Can you tell us briefly what to expect from the John Ford Ireland Symposium?
Well, in summary, it’s a major celebration of an Irish-American filmmaker and filmmaking more generally.
Why do you believe John Ford is somebody who should be celebrated by the Irish film industry?
Well John Ford is America’s most celebrated director. He’s won more ‘Best Director’ Oscars than anybody else. He’s influenced scores of directors from Orson Welles through to Akira Kurosawa, but what is often forgotten about Ford is that he was an Irish-American filmmaker. He was first generation Irish-American. His parents were from the west, his mother was from the Aran Islands and his father was from Spiddal. That heritage massively shaped and influenced his films, whether they were films that were set in Ireland early in his career, such as ‘The Informer,’ which was the film he won his first Oscar for, to later on when he had considerable clout in Hollywood that he could bring big productions to Ireland such as ‘The Quiet Man’ in 1952 or ‘The Rising of The Moon’ in 1957. He really gave Ireland its first taste of a film industry.
He was obviously very proud of his Irish heritage?
Well he would always find a way to work it in. Even when he was working on something as seemingly American as a western, he would find an opportunity to focus on the immigrant experience. So say, for instance, when he made ‘The Iron Horse,’ which is about the building of the trans-continental rail roads, he always found time to focus on the Irish immigrants who built those rail-roads. He would also include Irish cavalry officers in westerns such as ‘Fort Apache’ and ‘She Wore A Yellow Ribbon’.
You mentioned that Ford gave Ireland its first taste of a film industry; he employed a number of Irish crew on ‘A Quiet Man’?
Yes, it was hugely important for him to make use of authentic Irish people and Irish actors. Ford had a particular fondness for the Abbey Players, those actors who worked most regularly with The Abbey in Dublin. In 1936 he brought a lot of them out to Hollywood to star in his adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s play ‘The Plough And The Stars’. Actors like Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields, who subsequently had Hollywood careers after they were brought out there by Ford. So Ford would have used Irish expertise where possible, but in particular Irish actors. Obviously, those actors also included Maureen O’Hara, the leading lady in ‘The Quiet Man.’
As a filmmaker, is Ford somebody who is in danger of being forgotten by younger filmmakers?
Well if you look at the 1970s and 1980s filmmakers, people such as Spielberg, Scorsese, Walter Hill, they would all cite Ford as an influence on the American form. Subsequent filmmakers would have been influenced by Ford without necessarily being able to articulate that that influence has come from Ford. So filmmakers influenced by people such as Scorsese and Spielberg are, in a way, also influenced by Ford. It’s like a writer being influenced by Dickens but without really knowing it. He’s that central to the grammar and style of filmmaking. Even today when modern films are made with a western sensibility they very often evoke Ford. You think of recent blockbusters such as ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ or even something like ‘Star Wars.’ You know, Luke Skywalker out in the desert on a distant planet is not a million miles away from Jeffrey Hunter in ‘The Searchers’.
As the Lead Researcher of the John Ford Ireland Symposium, what were your key considerations in helping putting the programme together?
Well given that this is our first year, the important thing was to really re-introduce John Ford. So while some might be familiar with ‘The Quiet Man’ and others might be familiar with ‘The Searchers’ and so forth, Ford is more than any one film. He made 137 films across six decades moving across a variety of genres and filmmaking styles. So really, with the programme we want to answer the questions people might have such as who was John Ford; what was the variety of his work; why was he so important and why does he warrant continued celebration? So we’ve tried to achieve that through a mixture of discussions, retrospective screenings, having modern Irish filmmakers discuss his work, as well as a few special events such as musical performances and so on to really give a balanced picture as to who John Ford was.
Is there anything in the programme that you’re particularly proud of?
Well, I think there is an interesting mix there and some key highlights. Having ‘The Iron Horse’ on in The National Concert Hall on the opening night, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, is going to be a great experience. People have been talking a lot about silent movies lately since ‘The Artist’ and how they were surprised that they were good. Of course they were good and ‘The Iron Horse’ was one of the first silent western epic. It deserves to be seen on the big screen, so seeing it on one of the biggest screens in the National Concert Hall with composer Christopher Caliendo conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra will be an experience people just won’t get anywhere else. Similarly, the open-air screening of ‘The Searchers’ will be special and totally appropriate to the work. Then there’s the major talent that’s coming in. Peter Bogdanovich was one of the leading members of the ‘new Hollywood movement’. He made great films such as ‘The Last Picture Show,’ but he also started out as a film critic and knew Ford very well. He even made the 1971 documentary ‘Directed By John Ford’. So having him here, as someone that knew Ford and speaking about his own experiences with Ford, and his own career more generally, really is a special opportunity for film buffs and aspiring filmmakers.
Then of course there’s the 60th anniversary of ‘The Quiet Man,’ (screened in partnership with the IFI) which has to be celebrated. We’ll have the 60th anniversary screening of that with the new documentary ‘John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man’. So as a package, that will be another great opportunity for those who love that film.
The connection with Clint Eastwood is also significant within the Symposium?
Well, with the programme, we’ve also strived to draw some lines to those whom Ford influenced, chief among those Clint Eastwood, who received the inaugural John Ford Award in December. Eastwood has many vibrant links with Ford. One of the places you really see those links is with ‘Unforgiven’ so we wanted to draw attention to that with an anniversary screening of ‘Unforgiven,’ which will be attended by his son Kyle Eastwood, who is a prominent Jazz musician and screen composer, as well as Joel Cox, who edited Eastwood’s last 30 films including ‘Unforgiven.’
Why was Eastwood selected as the first recipient of the John Ford Award?
Well, Clint Eastwood has the same sensibility of Ford. There’s a direct link in the way they chart American film history; their major milestones, the fact that they both also concentrate on the personal within the broad canvas of Americana. So the two directors share a lot of links, but of course they are not the same. Eastwood has a much more modern sensibility, but there are a lot of parallels between the two filmmakers. ‘The Searchers’ was seen as Ford’s way to complicate the western. It was more complex than other westerns. It surprised audiences when it was released, and the same thing happened when Eastwood released ‘Unforgiven,’ which subverted audience expectations and played with conventions giving a very dark and surprising western. That ability to make broadly entertaining films, but which were more nuanced and really had something to say, is a skill both directors shared.
Has there been a lot of enthusiasm among the guests that you’ve approached and the industry in general in relation to the symposium?
There’s been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm out there among the Irish filmmaking scene and internationally among people wanting to get involved. Subsequently we’ve added a number of acclaimed filmmakers to the programme, people such as Stephen Frears, John Boorman, Jim Sheridan and Thaddeus O'Sullivan. We’ll have a writers panel with Colin Bateman, Pat McCabe and Ian Power, who wrote and directed ‘The Runway,’ which is very much a re-working of ‘The Quiet Man’. There’ll also be a music panel and a number of talks from leading Ford academics. So all these guests reflect the passion out there among key industry figures in Ford, the man and Ford, the filmmaker.
How do you see the John Ford Ireland Symposium evolving in future years?
Well the wonderful thing about John Ford is that he made 137 films. We’ll only have the opportunity to show a handful of those in this first year. Similarly, he’s gone on to influence countless directors so there’s an opportunity there to draw attention to his influence in different ways each year. We see this symposium as on on-going celebration with a different emphasis year-to-year and different filmmakers being invited to discuss Ford’s work.
Finally, in programming this symposium is there any one thing that you’ve learnt about Ford that you weren’t particularly aware of?
What I’ve really come to admire, and which I didn’t realise until I was doing archival research for this Symposium and going through the US archives; reading letters and going through our own archive here, was Ford’s strength of feeling in developing a film industry here in Ireland. He set up a production company called Four Provinces Pictures with the actor Tyrone Power and Lord Killanin with the intention to develop a viable, sustainable industry in Ireland. While that didn’t necessarily come off, it speaks of his desire to achieve the level of success Ireland is currently enjoying. It reminds us why he needs to be remembered and celebrated.
The John Ford Ireland Film Symposium - inspired and informed by Ford’s work – is an initiative of IFTA, in association with the John Ford Estate in US and supported by the Department of Arts. For the full symposium line-up and information about season passes, visit the John Ford Ireland website.