Blog Directory CineVerse: Climb aboard Ford's Irish fantasy wagon

Climb aboard Ford's Irish fantasy wagon

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

John Ford’s love letter to the Ireland of his fantasies, The Quiet Man still dazzles today with its array of loveable characters, chromatic visual brilliance, and nostalgia for a quaint yesteryear and simpler times. And while its gender dynamics can evoke debate in 2022, the film can also consistently induce smiles and laughs. Now seven decades since its theatrical release, it’s a fitting time to dissect this shamrock showpiece (which was also featured in last month’s episode of the Cineversary podcast, available here).

Why is The Quiet Man worth celebrating 70 years on? In what ways has it stood the test of time, and how does it still matter?

  • Arguably, this feature is to Irish-Americans what a movie like Moonstruck is to Italian-Americans: A romantic comedy that reinforces some unfortunate tropes and exaggerations about a particular ethnic group but which remains beloved by many in that culture. It endures as probably the favorite movie among Irish-Americans as well as the most beloved film by Ford among his fans around the world.
  • But you don’t need to be Irish to adore this film. Viewers of any race or background can relish its story, characters, and entertainment value.
  • It still matters because, more than any other motion picture, The Quiet Man has boosted Irish tourism and interest in vacationing in Ireland since its release. Ford created an iconography that most people who have never visited the Emerald Isle imagine when they think of Ireland, thanks in part to the choice to shoot in glorious Technicolor.
    • Consider, too, that The Quiet Man is one of the first and only Hollywood movies that feature spoken native Irish language.
  • It has stood the test of time because The Quiet Man is flawlessly cast, boasting a roster that includes many Irish-American actors, most notably John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in parts they seem born to play; the pair create palpable sexual tension, romantic chemistry, and a plausible power struggle, thanks in large part to O’Hara’s pluck, verve, and ability to match or exceed Wayne’s powerful presence. The production is also graced by many other Irish thespians, such as Barry Fitzgerald as Michaeleen, Victor McLaglen as Red Will Danaher, Ward Bond as the priest, Arthur Shields, and even Ford’s brother Francis.
  • Debatably, this film has one of the most memorable kisses in classic movie history, as captured in the scene where Sean grabs Mary Kate’s wrist and swings her to him for a passionate embrace.
  • The Quiet Man has also stood the test of time because of its consistent repeat showings on and around St. Patrick’s Day for decades.

How was The Quiet Man a deviation from previous John Ford films, and what distinctive qualities does Ford bring to the picture?

  • This film is much more romantic, comedic, sentimental, and erotically charged than Ford’s previous works.
  • Ford isn’t afraid to push the envelope here sexually. Consider how he has Mary Kate and Father Lonergan speak in Gaelic to disguise the frank dialogue they are having about her married sex life, or when Michaeleen assumes the newlyweds broke their bed in a fit of lusty fervor, or the famous final shot where Mary Kate whispers something presumably naughty in Sean’s ears, causing them to rush back to their cottage.
  • Ford was given a rare and privileged opportunity for a director in this era: He was allowed to shoot overseas on location and in Technicolor, no less, which greatly enhanced the visuals and authenticity of the picture.

How is John Wayne’s character and performance different from his other movies?

  • We expect the type of dominating, strong, wisecracking, rugged, and cynical character that we’ve seen him play in other films, particularly westerns like The Searchers, Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Instead, he shows shades of quietude, reserved tenderness, politeness, and wistfulness.
  • Although we ultimately get the bare-knuckle manliness and macho swagger we expect from a Wayne character by the last act of the story, most of the Sean Thornton we see is a happy-go-lucky sort who fancies a simple life of peace in a bucolic setting—a man who refuses to fight to get what he wants, even though he could easily throw his weight around if he so chose.
  • We don’t think of Wayne as an Irish-American actor before The Quiet Man; but with his Northern Irish roots and chiseled Celtic facial profile, he fits perfectly in with this assemblage of Irish-American talent. Thankfully, because Thornton immigrates from America, Wayne didn’t have to employ an Irish accent, which he may not have been able to pull off consistently.

Did The Quiet Man influence any later films or filmmakers?

  • Martin Scorsese cited The Quiet Man as an influence when creating boxing sequences for Raging Bull.
  • Steven Spielberg pays homage to the movie by having E.T. watch the windy kissing sequence on television in that 1982 film.
  • The scenes depicting Ireland in Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! were reportedly inspired by The Quiet Man.
  • Three modern movies that seem to riff on themes and situations in The Quiet Man are Lootera and Before Snowfall, both from 2013, and the critically derided Wild Mountain Thyme, released in 2020.

The Quiet Man was not intended to be a realistic depiction of Ireland in the early 1950s. In what ways is it more like an Irish tall tale, folk story, or fable?

  • It’s as synthetic and artificial as Ford’s idealized American west in his western films.
  • This was intended as Ford’s homage to what he imagined as a happier, simpler time in the life of his ancestors.
  • Many of the supporting characters are stereotypical caricatures: the fight-happy brute, the leprechaun-like imp, the quirky old man, the alcohol-swigging bar patrons, etc.
    • Ford biographer and film historian Joseph McBride wrote: “There is a level on which many of the characters are stereotypes, but most of them are also aware they’re stereotypes and they have fun with it. They’re ironic about their social roles, and so was Ford.”
  • The romantic scenes are highly charged and influence the surroundings — a storm pops up out of nowhere seemingly in response to Sean and Mary Kate’s passion and torrid feelings.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Carson Lund wrote: “The Quiet Man’s most evocative scenes center on (the) correlation between primal desire and the grandeur of the landscape…Sean embraces Mary Kate in the threshold of a doorway rattled open by a powerful gust, and in a conflict-cleansing brawl in the film’s final act, rivers are fallen into, haystacks are churned up, and bright green grass is tugged from the ground. Implicit in all this is the notion of the land as a dynamic presence in these characters’ lives—not simply ground on which to settle, but a force to be reckoned with, a place where habitation must be earned.”

America and Ireland are two opposing worlds to Sean. What does each country represent to him, and why is it important for viewers to understand these distinctions?

  • The United States represents the land of modern romantic love and contemporary amore; recall how Sean says “Back in the States, I'd drive up, honk the horn, the gal'd come runnin.’”
  • Ireland, in contrast, emphasizes traditional marriage customs and Old World values, where concepts like a dowry, a family’s blessing, and earned honor were important.
  • Ireland and Innisfree also signify a kind of ethereal fantasyland to Sean, who soon learns that these are illusions that clash with the reality of his experience in the land of his ancestors. This is also the realm of quaint or antiquated technology like the horse and buggy, which contrasts with the train that deposits Sean at the beginning of the story.
  • To be clear, Innisfree exudes the positive spirit of a cohesive community. There is a rich tapestry of music flavored by popular Irish songs, and the townspeople are relatively congenial, pleasant, and welcoming. But, the film becomes a comedy of manners as Sean is conflicted by the social mores and time-honored rituals of Irish courting. The mystery of Innisfree to Sean is summed up in the question: How can his undeniable romantic passion be halted by mere tradition or custom (as exemplified by Red Will’s refusal to let his sister marry him)? Not until Sean can look upon Mary Kate with Irish eyes instead of American eyes will their relationship progress.

What elements from Shakespeare, classic literature, or mythology are present in The Quiet Man?

  • The story was inspired by a Celtic myth about an epic war between two kingly deities who fought every year for the love of a goddess queen.
  • The plot is somewhat similar to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the setting has been described as loosely comparable to the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and critics have compared this film’s humor to the Bard’s magical comedies, such as A Winter’s Tale.
  • The name “Innisfree” is derived from “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats; it immediately evokes a poetic, imaginative fancy.
  • In the documentary Dreaming the Quiet Man, it’s remarked that Sean has to undergo Herculean-like trials to claim the girl he loves.

What themes, messages, morals, and symbols are explored in The Quiet Man?

  • A clash of Old World vs. New World cultures. In an interview, Martin Scorsese said you need to “understand the nature of tribal life” and what it means to be in a clan to comprehend the behavior of the characters in this film.
  • Healing and redemption. It’s called The Quiet Man partially because Sean doesn’t want to talk about the tragic troubles in America that brought him to Ireland and because he refuses to fight Danaher. Sean must overcome his fear of fighting and possibly killing someone else. To do this, he must stop assuming Mary Kate is driven by materialistic motivations and finally embrace the Irish customs he has resisted.
  • Power and equality. Sean and Mary Kate each want to be seen as equals by the other. Stanford professor Ruth O’Hara said in an interview: “I think a significant theme of the movie is power and who has power. It’s about power in the ring, about power within the relationship of Sean and Mary Kate, power within the relationship of Mary Kate and her brother, the relationship of power with land and power with money.”
  • Being accepted by and acclimating to a new culture and society as an outsider.
  • Nostalgia for an imagined or idealized past. Sean was born in Innisfree but lived most of his life in America. Now, he wants to return to the idyllic land of his birthplace, a place he calls “heaven.” But while the land’s natural beauty seems to meet his expectations, Thornton isn’t prepared for the culture shock he will experience after meeting some of the townsfolk and learning of their customs and traditions.
  • “The importance of family and community, the sense of exile, the tension between compulsive wandering and the need for home, and the melancholy sense of the transient nature of human existence and worldly institutions,” as posited by Joseph McBride.
  • Colors seem to play a thematic role in this story. Green and red perhaps symbolize carnal passion, while blues possibly represent tradition, protocol, and customs.
    • Alternate Ending blogger Tim Brayton wrote: “Blue is the color of domestic interiors, blue is the color of siblings Mary Kate Danaher and “Red” Will Danaher…Blue is the color of sense, contrasted with the outside and green…What’s the most distinctive, high-impact moment of blue in this whole movie? It’s the moment when Sean first spots Mary Kate, tending her brother’s sheep…She’s still in blue, and she’s an aberrant element in that green, yellow, white landscape – in this shot, even the sky is yellow, to make O’Hara pop out all the more. She’s eye-catching and special, but the colors mark her out as a disruption as much as an enticement…blue is what Sean wants, but blue is also all the things he isn’t; blue is the things he didn’t come to Ireland for (peace, calm, the land). And the rest of the film will find him moving towards and away from blue, trying to find the way to fit it in with his own more neutral color palette. Blue eventually wins, of course; the hearth and home always win in Ford.”

Is this film too problematic or dated in its gender politics to be relevant or appreciated by modern audiences? How can you convince younger viewers to give it a chance?

  • On one hand, Mary Kate stands up to men both verbally and physically. She doesn’t act subserviently to Sean. We see her slap his face, take swings at him, and scold Sean. Mary Kate also goes toe to toe with her brother during arguments, throwing a rag in his face, for example. Recall, also, how Sean lets her drive the horse and buggy, further suggesting that she’s a strong woman worthy of respect in a world dominated by men.
  • Additionally, she appears to be a sexually empowered female. She refuses Sean his assumed conjugal rights, and it’s suggested in the final shot that she whispers something adult in Sean’s ear that prompts him to follow her into the house—perhaps into the bedroom. Mary Kate is playful and adventurous, as proven when she takes off her stockings and runs through the water. In the two kissing scenes between Sean and Mary Kate, Sean instigates the first kiss, but she initiates the second kiss. Their marriage can be viewed as an equal partnership in that her insistence on the dowry and refusal to grant intimacy gives her power. Sean kicks in the bedroom door she locks, but unlike Gone With the Wind, where Rhett has his way with a nonconsensual Scarlett, he spends the night in his sleeping bag.
  • On the other hand, she allows herself to be dragged by Sean in a visibly humiliating way (even though she has orchestrated this entire charade and wants Sean to exert his caveman-like dominance in public and fight her brother). We see Sean spank her as she walks away. Like other Irish women at this time, Mary Kate also requires her family’s blessing and her dowry for the marriage to proceed on customary terms according to tradition. Recall, too, how a woman in the crowd says to Sean, “Here's a good stick to beat the lovely lady.” And Father Lonergan ostensibly chastises Mary Kate for not fulfilling her wifely duties in the bedroom.
  • The broken bed scene and the extended fight scene are symbolic of Sean trying to reclaim his honor. They are meant to be scenes of triumph and humor, but today can be viewed as a man dominating or abusing his wife.
  • The public dragging sequence is rough for some to swallow today. But ponder that it is depicted comically, and note how polite the gathering crowd is to both Mary Kate and Sean.
  • Bear in mind that The Quiet Man is loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew, a story which thematically boils down to a man, Petruchio, "taming" a violent-tempered woman, Katherine, and coercing her into the traditionally compliant and dutiful role of a wife. As in the play, Mary Kate eventually submits to patriarchal forces, although this has much more to do with Irish mores and conventions of the early 20th century.
    • Rutgers University professor William C. Dowling wrote: “Mary Kate is, like Shakespeare's Kate, a barely-controlled elemental force, and a central question posed by The Quiet Man is why she then chooses to submit herself to custom or tradition. The Quiet Man will resolve this problem by giving primary importance to a relation between marriage and property that was a survival from early or pre-Christian Irish law…So long as Mary Kate has married a husband in "American" terms--that is to say, as a union of two isolated or unattached persons operating in a social void--she will remain a woman in exile from her own community, an unintegrated figure cut off from communal life and values. She will also remain, in terms of ancient Irish law and custom, an unequal partner in her own marriage…The villagers of Innisfree understand, as does Mary Kate Danaher herself, that the dragging scene is not some gratuitous display of male violence, but a ritual of community meant to put right the violated kinship relations that Sean Thornton, with his American understanding of property and marriage, has until this moment utterly failed to grasp… The donnybrook sequence expresses in nearly pure terms a standard theme in Ford's films, the idea that the communal energies released in innocent or ludic violence have a power to redeem community, purging old antagonisms and widening the circle of social acceptance to include even those previously banished to or left on the outside…Their marriage can be made "real" within its community only through a cleansing ritual of innocent or ludic violence.”
  • While it’s difficult for modern audiences to watch her rough handling by Sean—being dragged, pushed, kicked, and manhandled—isn’t she secretly delighted that he’s exerting what she sees as his manly authority here? Isn’t she actually proud that he’s demonstrating very publicly to the townspeople that he’s a man who won’t be bullied by his wife or his brother-in-law?

What is The Quiet Man’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Perhaps this film’s greatest gift is its ability to evoke a sense of mystique, wonder, reverence, and longing for Ireland—a country that many American viewers may have not visited but likely want to after screening The Quiet Man. Granted, this is a fairytale vision of the Emerald Isle that can resurrect groan-inducing stereotypes and endorse a dated vision of gender politics that is no longer tolerated by contemporary audiences. Yes, the film has problematic scenes and personalities that exude a toxic brand of masculinity in the 21st Century. But put in a proper historical and cinematic context, and considering how empowered the character of Mary Kate truly is in this tale, The Quiet Man’s worthy virtues, captivating characters, and entertaining attributes arguably outshine these and other outmoded elements. And possibly its finest facet is its intrinsic Irishness: the fact that it was proudly made by Irish artists, was shot on location primarily in Ireland, and boasts a soundtrack filled with a wide assortment of Irish musical standards. Lastly, consider that there are countless Christmas movies, and innumerable horror films watched around Halloween. But otherwise, no other holiday on the calendar has a film that has become essential viewing as a yearly tradition as The Quiet Man is to St. Patrick’s Day. That explains a lot about the longevity of and love for this movie. Despite its flaws and dated dynamics, enjoying and appreciating The Quiet Man in the 21st Century doesn’t make you a bad person. This film was crafted with care, passion, and a desire to entertain, and no one involved in the production appears to have said a bad word about it.
  • A second greatest gift is that this movie features Maureen O’Hara’s greatest screen performance and most memorable character. Her Mary Kate leaves an indelible impression of a multi-faceted woman of agency who wields intelligence, physical strength, steadfast determination, and stunning beauty. She renders a range of emotions in this role, demonstrating softness and warmth as well as intimidating fury and feistiness. And make no mistake: Ms. O’Hara was a champion of this film right up to her death, defending it in interviews and expressing her great pride in participating in this picture.

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