Sunday, December 26, 2010


Film: The Quiet Man
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Yesterday was Christmas, and in addition to a few new ties, some kitchen gadgets, and some gift cards, I got a portable DVD player. This means that when I drive my daughter to dance class, I can watch a film while I’m waiting for class to end, and can bring the light and streamlined player instead of my laptop. Bonus, bitches!

The inaugural film is John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Why that film? Because I have it checked out from the library and it needs to go back soon. Additionally, because I looked at the titles I checked out and discovered depressing, depressing, depressing...and this one. Hey’ it was Christmas when I watched, so we’re not doing depressing. We can do that later in the week, but I wasn’t going for existential drama on Christmas.

To start our film, an American named Sean Thornton (John Wayne) shows up in rural Ireland and asks the way to Innisfree. While a gaggle of locals squabble about the best way to get there, a little man named Michaleen (Barry Fitzgerald) grabs Thornton’s bags and the two head to town. Curious as to why an American would want to come to this backwater, and want to buy a house, Thornton reveals his identity—he was born here and his family moved away years ago. He’s returned to claim his family land. Michaeleen remembers him.

This land is owned by (and I’m capping all of the words in this name, because that’s how it’s said throughout the film) The Widow Sarah Tillane. Thornton arranges to buy the land from her in a bidding war with the proud and pugnacious “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Danaher wants the land to add to his holdings, and because it will give him a better connection to Sarah. She happens to be in his age range and wealthy beyond measure, and Will Danaher wants to go a’courting. Now Danaher is forever angry at the Yank and forbids Thornton from courting Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), Danaher’s sister. Since Michaleen is the matchmaker, this creates a problem and a conspiracy is created.

So now, Michaleen, Catholic priest Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, who also serves as the film’s narrator), and Protestant minister Reverend Playfair (Arthur Shields), and Playfair’s wife (Eileen Crowe) conspire to trick Danaher. They convince him that Sarah Tillane shows no interest in him because of his sister’s presence in his house. He allows Thornton to pay court, the two are married, and it would seem that all is well.

But it isn’t. He becomes aware of the trick and keeps Mary Kate’s dowry. Sean doesn’t care about the dowry, but she does—to the point of refusing “wifely duties” until she gets her things and her own money. Danaher refuses to pay without a fight—a literal fight—with Thornton. It is here that we learn of the past that made Thornton seek the peace of the Irish countryside. In his former life, he was a boxer known as Trooper Thorn. In his last fight, he killed a man in the ring, and now refuses to strike another man in anger. So the countryside (except for Playfair) now believes him a coward, and Mary Kate can’t stay with a man she believes incapable of fighting for her honor. But, since this is a romance that plays like a romantic comedy, it will all turn out right in the end.

It’s a pretty good set up. It’s also very much the product of its time. I can imagine there are plenty of people who love this movie who would simultaneously be shocked and scandalized if a film with essentially this same plot were to be contemplated today. Women in this film are prizes to be battled for, and belong in the home. Men are hulking thugs looking for an opportunity to get piss-drunk and pound the snot out of each other. A real man swings a fist. Hell, Danaher actually keeps a book of enemies and writes names down in it when someone crosses him.

That, more than anything, is what I have trouble with here. Mary Kate Danaher thinks of nothing but money. In a simpler time, a character like this was called “headstrong” in the movie flack, but what she really is is just bitchy. There is unquestionably value in knowing what you want and fighting for it, but she is obsessed with getting her “fortune” no matter the personal cost to her or the man she claims to love. I realize that culturally, this is what she was brought up to believe, but when Sean Thornton delivers the film’s most famous line (“There’ll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate, except for those in your own mercenary little heart!”), he’s saying it with a lot of justification. When she confesses to Father Lonergan the reality of her marriage—that Sean sleeps in a sleeping bag on the floor because she has refused him the bed—he brings down fire and brimstone like nobody’s business, shaming her terribly, and changing nothing. Evidently, her fortune trumps the fires of Hell.

Beyond this, the Irish countryside is something special to see. The film is gorgeous, no less so than films like The Lord of the Rings that make the audience gasp a bit to see the beauty of the landscape. Maureen O’Hara is fiery and gorgeous as well—she’d be worth a fistfight or two even if she is a beard and a leprechaun hat away from being the pugnacious mascot of Notre Dame.

Many people claim that this is Wayne’s best film. I’m not so sure of that in a career that included films like The Searchers and Stagecoach. It’s a film to show someone who claims that John Wayne couldn’t act, though, or that all he could play was a Western hero or a military hero. Certainly there’s a macho quality to the character of Sean Thornton, a former boxer, but he’s also just a man looking to live a peaceful life. This film is proof that he could do more than just play John Wayne.

Why to watch The Quiet Man: The beauty of Ireland, including Maureen O’Hara.
Why not to watch: It hits on every Irish stereotype you can think of.


  1. Exactly, it does hit on every imaginable Irish stereotype.
    I love your description of Mary Kate. She is not a sympathetic character and that is not because she has a will of her own, but because of her strange priorities. She has very little consideration for people around her, but gives a lot of thought to what other people might think of her. A poor cocktail.

    1. Right--I like strong female characters, but Mary Kate isn't specifically strong. She's just greedy and kind of a bitch. There's nothing appealing there.

  2. Yes, this is a strange one, and I am slightly surprised by the love it has. The landscape is gorgeous, worth watching the film simply to admire it.

    I felt a bit more sympathy for Mary Kate, but not much. I can understand wanting to have what you have been dreaming of as your right, and she would have been expecting it since she was a girl. But expecting her husband to fight for her, and punishing him when he didn't felt wrong.

    My sister walked in when Sean was dragging Mary Kate around, and she looked a bit shocked and said "What is he doing?' The film's sexual politics are certainly dated!

    1. I get that as a motivation for Mary Kate, but it still comes across not as "spunky" or "headstrong" but more as "batshit crazy." I don't see any sort of charm or appeal, and I think I'm supposed to.

      I like strong women characters, but there was a time when that seemed to equate to someone you wouldn't want to spend time around.

  3. I finally got around to watching this. It's a classic film, directed by John Ford, with a great cast, beautiful cinematography and yes Ireland is beautiful.

    It's too long, but I watched it in several segments over 36 hours. So I found it watchable and generally entertaining ... but oh so stupid at times.

    It's not about the money for Kate, it's about pride and honor. And Sean is dismissive and rude about her concerns. He just waves them away. And he has a good reason why he's reluctant to fight ... but he's the man and he doesn't have to tell her a damn thing because he's a pompous ass. Maybe she wouldn't understand it, but he doesn't even give her a chance.

    And that bit where he's dragging her from the train station, pulling her, yanking her arms, dragging her on her butt ... and he's obviously supposed to be in the right and she's supposed to deserve it ... for some reason. Maybe ... I dunno ... maybe he could freaking communicate what he's going to do and she would go willingly and she wouldn't have to be brutalized.

    So stupid.

    I've heard that this is one of Wayne's better acting jobs, but I just don't see it. He's OK. Thing is, I already knew he could act! I thought he was awesome in Stagecoach and They Were Expendable, just to name a couple I've seen recently enough that they stand out.

    I like Rio Grande a lot, but I generally find myself very disappointed with these John Wayne/Maureen O'Hara movies. She's always made to look like an unreasonable, shrill, emotional female while John Wayne patiently puts up with her craziness. I think the reason Rio Grande works a little better is that she has a pretty good reason to be mad at him: he burnt her house down during the War Between the States.

    1. For me, Wayne's best turn in front of the camera is in The Searchers, which remains one of the truly great Westerns in history. Sure, Wayne could act, but he was frequently just playing the same character with a different name and a slightly different wardrobe. In this case, he's not playing a military hero or a cowboy, so it shows range in what he could do. You at least have to give it that.