By Alan Hurst
If you watch The Quiet Man through the filter of 2019, it could easily be dismissed as being a broad and overly sentimental comedy, hopelessly dated and filled with misogynism and superficial stereotypes. But to do that, you would deprive yourself of one of the most perfect movies director John Ford ever made, as well as a heartfelt valentine to Ireland. Better to view it as the ideal period piece it is.
The Quiet Man contains my favourite John Wayne performance and it’s near the top of my favourite comedies of the 1950s. Is it a great film? I’m not sure – the characters do tend to lean toward a stereotypical representation of the Irish and the story is a little too pat – but it’s a comical gem that gifts us with an idealized look at life in an Irish town in the middle of the last century.
Wayne plays Sean Thornton, a former prize fighter who returns to his birthplace from America with the hope of buying back his homestead and settling down. Sean accidentally killed a boxing opponent before coming back to Ireland and he has vowed never to fight again. He soon encounters the town’s various comical inhabitants and he’s immediately smitten with Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher. But it’s not an easy path to romance. Sean buys back his family land, much to the annoyance of Mary Kate’s brother (Victor McLaglen) who has long wanted the land for himself. For spite, the brother refuses to hand over his sister’s dowry when she and Sean marry, and she refuses to consummate the marriage until her husband gets the money. Sean has no interest in getting the money, considering the whole thing silly Irish tradition. Eventually the entire town gets in on the action – by getting the couple together and then helping to circumvent the constraints of tradition.
The comedy here comes from leveraging the Irish reputation for bluntness and sentiment. None of these characters are afraid to speak their mind. And because they do, you find yourself smiling throughout the entire movie. It helps that Ford has assembled a dream cast of both well known and local Irish talent. Wayne and O’Hara are wonderful in the leads, but the charm of this movie is primarily due to the supporting cast.
McLaglen (in an Oscar nominated performance) is very fun as the brutish older brother – intimidating anyone and everyone who gets in his way, always talking in clichés, and carrying a bit of a torch for the town’s wealthy widow, a wonderful Mildred Natwick.
Barry Fitzgerald – a staple of many Hollywood films that required a character actor who could play twinkling Irish charm – is also a treat as the village matchmaker and bookie, as is Ward Bond (a John Ford regular) as the priest.
Ford obviously has great affection for these people and the story he’s telling. There are so many wonderful scenes in the film that it’s tough to narrow down the standouts. I guess for me the film reaches a comical peak during the inevitable and climactic fight between Wayne and McLaglen. It’s a fight that goes on for hours and miles as they battle each other across the country side, stopping for a pint at a local pub along the way as an ever-increasing crowd of villagers and neighbours come to watch.
There is an incredibly romantic scene as Wayne and O’Hara go on their first chaperoned date. They end up in the ruins of an old building at the top of a hill as the sky darkens and it starts to rain. Wayne gives O’Hara his jacket while his shirt gets drenched, they touch and then end up in a passionate embrace and kiss. No dialogue, but Ford and his actors show the growing physical and emotional connection of these two strong characters.
There’s also a very fun scene when the heavily Catholic town bands together to show a visiting Anglican Bishop that the local Anglican priest has a very sizeable congregation by lining the streets and cheering as he drives through. It’s a nice way to end the film.
I think The Quiet Man – although others may disagree – represents the best work that either Wayne or O’Hara ever did. They’re perfect together, a nice balance of fire, passion and compassion. I love the character Wayne creates – very likable, sexy, and affable but with a core of strength and obvious respect for the woman he loves, even if he doesn’t understand the customs that drive her. Mark Kate is probably the best role O’Hara ever got, a multi-faceted character that she plays perfectly. You can see she has a temper and is strong (probably needed in a family full of brothers), but you can also see her respect for tradition, her need to get what is rightfully hers, and her vulnerability.
The Quiet Man figured prominently in that year’s Oscar race with nominations for Best Supporting Actor (McLaglen), Art Direction, Sound, Screenplay and Best Picture. It won Ford his fourth Oscar for Best Director and its beautiful colour photography was honoured as well. Nominations should also have gone to Wayne and O’Hara, but no matter. Their performances weren’t as attention getting as others that year, but they have stood the test of time.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.