Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Begorrah! Ah Watch The Quiet Man This Day

By Steve Evans

The Quiet Man
(1952) is the greatest film John Wayne ever made. This is neither conjecture nor is it mere opinion. It is fact.

Working with his close friend, the great director John Ford, The Duke turned in his finest performance as retired boxer Sean Thornton. Haunted by his past (he accidentally killed a man in the ring), Thornton retreats from America to his native Ireland and a quest for a quiet life in his hometown, the village of Innisfree. There, he finds a captivating crowd of eccentrics and happy Irishmen with a powerful thirst for porter and stout, telling tall tales, and living a simple existence off the land.

But Thornton’s dreams of a peaceful life unravel when he spies fiery redhead Mary Kate Danaher (the stunning Maureen O’Hara), who ignites a flame in his heart. Mary Kate is a pistol of a gal who cannot be tamed by just any man. And Sean, ever determined, cannot understand why he can’t simply take this spitfire on a date. Ah, but the proprieties must be observed at all times (this is the early 1900s after all), so the couple must be chaperoned by the town matchmaker, wee Michaleen Flynn (that great character actor Barry Fitzgerald, with Wayne, below right; whose thespian brilliance makes me think of a leprechaun come to life).

Complications rain on Innisfree when Mary Kate’s oafish brother, “Red” Will Danaher, who is the local bully and wealthiest man in town, resolves to block the courtship between his sister and Sean simply because he doesn’t like the Yank (but mainly because Sean refuses to be bullied and that galls Danaher). The tremendous Victor McLaglen plays Will Danaher to perfection with a semi-bright bluster and swagger that creates a living, breathing, utterly believable character. Will refuses to give his sister her dowry after he is tricked by some of the villagers and Parish Priest Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) into courting the widow Tillane. It was all a set-up to secure Will’s permission for Sean to court Mary Kate. In the Thornton household, Mary Kate refuses to sleep with her new husband until Sean takes the dowry from her brother. Unschooled in Irish ways, Sean cannot understand why Mary Kate rebuffs him. The money means nothing to the Yank, who finds himself in a bind because he has vowed never to fight again – and his brother-in-law can hardly wait to throw a punch.

Tensions and resentment fester until the greatest fistfight in the history of cinema erupts with a donnybrook of Homeric proportions. Sean, Will, and half the townsfolk of Innisfree duke it out across the entire county, stopping only for a glass of stout to refresh the heart and awaken their spirits before the brawl begins again.

Improbably, love and friendship prevail at the end of a happy day.

(McLaglen was a magnificent actor who died four years before I was born. In the 30 years since I first experienced The Quiet Man, I have often wished that McLaglen (at right) might still be alive so I could buy the man a beer. I imagine we would talk about the joys and mysteries of women late into the night. We would hoist another black beer, shaking hands and toasting our good health, and laughing at the ridiculous magic of being alive, telling raw jokes until our stomachs hurt, yes, and laughing some more until hot, stinging tears welled up in our eyes.)

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I thought it appropriate to devote this space to a genuine Irish classic.

John Ford may be known for his influential westerns. His star, big John Wayne, will always be remembered as a cowboy. So it’s ironic that both of them produced career-best work with this gently amusing love story set more than a century ago in Celtic lands far from the parched earth of the American southwest where Ford and Wayne made most of their pictures.

Some say the Irish milieu of The Quiet Man never existed. I say, to hell with them. The Quiet Man presents a vision of Ireland as I shall always see it in my mind’s eye: a bedazzling emerald countryside in luminous Technicolor.

The scenery, the script, the situations, the stars – everything in this film is spot-on perfect. What enthralls me the most, though, is the love story between Sean and Mary-Kate. This is the essence of what a glorious romance should be, but so sadly seldom is.

Wayne and O’Hara made their second appearance together in this film, following the contractual obligations of Rio Grande (1950), the film Ford had agreed to direct for Republic Pictures in exchange for financing The Quiet Man. Had Rio Grande been anything less than a hit, The Quiet Man might never have been made.

The Wayne-O’Hara chemistry transformed The Quiet Man into a classic. Yes, the cinematography is exquisite, the screenplay deliriously charming, and the actors – many of them Dubliners and village locals – bring an authentic texture to the film. But when we watch this great picture more than half a century later, it is the tender love story between Sean and Mary Kate that stirs our souls. Everything in the film is structured to reinforce our hope for these characters and to advance their love for each other.

From the moment Sean spies Mary-Kate in a cloverfield, it’s love at first sight. I can’t blame him. With her fiery hair and snow-white complexion, Technicolor was made for a woman like Maureen O’Hara.

The Quiet Man stands above other romance films – ’tis immortal, in fact – because the screenplay never sounds less than authentic and because director John Ford, a driven artist, insisted on shooting as much of the picture as possible on location in Ireland. This was no mere quest for authenticity, although the devoted viewer can almost smell the corned beef, red potatoes and cabbages. Fact is, Ireland could serve as another character in the film, for it is the scenery and the romanticized notion of Irish culture that informs every frame of this classic. We might smile in amusement at the sight of Irish Protestants and Catholics living together in harmony, but the movie does not pretend to show us the way life really was, but the way we long for it to be.

With its story of a great romance and the sometimes brutal obstacles that must be overcome to earn that love (what could be worse than a noxious in-law with a wicked left hook and a jaw of granite?) The Quiet Man transcends period and place to present a timeless story of romance, redemption and gently humorous revenge.

The closing scenes (with the cast enjoying a curtain call and waving farewell) make me weep with joy every time I view this film, thinking, if only life could be this way. Aye, The Quiet Man makes a man believe in hope and dreams, and to trust in the essential goodness of humanity, which is tough to come by in an age of self-absorption, avarice, greed and hate. I’ve unspooled this film faithfully on St. Patrick’s Day for 30 years. Begorrah, and I’ll watch it for another 30 years or until the day I die.

No better picture about a man’s love for a woman has been made in the 57 years since The Quiet Man offered unforgettable images of a simple life, of bonny lasses, emerald fields and ruddy-brown forests, the reassuring honesty of plain–speaking people and the enduring message of what a man can accomplish when he sticks to his principles and pursues his passion. Perhaps the secret to its success lies in the fact that this was a labor of love for director John Ford, who assembled a team of filmmakers working at the height of their creative powers.

Nearly 60 years later, The Quiet Man still has the power to sear itself into the hearts of eternal romantics and film lovers everywhere.

Count me a member of both camps.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Before I'd married my husband, he'd never seen "The Quiet Man". Now, he can quote it as if he was born into my family.

    A few years ago I sat my daughter down for her first screening. At one point she turned and asked "Are they crazy?". "No, dear, they're Irish!"

    I commend your lovely tribute.


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