Like most people of Irish heritage, I take great pride in my ancestors coming from The Emerald Isle. This extends to all facets of being Irish - politics (up the rebel!), watching the lads on the pitch (soccer), music (love me a reel by The Chieftains) and movies that have anything to do with Ireland, Irish people, or Irish things. Perhaps the most iconic of that bunch is John Ford's The Quiet Man. Now I know, this is a film that isn't technically Irish since it was made by an American film company (Republic Pictures) with an American director, albeit one of Irish heritage - Ford's birth name was John Feeney, and an American star, John Wayne who played Sean "Trooper Thorn" Thornton. However, The Quiet Man was filmed on location in Ireland and featured Irish extras and starred two Irish actors, the gorgeous Maureen O'Hara as Mary Kate Danaher as well as the delightfully funny Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn. As The Quiet Man celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, it seems as good as any place to start when reflecting on the many fine Irish-themed films.
The basic premise of The Quiet Man, for those who have somehow not seen it, is a familiar one in the Irish category - a man comes home to Ireland to settle where his family lived, in this instance the seaside village of Innisfree. The people of Innisfree do not exemplify the stereotype that all Irish people are welcoming and nice when Thornton first arrives until he reveals who he really is...and offers to buy everyone a drink. However, even before he gone to the pub (here, we call it Co-han), he has made an enemy in Squire Will Danaher (played by Ford veteran Victor McLaglen) as he bought his family land back from the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) much to Danaher's dismay as he wanted the land himself. Things only become more complicated after Thornton sees Mary Kate, Will's only sister, in the fields tending her sheep and he is instantly lovestruck.
When Thornton approaches Will to court Mary Kate, he is rebuffed and sent packing. Then one of the more enjoyable conceits of the film then unfolds as Flynn, Father Lonergan (played by another Ford veteran Ward Bond), Reverend Playfair (Arthur Shields) and Mrs. Playfair (Eileen Crowe) conspire to land Mary Kate in Shawn's arms. With precision they execute their plan, but unwittingly cause the new couple strife as Will's own plans to marry the Widow Tillane fall apart. Will practically begs Shawn to fight him, but Shawn refuses. Mary Kate thinks she's marries a weak man, one who won't stand up for her as Will had refused to pay Mary's inherited fortune of 350 pounds. Mary, however, doesn't know that Shawn was once "Trooper Thorn," contender for the heavyweight boxing title who quit the sport after killing a man. After she leaves town in shame, Shawn does what he feels is his right - he grabs her at the train station and literally drags her the several miles across the sprawling emerald countryside to confront her brother once and for all.
This ignites the most iconic scene of the film where Will and Thornton fight across the countryside surrounding picturesque Cong (where it was filmed), trading punch for punch, no one gaining the upper hand. They even take a break in the pub to quench their thirst before continuing. As in most Hollywood films, all is well in the end. Couples are united in the case of Will and the widow or reunited as in the case of Mary Kate and Shawn.
There's no doubt that The Quiet Man is still pleasing after all of these years. Wayne truly shines in one of his only romantic roles. I've never been a big John Wayne guy, but he fits this role quite nicely. He doesn't have as many one-liners or quippy things to say in this one, no "That'll be the day." He actually has to act, to build the character throughout the film, which is rare for him, at least in my opinion. Perhaps that's why he's so endearing, why Shawn Thornton is so likeable. He doesn't come off as the Ugly American, which is nice for a change. His American attributes sometimes shine through, though - some to his detriment as when he is unable to understand the customs of Irish courting and others to his advantage as when he defies Michaleen's authority as escort to the courtship, steals the bike and runs off with Mary Kate. But there is balance, so as not to sway him one way or another, which is a triumph of screenwriter Frank S. Nugent along with Ford and Wayne.
Maureen O'Hara just pops on screen whenever she appears. What a commanding presence. She and Elizabeth Taylor (with a more contemporary nod to Cate Blanchett and Gena Rowlands) did it best, I think. Mary Kate exemplifies everything that redheaded Irish women have been known for - strong willed, brash, quick with the tongue ("If you passed the pub as fast as you passed the chapel, you'd be better off!"), and one not to take any lip from anyone. I have a few redheads in my family, and trust me, they are not to be tangled with. She with her blazing red hair and piercing blue eyes is the perfect contrast to green hills and the perfect contrast to Shawn’s mostly laid back approach. They make a good couple for fireworks and boy do they happen in several ways. That stormy night in the Abbey ruins…
I do have to wonder what feminists think of Mary Kate and plenty of what goes on surrounding her in this film. When she smacks at Shawn when discussing the bonnet incident at the horse race and Michaleen says, “Have the good manners not to hit the man until he’s your husband and until he can hit you back,” can’t help but to evoke the age old problem in Ireland of domestic abuse. What’s more, when Shawn is literally dragging Mary Kate across the countryside, another woman says to Shawn, “Here’s a good stick to beat the lovely lady.” That line always seemed a bit shocking to me. As we all know, different things were socially acceptable at different times, and this being a period piece taking place in what is presumed to be the post-independence Ireland, which occurred in 1922 one can assume this film is a document of that time.
The real scene stealer, however, is Barry Fitzgerald’s turn as Michaleen Oge Flynn. Never shy about asking for a drop to wet his dry throat, Michaleen epitomizes the stereotype that Irishmen are drunks. This gag runs throughout the film and the characters that fill Innisfree are all hip to his game, but still they play along. Perhaps the funniest bit involving Michaleen is when he is chasing Mary Kate and Shawn after they have stolen the bicycle to get away from his overbearing gaze and adherence to the rules of courtship. As he pursues them,
his horse is so attuned to the man that it stops automatically at the pub. Thinking it a sign, Michaleen of course can’t pass up chance to tip a pint with the locals. He is a comedic counterbalance to all of the relationship tug-of-war that could easily bog this film down. Michaleen makes it fun and allows us to look forward to each scene he’s in as we don’t what to expect – the ardent follower of social custom and rules or the playful drinker. That he was not even nominated for an Oscar is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.
All this said, The Quiet Man is a uniquely playful film among Ford’s vast catalog, and one that deserves to be mentioned with his greatest films like Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath. Ford won the last of his four Oscars (the most by any director) for The Quiet Man, and rightfully so. I can’t help but to want to be at White O’ Morn, ancestral home of the Thorntons, along with these characters. That is the mark of a great storyteller and what films are all about. This film is a tribute to Ford’s patria and allows us all to have a peak into a more mirthful Ireland, a country that has been plagued with political struggle and turmoil for as along as any can remember. It was great news this past June when Olive Films confirmed that they are restoring The Quiet Man for a blu-ray release sometime in the near future preserving it for another generation of people. And keep your eyes peeled as there is supposed to be a film titled Connemara Days being made about the filming of The Quiet Man. I know it’s had some difficulties getting off the ground, but I hope it’s able to find its footing. With Brendan Gleeson on tap to play Victor McLaglen, I'm ready!
The Quiet Man
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Maurice Walsh (from a story by)
Featuring: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara and Barry Fitzgerald
Plot: A retired American boxer returns to the village where he was born in Ireland, where he finds love.