THE QUIET MAN (1952)

  • Director: John Ford
  • Writers: Frank S. Nugent, based on the short story by Maurice Walsh
  • Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields, and Eileen Crowe
  • Accolades: 2 Oscars (Best Director – John Ford, Best Cinematography), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor – Victor McLaglen, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

Fairly early on in The Quiet Man, Rev. Playfair’s wife (Eileen Crowe) says to Sean Thornton (John Wayne), about the color of his cottage door, that “only an American would have thought of emerald green.” I think that only an American would have thought of this movie. It one of those movies where its best and worst qualities are the same. It is the ultimate apotheosis of harmless Irish rural quaintness, mostly made by a bunch of Irish-Americans. For better or worse, this is Ireland as a very friendly theme park.

This would normally be where I would spend some time describing the plot of this movie, but I’m not sure that is something that works particularly well with this movie. Sean moves back to Innisfree, the West Irish village where he was born. He sees a beautiful red-haired lass (Maureen O’Hara). Her brother (Victor McLaglen) is sort of a lout, who at first stands in the way but is eventually talked into things, except he then changes his mind back and refuses to give his sister her dowry. It turns out that Sean was a boxer who killed a man in the ring and has vowed never to fight again, but after his wife tries to leave on at rain because she’s “ashamed” of him, he does in fact have a big fist fight with her brother that solves all the problems in the movie.

The Quiet Man was a passion project for the great American director of his era, John Ford. He is perhaps most famous for his great vistas of Monument Valley and the American West. Here he makes the stark greenness of the Irish countryside, complete with seemingly endless walls made out of ancient stones, seem somehow the same sort of thing as the southwestern desert. When he’s contrasting the small size of the characters versus the vastness of their environment, this movie works for me. I am also just as susceptible to your general Irish charms as the next man, and I definitely laughed at many of the bits of this movie that are supposed to be sunny. I can also see a viewer wildly overdosing on the kitsch and quaintness on display here, and I wouldn’t blame them.

I do have to confess that I actively don’t get the central romantic relationship of this movie. O’Hara’s Mary Kay is clearly into John Wayne’s handsome American, but she is constantly getting angry with him. He is immediately interested in her, but at the same time somehow distant. At one point, after their marriage, she goes to the village priest (Ward Bond, doing an Irish accent whose authenticity I cannot vouch for) and confides in him details of their relationship so intimate that she can only tell him in Irish Gaelic. His animated response: “We may be a poor country, but in Ireland a man sleeps in a bed and not a sleeping bag!” Were they not… sleeping together? Why not? I am flummoxed.

At the movie’s climax, she suddenly gets on a train to Dublin because she “loves him too much to continue to live with him when he makes her ashamed,” which means she wants him to fight her brother to avenge various insults. He has been avoiding this because he killed that guy in the ring back in the US and vowed not to fight anymore. But her getting on the train is the needed impetus: he goes to the train station, physically hauls her off and back towards the town, dragging her by the arm. She seems to be… into this? The whole town turns out to watch this, knowing there will be a fight. One old lady gives him a tree branch, crying, “Sir! Sir! Here’s a good stick, to beat the lovely lady!” He refrains, but one point she randomly takes a swing at him and he literally gives her a big old kick in the ass. This is played for comedy. Then when he arrives to fight her brother, she seems satisfied in more ways than one, and announces that she will head home and cook him supper. He shoots her a look as she retreats over the hill, suggesting he hates to watch her go but loves to watch her leave.

I recount these events not in some attempt to jab at the dated sexual mores of this movie, but more in an attempt to work out what I actually think about them. Again, the central relationship of this movie confounds me. O’Hara plays Mary Kay as your basic fiery redhead, though she is also scared by thunder enough to kiss John Wayne in a graveyard in the pouring rain. With the shirts of the parties reduced to near-see-through levels, this sequence is probably the closest any mainstream 1952 movie would get to a sex scene. Despite having been born there, Wayne’s character is consistently somewhere between confounded by the local customs and actively rebellious against them throughout. Yet he says that the town is the “closest to heaven” that he’ll ever get. Nor is he, despite the title, particularly quiet, except in the sense that he can’t seem to have a straight conversation with his own wife.

In the end, though, how much you’ll enjoy The Quiet Man seems almost entirely dependent on your tolerance of the stereotypical Irishness on display from the very opening scene, in which Wayne asks a train attendant the way to Innisfree and is given a lengthy spiel starting with “You see that road there? Well don’t take that one, that road’ll do you no good at all.” Some of the accents are so thick, even for an American relatively used to them, that I honestly don’t know how most Americans understood portions of this movie without subtitles. Perhaps thickest of all is Barry Fitzgerald, an actual local, who had won an Oscar eight years earlier for Going My Way. His performance of local jack-of-all-trades and matchmaker Michaeleen “Oge” Flynn is the most stereotypically Irish thing you see in this film festival, probably, and tomorrow’s movie has leprechauns. I kind of think it might be racist against Irish people, but I will leave that judgment to you. I’m going to leave a scene with him and Maureen O’Hara here for you to get more of a handle on what awaits you in this movie.

2 thoughts on “THE QUIET MAN (1952)

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