March Highlights on TCM
HAPPY ST. PATRICK'S DAY (March 17 at 6am) March 17 is St. Patrick's Day, and TCM is celebrating with a series of films set in Ireland. It's worth noting that the real Saint Patrick was a missionary, born in the fifth century, and the legend is that he was responsible for spreading Christianity throughout his native land. In the United States, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated as a kind of lighthearted holiday, but in Ireland it's a national holiday as well as a holy day of obligation in the church. A lot of what we think of as "Irishness" comes from the legends of Saint Patrick--for instance, he used a shamrock, the national symbol, to illustrate a parable of the Holy Trinity, and in the folktales about him that have developed over the centuries, he has become the personification of his land, his people and their grounding in the Catholic Church. Across the centuries, other elements have been added to what I suppose you would call Irish identity, for lack of a better term--a sense of the beauty of language (whether English or Gaelic) and a feeling that music and spoken words are almost one (I'm thinking of Joyce and Yeats on the one hand, Van Morrison and the Chieftains on the other), a recognition of tragedy, and a fierce connection to home. National "traits" can never be pinned down and they often settle into clichés, but the distinction between legends and clichés is difficult to draw in any culture. When one thinks of Ireland in the movies, the first title that often comes to mind is John Ford's The Quiet Man, which was based on a story written in the '30s by the Irish writer Maurice Walsh. Now, many people, some of them Irish, find this picture to be a thoroughly idealized and romanticized vision of Ireland and Irish culture. I can only agree with them, but I wonder if that really qualifies as a criticism. Ford's relationship to his own ethnic background tended in this direction without any apologies, and what gives the picture its energy and power is his overwhelming love for all of those traits, which he exaggerates, shapes and converts into a work of great beauty. He does the same thing in a gentler key in The Rising of the Moon, which he made on a much lower budget and in black and white a few years later from a short story and two plays. And of course, TCM is also showing his 1935 version of The Informer from a novel by Liam O'Flaherty (who was Ford's cousin). That picture about an IRA informer (played by Victor McLaglen, a key member of Ford's "stock company") makes an interesting contrast with Carol Reed's 1947 classic from F.L. Green's novel Odd Man Out, about an IRA leader (James Mason) hiding from the law in Northern Ireland (in an unnamed city that is obviously Belfast). And David Lean's early '70s film Ryan's Daughter offers a starker contrast to both, and to previous Irish-set pictures in general. The setting for this fascinating epic picture--the sweeping coastline of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry (some of it was actually shot in Capetown, South Africa because the weather was more favorable)--is quite different from the landscapes in County Mayo where Ford shot The Quiet Man. Lean's 70mm canvas is a world away from Ford's images, as is the story of intolerance and distrust in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising that he and his writer Robert Bolt crafted. This is a rich group of films and Ireland is, I think, a place and a culture that sparks something unique in filmmakers.
by Martin Scorsese