In 1952, legendary Western director John Ford left his favorite shooting location, Monument Valley, and went to Ireland to make his most personal movie: The Quiet Man. He took along his family, his entourage of crewmembers and, of course, his favorite actors John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen. Ford had surrounded himself with people who were not just his long-time collaborators—they were also his close friends. There was a strong sense of “family” on the set of The Quiet Man.
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That feeling of close harmony seeps through every frame of The Quiet Man. Ford was Irish-American, as were many members of the cast and crew, and it’s clear they were making a movie straight from the heart about the Emerald Isle. It’s a deeply-felt movie, unconcerned if the pace meanders a bit because it has such a personal story to tell. It’s a change of pace from Ford’s robust style in films like Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk and Fort Apache. The movie eventually racked up a number of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and earned Ford his fourth (and last) statuette for Best Director.
The road to Ireland was not always an easy one for the maverick director, however. After reading a story about his native land in The Saturday Evening Post, Ford commissioned a script in 1936, then tried to sell it to the studio honchos. They red-lighted the project. As far as they were concerned, John Ford could just keep on turning out those great Monument Valley blockbusters. Ford, however, never gave up the fight to bring The Quiet Man to the screen. Eventually, he went to the smaller Republic Studios (which was famous for churning out B-Westerns) made a deal with them: he’d shoot one more Western crowd-pleaser if they’d fund his shoot in Ireland. Republic agreed and thus Ford shot the slim-budgeted and highly-successful Rio Grande. Interestingly enough, that Western has nearly an identical cast as The Quiet Man: Wayne, Bond, McLaglen and leading lady Maureen O’Hara.
For years, friends had urged me to watch The Quiet Man, but I just never got around to seeing it until I rented the DVD version last night. It’s a sumptuously beautiful movie—the Technicolor emerald green practically explodes off the screen and richly deserves its cinematography Oscar—but maybe not the perfect classic that everyone touts it to be.
The Quiet Man tells the story of Sean Thornton (Wayne), the native Irish lad who goes back to his homeland after being away for most of his life. Thornton is a boxer with a troubled past and all he wants to do is settle down in Innisfree and live the life of a quiet man, not stirring up any trouble with the locals. But trouble dogs his heels almost from the moment he steps off the train. His first mistake is to buy the cottage where he was born, a move that immediately rouses the anger of Will Danaher (McLaglen), a well-to-do farmer who wanted the land for himself.
Thornton’s next mistake is to fall in love with Danaher’s sister Mary Kate (O’Hara), a spit-tempered red-head who sees the American as an escape route from her brother’s domineering control. Irish custom decrees that Danaher must give his consent for Mary Kate to marry and so Thornton’s suit seems hopeless until his well-meaning friends, the local parson (Bond) and matchmaker (Barry Fitzgerald) step in with a plan to trick Danaher.
The movie builds slowly (almost excruciatingly so) to a climactic confrontation between Thornton and Danaher. It’s a long, well-choreographed fistfight that has them brawling all across the Irish countryside, but yet the final payoff is a bit of a letdown. The plot just seems to fizzle out at one point, exchanging story for scenery.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The reward in watching The Quiet Man comes in its sweeping vistas and the terrific performances from its cast. Bond, O’Hara, Fitzgerald and McLaglen (who won an Oscar seventeen years earlier under Ford’s direction in The Informer) all give spark to their earthy characters and you can really feel the ensemble spirit that must have hung over the set like a fine Irish mist.
But it’s Wayne who really triumphs in his role as the gentle, good-hearted outsider. Wayne is, of course, an icon of the American West, but it’s great to see him take on a mold-breaking character like this one. In The Quiet Man, he’s at his sturdy, decent best, holding a wellspring of emotions in reserve. There’s a fight club flashback that’s especially good. Just watch the Duke’s face when he realizes he’s accidentally killed his opponent—his pained, bewildered expression seems so honest.
It’s a performance that, like the rest of the movie, comes straight from the heart.
DVD version: While the green countryside is crisp and stunning, the DVD version offers few frills apart from a twenty-minute documentary by Leonard Maltin on the making of The Quiet Man. Maltin gives a clear-eyed history of the production and offers lots of interesting trivia. For instance: watch for Wayne’s real-life children, Patrick and Melinda, in the horse race scene. They’re the lad and lassie sitting with O’Hara on the wagon and talking about her bonnet.
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