The Magazine

John Ford's Ireland

Why The Quiet Man is always good

Mar 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 27 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."