John Ford's Ireland
Why The Quiet Man is always good
Mar 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 27 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Later in his life, long after he became a cinematic legend, Orson Welles was often asked to name filmmakers who had influenced him the most. "I studied the masters," Welles liked to reply, "by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."
Welles liked to shock and no doubt relished the astonishment that followed. After all, in such films as Citizen Kane (1942) and A Touch of Evil (1959), Welles had defined himself as an often showy experimentalist with an intellectual's jaded view of American life and the human condition. And Ford, by the late 1960s, was often dismissed by film critics and scholars as a cinematic dinosaur who made far too many movies for far too long. As late as 1980, David Thomson asserted in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that only "sheer longevity made Ford a major director." Ford -- who died in 1973 at the age of seventy-eight -- was, among other tedious things, "grandiloquent and maudlin."
By the mid-1980s, however, the Ford renaissance had begun. Other prominent directors -- from Ingmar Bergman to Federico Fellini to Satyajit Ray -- had praised Ford's mastery of his medium, his pure and often poetic craft. Moreover, the best of Ford's over one hundred films -- including The Grapes of Wrath (1941), The Searchers (1957), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1963) -- were widely available on video, prompting fresh scholarly assessments of his remarkably prolific career. Scott Eyman hailed not only Ford's craftsmanship but the completeness of his vision in Print the Legend, an excellent 1999 biography. Ford, as Eyman showed, was an unusually complex and often "terrible-tempered" man who was more respected than liked. But what Ford "brought to the movies" was "a sense of the turning of the earth" and the "rhythm of life as experienced by people who have a bond with the land. Fueling this was his fascination with people."
It is especially true of The Quiet Man (1952), one of Ford's most popular films and a St. Patrick's Day staple. The Quiet Man is based loosely on "The Green Rushes," a 1932 short story by Maurice Walsh, a shamefully unsung writer from Kerry. Set in the 1920s, it stars John Wayne as Sean Thornton, a popular American prizefighter who returns to Inisfree, a fictional and picturesque town on Ireland's stunning west coast. Thornton had delivered a fatal knockout in his final pro fight and now longs to leave the past behind. Growing up in America, he'd often heard his mother describe the lush splendor of Ireland's rural west. "Inisfree," Thornton tells the locals, "is a second word for heaven to me."
Thornton wants to buy the pretty cottage that was home to "seven generations" of his family. But a local man, Red Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) also craves the property -- and when he loses the cottage to Thornton, Danaher vows revenge. The feud deepens when Thornton marries Danaher's sister, Mary Kate, a strong and rivetingly beautiful redhead memorably played by Maureen O'Hara. Danaher refuses to endorse the match, and spitefully withholds his sister's dowry.
Thornton doesn't care: He doesn't need the money and he's sick of fighting. He doesn't understand all this "fuss and grief over furniture and stuff." But Mary Kate, seething, repeatedly insists that her Yank husband confront her rough brother and, if necessary, forcibly seize the money and property that are rightfully hers. Indeed, Danaher, a celebrated bruiser, is itching for a fight. Finally, the two men slug it out in an epic brawl that, in true Hollywood fashion, leaves them fast friends. And so, as The Quiet Man ends, all's right with Thornton's world. He's gained a beautiful wife, a pretty little cottage, and the enviable prospect of a peaceful life lived close to the land.
And yet, in Ireland, The Quiet Man stirred controversy. Some reviewers complained that the film relied too heavily on stereotypical characters and also trivialized the country's customs and traditions. Mary Kate's obsession with her dowry was not only woefully anachronistic, but furthered the notion that money inevitably prompts the Irish into comic displays of stinginess or greed. Other critics objected to the brutish manner with which Thornton sometimes assumed his husbandly role. In one particularly contested scene, Thornton drags his recalcitrant wife through a rough field and is cheered by neighbors who, it appears, find inexhaustible delight in violent scenes. One of them even offers Thornton a stick "to beat the lovely lady."
Ford certainly took liberties with Walsh's story, which offers no overdrawn characters and scant comic relief. Its title character, Paddy Bawn Enright, is "slightly under middle height" and a far cry from the heavy-weight Wayne. Paddy, moreover, takes part in Ireland's civil war, joining the IRA to "fight against the terrible thing that England stood for in Ireland -- the subjugation of the soul." In Ford's film politics are rarely mentioned, most notably when Michaleen Oge Flynn -- a supporting character played by Barry Fitzgerald -- observes in passing that "It's nice soft night, so I think I'll join me comrades and talk a little treason."
Born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney in 1895, Ford -- the thirteenth child of Irish immigrants -- was keenly interested in Irish politics, and supported its fight for independence. In fact, he'd treated the subject before, far more somberly, in The Informer, a 1935 film based on Liam O'Flaherty's novel. But he didn't want politics to dampen the buoyant mood of The Quiet Man, which took him fifteen years to put on the screen. Hollywood's major studios had balked at the project, convinced that moviegoers would never buy the idea of Wayne sauntering about in the land of shamrocks and leprechauns. Ford finally sold the idea to Republic, a "B" movie factory. In return, Ford had to promise Republic one of his trademark westerns, Rio Grande, a 1951 vehicle for Wayne and O'Hara that, despite solid virtues, is largely forgotten today. The Quiet Man, however, proved the most profitable film in Republic's history and won Oscars for both direction and cinematography.
In some ways The Quiet Man is a western. Inisfree, after all, is a one-saloon cow town much enlivened by the arrival of Thornton, a strapping stranger with a mysterious past. Though reared in Pittsburgh, Thornton is so skilled on horseback that he gallops to first place in the grand Inisfree Race. At one point Thornton barks at Flynn, his comical sidekick: "Saddle up my horse!" The much anticipated brawl with Danaher provides The Quiet Man with its dramatic finale -- just as so many westerns build up to the big gun fight at high noon.
The Quiet Man features other improbabilities. In one scene, Thornton asks Mary Kate whether she can ride a bike, even though he had watched her ride only minutes before. Thornton smokes like a chimney throughout the movie and flicks lit butts about with the swaggering abandon of a man who has forgotten that his own house is covered with thatch.
But such quirks don't bother the film's growing number of fans. The Quiet Man is one of the best-selling videos of all time, and its sales are steady in Ireland and Britain as well as the United States. For years, fans of the film have come to Cong, the quaint village in County Mayo where most of The Quiet Man was filmed. Cong's residents have encouraged such pilgrims by preserving their village in much the same state as the film's cast and crew found it some fifty years ago. Thus tourists can still see many of the shops and homes that are featured in The Quiet Man; they can book rooms at Ashford Castle, where Ford and Wayne stayed, and where The Quiet Man is still shown daily.
What accounts for the film's continuing allure? There is, for starters, the inspired combination of O'Hara and Wayne, whose characters are wholly comfortable with themselves, their social roles, and their attraction for each other, which is displayed in several elegantly and memorably sensuous scenes. Such characters aren't common in contemporary movies, and the world they inhabit is harder than ever to find. Ireland retains ample charms. But it's also fast becoming another secularized, high-tech Euro state filled with Ikea stores and sushi bars.
Indeed, in many ways, Ireland is the real star of The Quiet Man. With the help of his cinematographer, Winton Hoch, Ford movingly amplifies the impossible beauty of its landscape. The Quiet Man is, quite simply, one of the most perfectly composed movies ever made. It's lyrical in the best sense of the word: inspired and passionate at every turn. Ford, as the actor Rod Taylor once observed, "could look at a thing and compose it as well as Cezanne." He "was a wonderfully fluid painter."
It's no wonder, then, that such a diverse group of directors were struck by the lavishness of Ford's gifts. The French director Francois Truffaut, for example, shared few of Ford's values; and, as a young film critic in the 1950s, had openly mocked the patriotism and sentimentality frankly displayed in much of Ford's work. But even Truffaut succumbed to the old master's power and the appeal of the movie that so many of us watch, yet again, around St. Patrick's Day. "I had to become a director and turn on the TV to find The Quiet Man," Truffaut wrote, "before I could measure my blindness."
Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.