“To be quite blunt, I make pictures for money, to pay the rent. There are some great artists in the business. I am not one of them.”
- John Ford
John Ford’s directorial career ought to be taught in film schools as perhaps the foremost example of how to create movie magic of the highest order. There is an essence to Ford’s greatest masterpieces that goes well beyond the oft’ glibly referenced sense of ‘style’. And Ford himself would be the first to suggest he had none as it were, but merely felt good stories in the very depths of his heart and soul; two commodities he fought like hell to keep hidden from the public in general and his actors in particular. “He could be a mean son of gun,” Maureen O’Hara reflected in 2002, perhaps recalling the moment when Ford had the fields across which co-star, John Wayne drags her fiery Irish lass – supposedly by the hair - in The Quiet Man (1952), greased with genuine – and equally as ripe – sheep manure to make the task easier on Wayne. “But he was wonderful too; lovable, I suppose, but in a way he really didn’t like to share with too many people.” It is one of Hollywood’s minor ironies, Ford, the curmudgeonly director of so many iconic westerns, is today chiefly regarded for two films removed from that artistic milieu he helped to define - How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man. Ever since Ford was forced to sacrifice his plans to shoot How Green Was My Valley on location and in Technicolor (due to wartime restrictions) he had been searching for another vehicle to fulfill both desires.
In retrospect, The Quiet Man is the perfect anecdote for the realization of this dream; a testament actually, to Ford’s ingrained values as an Irishman, as well as an acknowledgement with sincere pride of the place where his roots began. It is also Ford’s only unabashedly quixotic movie; his affinity for the people and places recalled from his ancestral heritage, transparently embedded in the characters names; ‘Sean’ – played by Ford alumni, John Wayne (and named after Ford’s own real name) and O’Hara’s Mary-Kate, a moniker that subliminally exposes the two women Ford unequivocally loved throughout his 79 years; foremost, his wife, Mary McBride Smith, and platonically, actress, Katharine Hepburn, who had starred in Ford’s Mary of Scotland, all the way back in 1934. Bed-ridden in the months preceding his death in 1973, Ford was genuinely touched to have Hepburn pay him a visit; the two old titans, weather-beaten but sharp as tacks, regarding one another over a heartfelt conversation, at the end of which Hepburn added, “It really is grand to see you again,” and Ford, perhaps suspecting it was for the last time, suggesting, “You’ve a woman’s intuition about these things,” to which Hepburn (understanding his meaning) hesitantly replied, “Yes” before kissing Ford on the forehead and departing his company for the last time.
“How do you describe someone you really admired and loved, who had so many aggravating traits?” Maureen O’Hara would later propose in her biography, “He was an instinctive con man. It was impossible to know when to believe or disbelieve him. Everything he said or did was for effect. That is why he was so difficult to interview, because he would deliberately say the opposite of what he knew you were expecting to hear. He could be kind, gracious and gentle, with a wonderful sense of humor…but he could also be vindictive and mean. All one can do with John Ford is accept him – with all of his faults and virtues…and love him.” In reading these reflections out loud during an interview, O’Hara was to suddenly lose her composure and burst into tears over the loss. The Quiet Man is, in fact, a movie that spiritedly realizes such contradictions: romantic/dramatic and comedic, bustling with the whimsy of the blarney stone so authentically a part of Ford’s own appreciation for Ireland. Alas, getting any studio to believe in the project was an entirely different matter. Ford had shopped the story around for nearly thirty years, politely refused by virtually every major, despite the fact he had an absolutely flawless track record for producing smash hits for all of them 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 got his way in the end. And so it came to pass that Ford eventually found support for The Quiet Man from producer, Herbert Yates at Republic Pictures. The alliance, however, was not without its concessions. Yates agreed to fund The Quiet Man in trade for Ford doing another western for Republic first. That film, Rio Grande (1950) took Ford and his favorite male star, John Wayne 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 brooding on screen chemistry. 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 perfectly pitted against her ballsy vigor. “He was a very macho male,” O’Hara recalled of Wayne much later. Indeed, the actress would remain very protective of Wayne’s reputation, especially in the late sixties when the star’s ultra-conservatism branded him something of a dinosaur rife for the flogging like a piñata by the liberal left; O’Hara, making pilgrimage to the State Capital to petition Wayne for the Congressional Medal of Honor, adding, “It should simply say, ‘John Wayne – American’.” Decades later, asked by CNN’s legendary talk show host, Larry King ‘was he (Wayne) a good star?’, O’Hara still had his back, rather glibly replied, “Well, you don’t get to be the number one personality of the entire world unless you’re damn good!” Largely due to their chemistry in Rio Grande, Wayne and O’Hara’s syncopated working relationship convinced Ford to re-cast the duo again in The Quiet Man. 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 the 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 successes 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 virtually all of Ford’s demands. Clearly, Ford knew what he was doing.
The Quiet Man’s screenplay, based on a 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story by Maurice Walsh, is a charming parable about a man unwilling to sacrifice his principles, not even to prove his loyalty to the woman he loves. In expanding this wafer-thin 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 a family of thespians on The Quiet Man; real-life siblings and Ford’s extended clan augmenting the cast and crew, generating a homespun close-knit atmosphere on the set. Maureen O’Hara’s brothers and a sister had bit parts in the movie too, as did real-life brothers, Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields; respectively cast as the elfin coach master, Michaleen Oge Flynn and Reverend Cyril Playfair. The Quiet Man is essentially a romance – but one peppered in serious melodrama and justly celebrated bits of rambunctious comedy. It is a film that, quite simply, ‘feels genuine’ with progressive and repeat viewings; Ford’s multilayered vignettes, steadily advancing on a certain uncanny verisimilitude for a way of life as much left behind to the annals of history in Ford’s own time as it now seems virtually impossible to fathom ever having existed at all. There is, I think, a celebratory quality about it too – one last hurrah for the old guard, made from the inspiration of memory and with the fortitude and the intuition that the movie would outlast the creative talents who made it possible in the first place and thus, live in our hearts and minds forever.
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 ancestral home. The modest cottage is currently owned by Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick); a wealthy landowner who has thus far refused to sell the property to loud-mouthed Squire Will ‘Red’ Danagher (Victor McLaglen). Thornton is a charmer. That much is for certain. Moreover, he is handsome and broad-shouldered, though no less a stranger in these parts, met with equal portions of curious skepticism and mild curiosity from the locals. After some feckless debate as to the whereabouts of the widow, carriage driver, Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) agrees to drive Thornton to Tillane’s estate. Along the way, Thornton is bewitched by his first glimpse of Mary-Kate Danagher (Maureen O’Hara) tending her flock of sheep along a stretch of idyllic countryside. Michaeleen can see for himself that Thornton’s infatuation will lead to trouble. He spirits the young buck away and post haste to the widow’s front parlor. Although she initially refuses Thornton his request – even after she learns he is no stranger to these parts – Tillane is swayed to sell the cottage to Thornton after Danagher bursts in to demand she reconsider his bid for the property instead. Thornton outbids Will and makes an immediate enemy of him.
Learning 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 that has fallen into a delicate state of disrepair since his time. Thornton attempts to seduce Mary-Kate one windswept and 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 a courtship on his own terms. But the time-honored customs, and moreover, hushed - if hypocritical - scrutiny of the villagers, prevents their romance from blossoming. Without Will’s permission, despite her own desire to pursue the matter, Mary-Kate cannot accept Sean 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, and despite his formidable wealth, Will is not very highly regarded in the community. In fact, he is nothing more than an uncouth blowhard whose money shields 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 pass at the widow, only to discover she is still reticent to entertain his affections.
Enraged at having been duped, Will declares 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. Disoriented, Thornton suffers a flashback. 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 about Thornton’s past – being an avid fan of the sport and thus collected a scrapbook full of memories about his favorite fisticuffs champions. But 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 marital rift exponentially grows as Thornton’s patience is repeatedly tested. Michaeleen and a few of the town’s folk manage to bribe Will into relinquishing some of Mary Kate’s belongings. But Will absolutely refuses to give his sister her part of their mother’s inheritance, 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 very first since the wedding. However, 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. Now, Will decides to start a fight with Thornton. It 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 defeated, 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. Mary-Kate and Thornton reconcile, heading back to their cottage, presumably to christen their marital bed for a second time.
The Quiet Man is un-apologetically farcical in its last act; almost a negation of its rather austere beginning and lush romanticism that runs tempestuously hot and heavy during its middle act. Arguably, John Ford has allowed his heart to run away with his head – the treacle thickly spread and perhaps a tad too rich to be properly digested by some. And yet, The Quiet Man is a sheer delight – almost from its first moment to its last. Part of the film’s enduring appeal is owed to John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. We can genuinely believe in Wayne as the embodiment of this dichotomous ‘fighting/quiet’ man, capable of both kicking and kissing the girl he so desperately loves as propriety and willpower demands, while O’Hara remains the archetypal fierce Fenian, stirred to both passion and ire for her ever-lovin’ man. The other inimitable charm the film has going for it in spades is its supporting cast; a veritable potpourri of familiar faces from Ford’s stock company who bring enough of themselves to the parts as they continue to augment each other’s performances in this ensemble. One gets a very real sense of community here – a genuineness extending far beyond the lush green moors and cozy firesides 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 Ford did not 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 the ruins of a church courtyard overlooking a cemetery) reveal the obviousness of sets and rear projection, momentarily taking us out of the story.
The Quiet Man has had a disastrous history on home video. For decades, the original Technicolor elements looked more like a flubbed colorization than actual 3-strip Technicolor, while the general image quality remained disgustingly subpar – more like viewing a badly worn transmission on a TV with rabbit ears, the broadcast taking place during an exceptionally violent thunderstorm. The Quiet Man’s public domain status did not help the cause of seeing it ‘restored and remastered’. However, previous DVD incarnations, released under the now mercifully defunct ‘Artisan Home Video’ banner, have given way to yet another change of hands and a new licensing agreement, and – best of all – this newly remastered Blu-ray to mark the film’s 60th Anniversary. Ironically, we can thank Olive Films for this cause for celebration; atypical of Olive’s usual cost and corner-cutting measures, they have introduced a new ‘Signature Series’ in an ambitious attempt to up the ante of their company's reputation. The previously issued Blu-ray of The Quiet Man is considerably brighter than this reissue. But is this new edition better? Hmmm. I would argue – yes. Though there are fleeting glimpses of age-related flicker, colors are infinitely more vibrant, without appearing to have been artificially boosted, this time around; the Technicolor sparkling as it should, and, without mis-registration of the original 3-strip elements. 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 deliver startling clarity, though flesh tones frequently adopt a somewhat orange ruddy complexion. Contrast appears solid.
Olive is still using the same source from its previous 4K Blu-ray, but the technical specs are better resolved this time out; with a few caveats. The thickness evident in the earlier release, obscuring fine details, is gone here, and grain seems more natural in appearance. While a lot of the movie looks superb, there are trace scenes where DNR compression rears its ugly head; darker scenes suffering the most with occasionally ‘milky’ grays and blacks. Mercifully, there’s no untoward sharpening. The image looks very film-like. The image is also very stable, while age-related artifacts are virtually a non-issue. The pros far outweigh these minor cons in my opinion. The DTS mono audio appears identical to the previously issued Blu-ray (not a bad thing); capturing the howling winds and distant babble of a brook in all their subtle glories. Dialogue sounds natural as do effects and music – all front and center.
Where the reissue excels is in the extras. Alas, the featurettes are very brief. After the oodles of extras included on the company’s previous re-issues of High Noon and Johnny Guitar, these just seem a tad disappointing; barely totaling 36 minutes. We get a brand new audio commentary with John Ford biographer, Joseph McBride, a tribute to Maureen O'Hara, hosted by Ally Sheedy and featuring Hayley and Juliet Mills, ‘Don't You Remember It, Seánín?: John Ford's The Quiet Man’ - a visual essay by historian and Ford devotee, Tag Gallagher; ‘Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures’, ‘The Old Man: Remembering John Ford’ - an appreciation by Peter Bogdanovich, as well as the same ‘The Making of The Quiet Man’ hosted by Leonard Maltin. Cumulatively, instead of being comprehensive these extras appear as mere addendums of the cheaply produced ‘sound bite’ quality that have come to represent ‘extras’ more often than not on Blu-ray. Were that Maureen O’Hara had lived to see the day. Perhaps, it is enough to know the henna-haired beauty will never be forgotten as long as this movie – among so many others – survives. Bottom line: The Quiet Man: Signature Series on Blu-ray is recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)