John Ford’s directorial career ought to be taught as perhaps the foremost peerless example of how to create movie magic of the highest order. It is one of Hollywood’s small ironies that Ford, the curmudgeonly director of so many iconic westerns, is today chiefly regarded and admired for two films removed from this artistic milieu in a genre he helped define: How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). Ever since Ford had been forced to sacrifice plans to shoot How Green Was My Valley on location and in Technicolor (due to wartime restrictions) the director had been looking for another project to fulfill both desires. In retrospect, The Quiet Man is the perfect vehicle; its romantic/dramatic and comedic whimsy full of the blarney stone so authentically replicated in this film. However, getting a studio to believe in the project was an entirely different matter.
Ford shopped the story around but was politely refused at virtually every major studio despite the fact that he had a flawless track record for producing smash hits dating all the way back to the silent era. Ford, a caustic individualist, was nevertheless unrelenting in his quest. Those who knew Ford best also knew he usually had his way. And so it came to pass that Ford eventually found support for The Quiet Man from Herbert Yates at Republic Pictures. The alliance, however, was not without its concessions. Yates agreed to fund The Quiet Man in trade for the director doing a western for Republic first. The film, Rio Grande (1950) took Ford and his favorite star, John Wayne, once more back to familiar territory in Death Valley – becoming the last installment in what is now regarded as John Ford’s ‘cavalry trilogy’.
Ford was infinitely rewarded by the experience when Wayne and then first time co-star Maureen O’Hara generated sparks of romantic chemistry on screen. Their syncopated working relationship convinced Ford to re-cast the duo again in The Quiet Man. Indeed, viewing Rio Grande today, one is immediately struck by how well suited Wayne and O’Hara are to each other; the rugged majesty in his stoic manly grace pitted against her lush and fiery vigor.
If How Green Was My Valley represents Ford at his most lyrically sentimental, then The Quiet Man is undeniably the director at his most disarmingly quaint and humorous. Herbert Yates was acutely aware of two things: first, that Republic was a fledgling at best that could not really afford to make The Quiet Man unless Rio Grande was a big hit, and second, that hiring talent like Ford and Wayne could only enhance the reputation of his poverty row company. Ultimately, both Yates and Ford were to have their success with Rio Grande and then, The Quiet Man. Prior to the triumphant premiere of Rio Grande, Yates did attempt to convince Ford to shoot The Quiet Man in his own patented process of TruColor – infinitely cheaper than Technicolor, though hardly yielding as impress results. Ford remained steadfast in his demands. After Rio Grande’s box office tallies began to enrich Republic’s coffers, Yates gave in to Ford’s demands.
The Quiet Man’s screenplay, based on a 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story by Maurice Walsh, was a charming parable about a man unwilling to sacrifice his principles except, of course, to prove his loyalty to the woman he loves. In expanding the narrative into a two hour movie, Walsh was ably assisted by veteran scenarist Frank S. Nugent and novelist Richard Llewellyn who had written How Green Was My Valley and won the Pulitzer for it. Ford, who treasured working with time-honored friends as opposed to first time collaborators, insulated himself with familiarity on The Quiet Man. The film became something of a family affair with real life siblings and Ford’s extended family augmenting the cast and crew to create a homespun and close knit atmosphere on the set. Maureen O’Hara’s brothers and sister had bit parts in the movie, as did real life brothers Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields.
The Quiet Man is essentially a romance – but one peppered in bouts of serious drama and justly celebrated for its rambunctious comedy. We begin with the arrival of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) by train to the pastoral community of Innisfree. After a profitable stint in America, Thornton has come home to Ireland to stake his claim on his former family’s home; a modest cottage currently owned by Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick); a wealthy landowner who has thus far refused to sell to loud-mouthed Squire Will ‘Red’ Danagher (Victor McLaglen). Thornton is a charmer. That much is for certain. Moreover, he is a handsome, broad-shouldered stranger in these parts, met with equal portions of curious skepticism and mild fascination from the locals.
After some feckless debate with the locals as to the whereabouts of the widow, carriage driver Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) agrees to drive Thornton to her estate. Along the way Thornton is bewitched by the sight of Mary Kate Danagher (Maureen O’Hara) tending her sheep along a stretch of idyllic countryside. Michaeleen can see for himself that Thornton’s immediate infatuation will lead to trouble. He spirits Thornton to the widow’s parlor. Although she initially refuses Thornton his request – even after she learns that he is no stranger to these parts – Tillane is swayed to sell the cottage to him upon Will’s bursting into her parlor to demand she reconsider his bid for the property. Thornton outbids Will and makes an immediate enemy of him.
Learning that the new stranger in town has managed this minor coup Mary Kate becomes immediately intrigued and decides to surprise Thornton by helping him to fix up the cottage which has fallen into a delicate state of disrepair. Thornton attempts to seduce Mary Kate one windswept and very stormy night. Superficially, she is appalled by his cheek and slaps his face. But as the days wear on, Mary Kate inevitably changes her tune. Thornton desires to court Mary Kate on his own terms. But the time-honored customs, and moreover, hushed hypocritical scrutiny of the villagers, prevents their romance from blossoming. Without Will’s permission, Mary Kate cannot accept Thornton for her beaux.
Michaeleen has other ideas however, and encourages Rev. Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields) and Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) to play along. After all, Will is not very highly regarded in the community. In fact, he’s nothing more than an uncouth blowhard whose wealth solely dictates his self-importance as a solid citizen. Michaeleen, Playfair and Lonergan convince Will that the reason the widow has been unreceptive to his overtures – both romantic and economic - is because of Mary Kate’s presence in his house. A home can have only one mistress. Because Will harbors true affections for the widow he reluctantly agrees to Thornton and Mary Kate’s courtship and eventual marriage. Regrettably, the ruse turns sour on Mary Kate’s wedding day when Will makes an impromptu proposal to the widow, only to discover she is still reticent to entertain his affections.
Enraged at having been duped, Will declares that Mary Kate shall never have her dowry. The money means nothing to Thornton. But it remains a sense of pride for Mary Kate, who refuses to sleep in her husband’s bed until he can stand up to her brother and get back the things left to her by their late mother. Will sucker punches Thornton, revealing a flashback in Thornton’s subconscious. In his previous life in America Thornton had been a prize fighter of some repute – Trooper Thorn - who accidentally killed his opponent in the ring and thereafter retired his boxing gloves in favor of becoming ‘a quiet man’. Only Rev. Playfair knows of Thornton’s past – being an avid fan of the sport and thus having collected a scrapbook full of memories about his favorite fisticuffs champions.
Mary Kate allows pride to get the better of her, repeatedly refusing to share her husband’s bed because she has deemed his reluctance to face Will as pure cowardice. This rift steadily grows and Thornton’s patience is repeatedly tested. Michaeleen and a few of the town’s folk manage to finagle Will into relinquishing some of Mary Kate’s belongings. But Will absolutely refuses to give Kate her mother’s monetary dowry, stating that if she wants it Thornton will have to fight him for it. Despite this bitter impasse, Mary Kate is drawn to her husband’s side. The couple shares a passionate night together – their first since the wedding – but afterward Mary Kate sneaks off to the Castletown depot to catch a train bound for Dublin.
Michaeleen alerts Thornton, who has finally had enough. Forcibly retrieving his wife from her railroad car, Thornton physically drags her by the back of her neck to her brother’s farm with the whole town in hot pursuit to watch as the sparks fly. Will pays Thornton for his sister’s dowry that both Thornton and Mary Kate share a part in tossing into the fire of a nearby furnace; she thereafter suddenly proud to be his wife. But Will decides to start a fight with Thornton that quickly escalates into an all-out brawl. The town lustily cheers as the two drag and pummel each other about the rustic landscape, with Thornton eventually winning the match by knocking Will into a nearby stream. Justly beaten, Will acquires a curious admiration for Thornton. The two men return to the local tavern to clean up, drink up and shake hands. Afterward the widow and Will begin a courtship under the town’s watchful gaze and Mary Kate and Thornton reconcile, heading back to their cottage, presumably to christen their marital bed once more.
The Quiet Man is un-apologetically farcical in its final act; a near negation of its rather austere beginning and central romantic theme. Arguably, John Ford has allowed his heart to run away with his head – the sentimental treacle a tad too thick to be properly digested. And yet, The Quiet Man is a sheer delight – almost from its first moment to its last. Part of the film’s enduring appeal has to do with its central casting of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. One can genuinely believe in Wayne embodying the dichotomous ‘fighting/quiet’ man, capable of both kicking and kissing the girl as propriety demands, while O’Hara remains the archetypal fiery Irish lass, stirring both passion and ire within the heart of her man.
The other inimitable charm the film has going for it is its supporting cast; a veritable potpourri of veterans who bring enough of themselves as they continue to augment each other’s performance in the ensemble. One gets a very real sense of community within this film – a genuineness extending far beyond the lush green moors and cozy firesides that Ford lovingly evokes throughout the story. The Quiet Man was mostly filmed on location in Cong, County Mayo on the grounds of Ashford Castle. In retrospect, it is a genuine pity that Ford didn’t choose to lens all of his exteriors there, since two pivotal sequences; a horse race, and, the first romantic pas deux between Mary Kate and Thornton (set, supposedly in a ruined church courtyard overlooking a cemetery) reveal the obviousness of sets and rear projection matte work that momentarily take us out of the story.
The Quiet Man has had a disastrous tenure on DVD. For decades the original Technicolor elements have looked more like a flubbed attempt at colorization, while the general quality of the image has been disgustingly subpar – more like viewing a badly worn print from a TV with rabbit ears, the broadcast taking place during an exceptionally violent thunderstorm. The Quiet Man’s public domain status had several shoddy releases under the old Artisan banner on DVD.
But the new 60th Anniversary Blu-ray from Olive Films is cause for celebration. Although The Quiet Man still sporadically suffers from hints of age related flicker and damage, the overall results are superb beyond most expectations. Colors are at long last vibrant but not pronounced; the Technicolor sparkling as it should without mis-registration or bumped up to make it look cartoony and garish. Winton Hoch and Archie Stout’s cinematography is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The ‘wow’ factor is frequently in evidence – particularly during exterior location photography – revealing a vast amount of fine details in the flora and fauna. Close ups yield even more startling clarity in flesh, hair and fabrics. Yes, there are still inconsistencies to be had in this transfer – occasional fading and/or weaker than anticipated color saturation infrequently spread throughout this presentation. But the pros far outweigh the cons.
The DTS audio is also something of a minor revelation; mono, but capturing the howling winds and distant babble of the brook in all their subtle composure. Dialogue sounds very natural as do effects and music. Bottom line – you won’t find anything to complain about here. The one complaint I still have is in the extras. We get a ‘making of’ documentary running just under a half hour and hosted by Leonard Maltin that is at least twenty-five years old and superficially glosses over the film’s production at best. The visual quality of this featurette is just awful. There’s also a rather fascinating booklet essay provided by Joseph McBride that fills in the blanks quite nicely. Bottom line: The Quiet Man is essential John Ford: a film to be treasured over and over again. Olive’s Blu-ray reissue makes this prospect a reality for the very first time. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)