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home > undercurrent > issue 5 > John Ford > The Rising of the Moon  

about the writer

Miguel Marías, born in Madrid in 1947, is an economist who has written on film since 1966. The director of the Spanish Film Archive from 1986 to 1988, he is the author of books on Manuel Mur Oti and Leo McCarey.


The Rising of the Moon
Miguel Marías

The Rising of the MoonThe Rising of the Moon is a modest-looking black-and-white Irish production lasting under 80 minutes, entirely shot on location with actors recruited mainly from the Abbey Theatre. It was the first venture of Four Provinces Productions, created by Lord Killanin, Ford, Roger Greene, Brian Desmond Hurst and Michael Scott to promote a national cinema in Eire. As Ford got no salary - he made it for fun and had a good time - it cost the ridiculous amount of US $256,000, when cheap Benedict Bogeaus productions of the time (including several Allan Dwan masterpieces) had budgets of a up to a million dollars. In spite of which, The Rising of the Moon grossed worldwide (although it was not released in most countries) less than US $100,000 and therefore drew a loss of a quarter million. Not even the Irish appreciated it: it was forbidden in Northern Ireland, and even though its last episode recounts the successful evasion - with the general complicity of most people - of an activist who has been sentenced to death, IRA supporters resented Ford's daring to show a British officer ashamed of being reduced to a hangman. Though most sources date it in 1957 (the year it was released, on May 16 in Dublin, the next month in Britain, not until August in the U.S.), or even in 1958, The Rising of the Moon was filmed in Spring 1956 and fully completed (and copyrighted) inside the year, between The Searchers and  The Wings of Eagles (both also finished in 1956). It is certainly, of the three, the lesser film, if that is the right adjective for such a personal piece. A rarely seen movie even now, seldom mentioned and never properly appreciated, and certainly obscured by the two films it comes between in Ford's filmography (one of them the work that has become Ford's greatest film for almost everybody, the other my own favorite amongst his movies), The Rising of the Moon should nevertheless not be missed.

The Rising of the Moon is, to be sure, a small picture, devoid of great complexities or transcendent meanings, even if it may be one of the most personal films Ford ever made, one of those that most fully and precisely reflect their author's intent. And limits, when visible, are revealing: this is what John Ford could have attained, had he been an Irish filmmaker. He would have been confined to a very simple cinema, probably restricted to local subject matters, more or less realistic in approach and humorous in tone, but unable to reach the mythical, epic and historical dimensions, the rich complexity of the two American masterpieces he made that same year.

Confronted with such dramatic peaks, The Rising of the Moon is rather a quiet Irish valley, its height barely that of a small hillside. Which makes it no less pleasant to watch nor less deeply felt by its author. Besides those two long-winding rivers, the Western a metaphoric tragedy, its more contemporary counterpart the biography of a close friend,  screenwriter Frank "Spig" Wead, The Rising of the Moon has the concision and modesty of a short story or a sketch, multiplied by three. Because The Rising of the Moon tells three independent stories and is rather a collection of three shorts than a true feature. All were adapted by Ford's favorite screenwriter, the unsung Frank S. Nugent, from tales very different in origin and flavor. The first, The Majesty of the Law, is a melancholy and humorous anecdote by Frank O'Connor; the second, A Minute's Wait, springs from a Martin J. McHugh comedy, although it seems a blow-up to twenty-three minutes of the beginning of Ford's most famous Irish movie, The Quiet Man (1952), when Sean Thornton (John Wayne) gets down off the train and asks the way to Innisfree. The third is an updating to the Black and Tan War of Lady Gregory's dramatic piece, The Rising of the Moon (also the name of a well-known folk song), here retitled 1921. All of them are presented, and provided with brief off-screen commentary, by Tyrone Power, enlisted on account of his Irish roots.

The Rising of the MoonMuch as I like it, and despite great moments, 1921 is the least convincing of the three. The blame lies with a very artificial stylistic choice of Ford's that I fail to understand and that amazes me - I keep forgetting about it - every time I see the film; it annoys me till I succeed in not paying attention and Ford drops it, only to indulge again in such an un-Fordian device as systematically tilting the camera: a quirk I cannot but see as some sort of self-parody of the celebrated "expressionism" that ages today his otherwise impressive 1935 The Informer. Not even Peter Bogdanovich dared to ask him, but his book-length interview never dwelt on The Rising of the Moon, and the few who have commented on the film - so vaguely that I suspect they might have never seen it - didn't notice such an anomaly (neither Tag Gallagher nor Joseph McBride did), which one could expect from earlier Orson Welles or Carol Reed (not only in The Third Man [1949]) but is quite shocking and unlikely coming from late John Ford.

The Rising of the MoonThe second story is probably the most Fordian, this being its only drawback: it might seem a bit repetitious in comparison with the three or four minutes which, in a lighter and less extravagant fashion, illustrate the same topic - the Homeric unpunctuality of the old Irish railways - in The Quiet Man. There is an incredible number of characters - around twenty, each with his or her own individual traits drawn with affectionate humor, often paired in miniature vignettes linked with astonishing ease and subtlety, quite at odds with the interruption the whole episode represents, and in what may be the utmost expression of Ford's notorious penchant for digression. The actors are as enjoyable as the dialogue and the comedic construction, freed of any theatricality. It has the most hilarious line in the film - old Jimmy O'Dea's oblique proposal to the bespectacled barmaid in the station: "How would you like to be buried with my people?"

The first story is the most mysteriously naked, perhaps the most deeply Irish, slower in rhythm and with no action at all. Instead, it offers an inextricable mixture of dignity and longing, melancholia and good-humour, respect and bitterness, and is prodigiously acted by Cyril Cusack as the reluctant police inspector Michael Dillon, Noel Purcell as the old proud rebel moonshiner Dan O'Flaherty and Jack MacGowran in a ferret-like role, Mickey J., that recalls the one he played in The Quiet Man. Although less brilliant, it may be the purest and most serene segment of The Rising of the Moon, which Tyrone Power as the narrator introduces in quite a conscious, reflective and revealing way: "This is a story about nothing, or perhaps about everything," before showing us minutely how a very unhappy policeman walks to a nearby hamlet with a tower which is a national monument, crosses a small river in a rowboat, and calls upon the old illegal distiller, and both of them, and soon Mickey J. as well, drink while they nostalgically comment on how the old secrets, the old songs, the old art of making whiskey are being lost in a modern lifestyle (which includes radio and movies) which doesn't have the time required for the craft. It soon appears that the old moonshiner would rather go to jail than pay the fine that's been imposed on him for injuring with his cane another old man who had called him a liar. He's too proud to accept the money his old friends (and even the victim) are ready to give him, and which he does not really need (he has savings enough for that), and he feels he did what he had to, that he was justified, and is not guilty, so he will rather give himself in. "When it suits you," the policeman insists. They finally agree on Friday, and so we see old Dan leave his home on Friday morning and walk down to the jail, where Dillon is waiting to receive him.

The Rising of the Moon


Miguel Marías




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