Thursday, August 10, 2017

John Ford's Irish Anthology

In nearly all of John Ford's movies, there is at least one star with whom the viewer is familiar — John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, for instance, were Ford's friends as well as frequent collaborators.

In other words, you usually knew what you were getting. And with Ford, you usually got a western — but not always.

Take, for example, "The Rising of the Moon," Ford's Irish anthology that made its debut on this day in 1957. (It took its name from Augusta, Lady Gregory's play that was first produced in 1907. That play was the basis for the third story, titled "1921" in the film.) There were no recognizable stars. It was a trilogy of short stories, and nary a one was set in the West. They were all set in Ireland.

Well, it isn't entirely true that there were no known stars in the movie. Tyrone Power served as the movie's narrator, tenuously linking each of the three stories together. Modern students of motion pictures need not rack their brains trying to remember where they might have seen any of the folks in "The Rising of the Moon."

If you are any kind of movie buff, though, you are bound to have seen at least some of them before. Some appeared in successful American movies during their careers but usually in small roles; even audiences of six decades ago would not have recognized the casts in "The Rising of the Moon" unless they had a knowledge of Irish actors.

And most Western moviegoers, then and now, knew little about Irish actors.

Neither did Western audiences know much about Irish history — and it requires a certain amount of knowledge on that topic for the stories about Irish life in the early 20th century to make sense. The viewer needs more than passing exposure to Irish traditions and customs in many cases, but knowledge of Irish history is almost entirely the key to understanding that third vignette, a darker tale that appears to support the Irish Republican Army.

Now, during the 1920s, the IRA was involved in a savage round of ethnic cleansing. In Ford's trilogy, the IRA — the Al Qaeda or ISIS of its day — was given a hero's treatment while its foes, the "Black and Tans," a British paramilitary force during the Irish War for Independence, were treated as villains.

I suppose how one interprets the roles of the groups involved in the War for Independence largely depends upon whether one supports the Protestants or the Catholics. But to choose sides it is necessary to have some knowledge of the history of the conflict.

The other two vignettes didn't rely nearly as much on historical knowledge.

But to understand what was being said it was helpful to have more than a passing knowledge of an Irish brogue.

So even though the movie has a unique charm, most viewers probably wouldn't get much from watching it.

And that really is a shame because, like all John Ford movies, it has a number of rewarding qualities. Since the audience knows few, if any, of the actors, there are no expectations, freeing the audience to revel in some great performances. And the cinematographers should have been recognized, as many of Ford's cinematographers on other projects were, for their work.

But modern movie viewers can appreciate it — if they have an opportunity to see it.