The Quiet Man (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt
Produced by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper; directed by John Ford; screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, from the story by Maurice Walsh; photographed by Winton C. Hoch; art direction by Frank Hotaling; edited by Jack Murray; music by Victor Young; starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford, Eileen Crowe, May Craig, Arthur Shields, Charles fitzSimons, James Lilburn, Sean McGlory, Jack McGowran, Joseph O’Dea, Eric Gorman, Kevin Lawless, and Paddy O’Donnell. Blu-ray, 129 min., 1952. An Olive Films release.
By 1942, John Ford had won three Academy Awards for best director—the pictures were The Informer (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941)—and earned a fourth nomination with Stagecoach (1939). In any rational film industry, a filmmaker with that track record should have been able to sail a long-contemplated dream project straight into production with any studio around. Hollywood being a famously illogical place, however, Ford had to wait no fewer than fifteen years to get The Quiet Man before the cameras. The result was an immediate hit, becoming one of the year’s ten highest-grossing pictures and winning a fourth best-director Oscar for Ford, as well as a fourth cinematography Oscar for Winton C. Hoch, and a still-unique Oscar for Archie Stout, the second-unit cinematographer. Their labors can now be appreciated on a meticulously rendered Blu-ray from Olive Signature editions.
The hero is Sean Thornton (John Wayne), an Irish-American prizefighter who moves back to his Irish birthplace to reconnect with his roots. He also wants to leave behind his American memories, which include the hardships of growing up near steel-mill furnaces “so hot [they make] a man forget his fear of hell” and—as we discover much later—a tragedy in the boxing ring, where his merciless will to win caused an opponent’s death. Still traumatized by this, he speaks of it to nobody, although the town’s sole Protestant minister (and foremost boxing fan) eventually figures it out.
No sooner does Sean arrive than he spots Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), a lovely, lively lass who falls for him as immediately as he falls for her. Complications ensue when a real-estate squabble pits Sean against Mary Kate’s brother, Red Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who then withholds the money and furniture that constitute her dowry. The dowry means nothing to Sean, but to Mary Kate it represents dignity, self-respect, and the centrality of tradition in the way of life her family has always known. Everyone expects the conflict to be resolved in a face-off between Sean and Red, but Sean demurs, so haunted by his prizefighting past that he can neither fight Red nor reveal the reason why. Mary Kate moves in with him but the marriage stays unconsecrated and unconsummated until—no surprise here—some crafty romantic scheming sparks an uproarious donnybrook that settles the hash of everyone in town.
The plot of The Quiet Man originated with a 1933 magazine story and 1936 novel by Maurice Walsh, both about an Irish prizefighter who returns to his hometown and gets into a brouhaha over a dowry with his bride’s older brother. The story worked predictable magic on Ford, who’d been born and bred in Maine but was endlessly nostalgic for the old sod, thanks to the tales he’d heard from his Irish-émigré parents. His pitches for The Quiet Man didn’t interest studios in the Thirties, when he wasn’t yet a Hollywood kingpin and the subject seemed out of synch with a world spiraling from the Great Depression to World War II, and studios remained cool after the war, perhaps leery about portraying a hero abandoning America at a time when Cold War chauvinism was ascendant.
Which is why Ford’s pet production ended up at Republic Pictures, a down-market studio better known for B Westerns than for romantic comedy-dramas by Oscar laureates. Yet while it’s easy to scoff at Republic’s history of low-budget programmers, some fascinating cinema had been released under its banner in the Forties, from Anthony Mann’s marvelously eccentric The Great Flamarion (1945) to Frank Borzage’s sadly overlooked Moonrise, and Orson Welles’s towering Macbeth, released on the same day in October 1948. Republic had experienced an uptick in quality when president Herbert J. Yates decided an occasional prestige production might raise the studio’s status and even turn a profit, provided filmmakers stuck to tight budgetary and scheduling parameters. Yates was suspicious of The Quiet Man, which sounded to him like a European-type art movie, so he induced Ford to make a Western with John Wayne—the star of some two dozen Republic Westerns already—before embarking on the Irish picture, also a Wayne vehicle.
The Western turned out to be the 1950 classic Rio Grande, the third installment in Ford’s so-called cavalry trilogy, and Ford moved to The Quiet Man with a bargaining position strong enough to get Yates’s go-ahead for expensive location shooting in Ireland with Technicolor equipment, dodging the low-grade Trucolor process that Yates and Republic owned. In crafting the screenplay, Ford and Frank S. Nugent downplayed the Irish Republican Army politics that figured prominently in Walsh’s novel, but kept enough IRA undertones to give the movie a subtly subversive edge, as when the leprechaun-like factotum Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) bids a pleasant good evening to Sean by saying, with a twinkly tone and an impish smile, “It’s a nice soft night, so I think I’ll go and join me comrades and talk a little treason.”
Like countless others over the years, I find this irresistible. But also like countless others, I recognize that twinkly tones, impish smiles, and other stock ingredients are big problems in an Ireland-set movie abounding with fiery redheads, fatherly clerics, patriarchal values, sentimentality you could cut with a butter knife, and a cast of secondary characters that leaves no stereotype untouched. Charges of ethnic stereotyping and retrograde gender politics have dogged The Quiet Man since its release, starting with objections by Irish nationals when it premiered. As critic and Ford biographer Joseph McBride observes in his informative audio commentary, too many films of that era portrayed Ireland as poor, backward, and old-fashioned, and such condescension rankled all the more at a time when recent and current troubles did make many Irish feel truly vulnerable. This said, however, the stereotyping is not actually as bad as the severest critics claim; there’s some movie-style Irish drinking, for instance, but as McBride points out, apart from Michaleen’s steady tippling and the booze-fueled climactic free-for-all, alcohol plays a fairly minor role. Ditto for various other matters, such as the fatherly clerics and idealized landscapes, which are no more irksome than the clichés of a zillion other Hollywood products.
The film’s gender attitudes are a more serious matter, and I won’t go to the mat on Ford’s behalf, although I have a lot more trouble sitting through the degradation of the Native-American woman Look in The Searchers (1956) than watching Sean toss Mary Kate onto their still-virginal marriage bed in The Quiet Man. In this area McBride again puts things in perspective, noting that when Sean literally drags Mary Kate toward the climactic fracas and the wedding that follows, the display of raw machismo is tempered by our knowledge that Mary Kate has engineered this outcome through a clever trick on Sean, motivated far more by demands of custom and tradition than by his knockabout male dominance.
In a thoughtful video essay, critic Tag Gallagher links these matters to the enduring human tensions that Ford habitually explored without pretending to resolve beyond meeting the requirements of a reasonably neat Hollywood ending. In his pictures, Gallagher says, virtue can breed evil, custom can spawn abuse, and in some cases “tradition, however sacramental, ripens into intolerance, rips apart families.” To expose this is not to exploit or indulge it. And let’s not forget the marvel of O’Hara’s performance, which transcends fiery-redhead cliché to become what Gallagher calls it, quoting Adrian Frazer’s assessment: a portrayal that was “revolutionary for Ireland” by presenting a “thoroughgoing characterization of the Irish woman as a fully adult, pleasure-loving person.”
All told, the complaints and controversies surrounding The Quiet Man quite fail to diminish it, and most of the Olive Signature extras—a reminiscence by Peter Bogdanovich, a making-of retrospective by Leonard Maltin, a video tribute to O’Hara, a short documentary about Republic’s involvement with the film—don’t so much as mention them. The film is a fairy tale from start to finish, impossible to mistake for anything like reality. What ultimately counts most is its glorious imagery, some of it intensely radiant, some carrying what Manny Farber called “the sunless, remembered look of a surrealist painting.” Gallagher captures a key to its brilliance when he describes Mary Kate and Sean exchanging their initial glances through a row of trees, suggesting that “this first sight…is already a memory across time.” Memory is often the beating heart of Ford’s cinema, this film very much included. The Quiet Man isn’t legendary like The Searchers or profound like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) or unjustly neglected like Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958), but it’s arguably the most unforgettable of them all.
David Sterritt served two terms as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle and chaired the National Society of Film Critics from 2005 to 2015.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2