#4 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is one of the most delightful and effortlessly entertaining film romances. It also might be the ultimate John Ford film, bringing together almost everything that made his films his own in one package. There’s Ireland, male bonding, horse racing, and John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, along with most of his regular supporting cast like Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen. The production was apparently very hard on Ford, to the point where he was bedridden for several days during which Wayne directed some of the horse racing sequence, but the end result is just so completely charming that it’s hard to imagine that there could have been that much turmoil involved in the making.
Sean Thorton (Wayne) arrives in the small Irish town of Inisfree from America with the aim of purchasing the house in which he was born. His parents moved him to Pittsburg when he was a small child, and the house is owned by the Widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick). Guided by the local Michaeleen (Barry Fitzgerald), who seems to have no life other than tagging along with Sean, the new arrival appears at the widow’s house with cash ready to offer her for the property. The problem is that the Squire Will Danaher (McLaglen) has wanted the land for some time as well, but the widow decides to offer up the land to Sean pretty much to exclusively annoy Danaher. Danaher ends up hating Sean from the start, which wouldn’t be a huge issue if Sean wasn’t completely smitten with Danaher’s spinster, redheaded, and hot-headed sister Mary Kate (O’Hara).
Mary Kate has long since given up on marrying (having turned away more than her fair share, convinced they were only after her money), but when the handsome, tall, and somewhat brash American shows up and shows affection for her, she can’t do much but fall for him at the same time. The problem ends up being that the custom in Ireland is that, barring a father, a sister must receive permission to marry from her eldest brother, Will.
Watching The Quiet Man for the first time in a while, I kept thinking of two other Ford films that I don’t like very, Tobacco Road and How Green Was My Valley. The former was a broad comedy that relied heavily on Southern American stereotypes, and the latter was anchored by an opening that made life in the small Welsh mining town seem so saccharinely perfect. The Quiet Man relies on broad Irish stereotypes, and it also builds its story on a heavily idealized version of Ireland. However, I find that the combination ends up working incredibly well in The Quiet Man where it didn’t in the earlier films. The stereotypes are gentler and less broad while the picturesque ideal of Ireland is helpfully offset by actual conflict. Yes, Ford’s vision of Ireland is too nice, but it’s not so nice as to preclude any actual drama from the start. Sean is viewed as an outsider, though he’s welcomed, but most importantly, Will acts as an actual dramatic obstacle to overcome from the moment he’s introduced.
Will doesn’t want Sean to have the land, and he doesn’t want Sean to have Mary Kate. Something must be done, and Michaeleen concocts a scheme with Father Lonergan (Bond) and a few others to convince Will that the only reason the widow doesn’t return his affections is because Will still has an adult woman in the house, his sister. Sean is not in on this plot, but when Sean wins the horse race, snatching up the widow’s bonnet instead of Mary Kate’s, Will becomes convinced that Sean has given up on Mary Kate and is now pursuing the widow. Confronted with losing what he actually wants because of his obstinance, Will gives in, offering his acceptance of the union along with a three hundred fifty pound dowry. Discovering that it was all a ruse after the wedding, acrimony explodes and Sean refuses the dowry, dragging Mary Kate home in tears.
The first half of the film was about Sean finding his place in Inisfree. The second half is about Sean earning it. Mary Kate refuses the marriage bed because she feels like she’s unmarried without her dowry and that Sean is a coward for not fighting for the money that’s hers. He, on the other hand, has very good reasons for not wanting to get into a fight. He has a secret, having been a successful boxer with a shot at the title who killed a man in the ring, an experience that has turned him away from using his fists for any reason. The two, after their marriage, must find a way to fully belong to each other. That means that Mary Kate needs to learn the importance of the money to the marriage, and Sean needs to learn to fight for whom he loves.
This pair of character movements is carried out with the deft humanist touch that Ford had shown so effectively in films like Submarine Patrol and They Were Expendable in a war context. In 1920s Ireland, it’s reduced in scale but not effect. What Sean and Mary Kate end up doing with the money when they do get it just fills my heart with happiness. It’s the perfect place for them to end up.
And then Sean and Will fight, and it’s a rollicking fun brawl that goes across the countryside and into the town with a pause at the local pub, all while the whole town, including the visiting Protestant bishop, bets on the winner with Michaeleen trying to keep track.
Ford was never exactly in love with color photography. Like Billy Wilder, he largely preferred the artistry of black and white over the use of color, but when Ford used color, he really used it (it still makes me sad that Drums Along the Mohawk‘s original Technicolor negative is lost). The Quiet Man is marvelously green from beginning to end, visually underlining the idyllic nature of the story. Ford’s cinematographer, Winton Hoch, apparently didn’t like how green it was turning out, helping to feed Ford’s doubts of the production contemporaneously, but I love the results (and so did the Academy that awarded the film Best Color Cinematography, along with Ford’s fourth Best Director win).
Wayne himself is perfect as Sean. He carries a certain sadness and passion for his past and his wife while pairing with Victor McLaglen well in terms of size and spirit. Maureen O’Hara is wonderful as Mary Kate, spirited and quick-tempered but also able to effectively sell the change in perception she has in terms of her husband’s apparent cowardice. The supporting cast are always fun to watch, given amusing business like Ward Bond’s Father Lonergan trying to fish while also chastise Mary Kate for her failures as a wife.
This probably is the easiest film to love in Ford’s large filmography. Bright and colorful while consistently entertaining from beginning to end with delightful performances from the leads on down, The Quiet Man is old school Hollywood filmmaking at its best.