The Quiet Man (1952)

I get tired of saying it—so this may even be the last time—but you can’t help but notice that The Quiet Man is one of those classic Hollywood films that couldn’t possibly be made today. I think I’d be shocked to see one you could make at this point. The (semi-) positive aspect of this, I suppose, is that, like the Korean and Chinese films that took up such a substantial portion of my pre-lockdown viewing, these classics feel fresher and bolder and more fun than they might have only a few years ago, to say nothing of more interesting in terms of their commentary on the Human Condition.

Which, ultimately, The Quiet Man is in its own beautiful, charming way. The plot is one of the simplest: Sean Thornton, an American from Pittsburgh, returns to his family’s old home in Castletown, Ireland, where he meets and immediately falls for Mary Kate Danahar whose brother, Will, he alienates by purchasing the old family farm, thus creating the barrier to his ultimate happiness with Mary Kate.

The moment when Sean first spies Mary Kate and Michaleen warns him off. Michaleen is played by Oscar-winning Barry Fitzgerald, and his character is varying degrees of drunk throughout the film.

The wrinkle is that Sean is a peaceful man, a “quiet” man, because he doesn’t fight. Will constantly offends him and Mary Kate, and Sean’s reaction is to not care. He’s an American, so he’s shocked to find that as the Danahar patriarch, Will can prevent their marriage. He’s wealthy, at least by Irish standards (though nobody seems to pick up on that), so he doesn’t understand Mary Kate’s attachment to her dowry, or the 350 pounds that Will has specifically refused to hand over.

This ultimately boils down into Mary Kate losing respect for Sean and thinking he’s a coward, at which point we learn Sean’s secret, and what he must overcome to win Mary Kate’s love.

The Flower pointed out to me, quite astutely, that the moral of the movie was that Sean had to learn to fight with love. And of course, the movie ends with one of the most extended brawls in movie history (John Carpenter having used it for inspiration for the Roddy Piper/David Keith battle in They Live) and almost certainly the most joyous. The entire village swarms around Will and Sean as they roll from hill to street to field to river, everyone drinking and cheering.

I can’t even.

The Duke’s look of shock here is genuine: O’Hara has said something truly outré, at John Ford’s prompting. The price of her saying it was that no one would ever know what she said.

The movie trucks in stereotypes, romanticization, idealization and is so heteronormative, Disney Co. is probably lobbying to have it burned, and it’s absolutely wonderful and completely inoffensive to those not looking to take offense. Much like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), it comes from a time when cultural differences were a topic of amusement, rather than a profit center for useless PhD holders.

I don’t suppose anything has to be said about six-time Oscar-winner John Ford, who won for The InformerThe Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and this film, as well as for two WWII semi-documentaries (The Battle of Midway and December 7th: The Movie) but who (I don’t think) ever went to the ceremonies. He was not even nominated for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, Mister Roberts or Fort Apache.

About our three principals, John Wayne (Oscar for True Grit), Victor McLaglen (Oscar for The Informer) and Maureen O’Hara (honorary Oscar in 2015), what can we say? They’re all too old (by at least ten years) for the parts they’re playing and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Wayne is at his Wayne-iest, but it couldn’t feel fresher than it does in this fish-out-of-water scenario. McLaglen is convincingly belligerent but somehow still likable as the antagonist.

It’s a huge cast. I mean, physically. Wayne is about 6’4″, McLaglen, 6′ 3″, Ward Bond, 6’2″. I mean, Humphrey Bogart could be in this shot and you’d never see him because the frame ends at their shins.

O’Hara is the engine that drives the picture, though, and she has the toughest role. One has no trouble believing the “meet cute”, if you can call it that, considering it’s just John Wayne driving along the road while she’s foraging or something, and she sort of flees and sort of looks back, and you know the two are instantly in love (because it’s Wayne and O’Hara!), but O’Hara has to play hard-to-get but not too hard because she’s already crazy for Wayne, and also she’s a mercurial red-head, and also an older unmarried woman—the look she shoots anyone when they call her a “spinster” is priceless—there’s more acting here than Meryl Streep has done in her entire career. But it never seems like acting.

It may have been that her pedigree as “The Pirate Queen” wasn’t strong enough to land her even a nom for this role (Shirley Booth would win for Come Back, Little Sheba, but the rest of the nominees were in movies you probably never heard of), and that just goes to show you the Oscars have always sucked, just not as hard as they have in their recent, more violent incarnation.

Not based on any previously written source material, Ford called on frequent collaborator Frank S. Nugent with a fellow named Maurice Walsh, who had some expertise in Irish matters, I think. Victor Young provides the delightful score, Technicolor the delightful color, Winton Hoch would win his third Oscar for cinematography.

In the end, this is just a joyous and fearless representation of a culture that has a sense of humor about itself (or had, at least), by people who loved it, and who didn’t have the culture cops bearing down on them. I look forward to future times and art forms where this can be true again.

John Ford, the dunce, puts WAYNE in the wet, white shirt.

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