John Ford's Ireland
Why The Quiet Man is always good
Mar 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 27 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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."