Bucket List Movie #448: The Quiet Man (1952)
John Ford's movies can put hair on your chest, they're so damn manly: rugged landscapes, dire situations, men who rolled up their sleeves and got s*** done, Ford was a "man's director" and didn't care who knew.
All right, that's enough gross generalizing for one day. From what I've read, while Ford was notorious for his curmudgeonly personality and his preference for plots about red-blooded, hard-nosed American men, he was actually said to a staunch liberal Democrat who was very bookish and intellectual. He basically created the persona of a plain-spoken, no-nonsense director in order to earn respect from those who worked for him. His method paid off, for while he was never accused of being a pussycat, Ford always brought out the best in his actors, from his favorite actor/ vitriolic BFF John Wayne, to Shirley Temple (no, seriously, they worked together twice).
A director who could tell gripping stories and set up haunting shots with only the bare minimum of camera work, Ford remains one of the most revered filmmakers of all time. According to Wikipedia, "Ford was a pioneer of location shooting and the long shot which frames his characters against a vast, harsh and rugged natural terrain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ford)." His directorial style influenced the likes of Orson Welles (who allegedly watched Stagecoach dozens of times in preparation to making Citizen Kane) and Akira Kurosawa (who so idolized Ford he even began dressing like him). In fact, if you've ever taken a film appreciation class, you've seen at least one of Ford's films (mine was The Man who Shot Liberty Valance).
Though westerns were his trademark, Ford was anything but a one-trick pony. He directed the lovely and heartwarming How Green was My Valley, which infamously beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Academy Award. Though this has always been a spot of controversy, How Green was My Valley still has a vocal group of fans and defenders. Ford also directed classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, Mister Roberts, They Were Expendable, and, today's BLM, The Quiet Man.
What An American in Paris was to France and what Woody Allen's Manhattan was to New York, The Quiet Man is to Ireland. If ever there was a love letter to the Irish countryside, this is it: you will either fall in love with the color green or be sick to death of it by the time the credits roll. The emerald hills of Ireland are lovingly captured in gorgeous, razor-sharp Technicolor, and you will want to hug Ford for making the majority of the movie take place outdoors. But the film isn't just eye candy, there's also the plot, involving the tempestuous romance between our two leads.
Yeah, about that story; it's not bad, but certainly problematic. The Quiet Man is definitely a much-loved film, but even its most devoted fans have qualms about certain aspects of it. It starts out well enough: our hero is Sean Thornton (the Duke!), an American ex-boxer who arrives in Ireland with hopes of buying his family's cottage, which is next door to boorish landowner Squire 'Red' Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen)'s estate. Red has been gunning to buy the Thorntons' old property, and isn't pleased that this American upstart is horning in. Sean doesn't have time to be perturbed, for he has fallen in love with Red's sister Mary Kate (Maureen O'Hara, Ford's favorite actress), whose hair and temper are equally fiery. They overcome the obligatory heel-dragging and sexual tension and admit their feelings for each other. But Red, ever the pot-stirrer, consents to their marriage… but denies Mary Kate her dowry. Mary Kate demands Sean to fight for what's hers, but she is unaware that Sean harbors a Dark Secret from His Past, and cultural differences, hot tempers, and simmering resentments threaten to destroy their relationship.
The first three quarters of the movie are actually more than solid. Sean is probably John Wayne's most down-to-earth, engaging character, and while Wayne's acting usually fails to impress me, he's surprisingly good here. Oh, he still has those swaggering rhythms we associate with him, but he also manages to be tender and even boyishly shy in some scenes. When Sean first encounters Mary Kate, he's bold and aggressive, but it's only when they begin to court one another he becomes more vulnerable and human. Their courtship is at turns steamy (those famous kisses during the storm), and sweet (their awkward wedding photo). But after their wedding, their relationship gets a little ugly.
CAUTION! SPOILERS A-COMIN'!
Sean's tragic secret is that he accidentally killed a man in the ring, and he has sworn never to fight in any capacity ever again. But passionate Mary Kate is so obsessive about her money, she hounds Sean about defending her honor, and on their wedding night, he throws her on the bed, breaking it, and leaving her alone.
Oh, but it gets worse.
Red is such an antagonistic jerkass, and Sean is so tired of having his precious masculinity undermined, that he decides, "promises be damned", and drags Mary Kate kicking and screaming across the countryside to confront Red.
Yes, I mean that literally.
He drags her in plain view of the other villagers, who follow to watch (proof again why small towns aren't that great), and Sean then proceeds to wallop Red, with everyone taking bets and even joining in. It's bad enough Sean has flushed his very reasonable principles down the crapper, but has humiliated his wife in the bargain. And, in frustrating, pre-feminism fashion, Mary Kate, who up until now seemed like a strong, sensible woman, is turned on by this and it actually saves their marriage.
Granted, I've seen way worse examples of men mistreating women in movies, but The Quiet Man fails primarily by having Sean not only break his vow, but rough up his wife in the process. True, Mary Kate is portrayed as a tough woman who can roll with the punches (pardon the expression), but in some ways that's worse, because it creates the argument "oh, she just likes it rough" or "she's begging for it".
It brought to mind a similar movie from the 50s that I've recently fallen in love with: The Big Country, in which Gregory Peck's character, Jim McKay, is derided by his fiancee for not fighting and conforming to ways of his new home. But what we learn is that Jim isn't a coward, but a principled man who, only when pressed, will finish a fight rather than start one. That is actually the most pragmatic approach to conflicts. He never compromises his values, and even wins the love of the right woman in the end.
Here, Mary Kate, awesome as she occasionally is, is seen as completely in the right for goading Sean into doing something he doesn't want to do, and Sean is framed as being right for humiliating her while brutalizing her brother. They're all rewarded in the end, for basically behaving like idiots. What?!
But who am I to bore everyone with my PC ranting? If you're willing to overlook the troublesome gender politics in The Quiet Man, it is incredibly worthwhile for Ford's peerless direction and palpable chemistry between Wayne and O'Hara. No joke, The Quiet Man has one of the best "kiss in the rain" scenes I've ever seen in a movie, and even if you don't like The Quiet Man, Wayne and O'Hara actually made a few other pictures together, so at least I'll be checking those out. They're just such a wonderfully unlikely couple: Wayne the rock-jawed "A-muhr-ican", and O'Hara the lovely colleen, but O'Hara's spunky personality makes a fine match for our friend the Duke. It's little wonder they were also good friends in real life.
If nothing else, watch The Quiet Man for its drool-inducing cinematography by Winton C. Hoch. The film finally got a blu-ray release, so if you're able to see it in that format, do.