Quiet Man, The (United States, 1952)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

John Ford is widely regarded as the best director of Westerns, many of which featured his good friend and favorite actor, John Wayne, as the lead. During a career that spanned nearly six decades (from 1917 through 1966), Ford helmed more than 100 movies covering almost every genre, but he is still remembered primarily for the likes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Searchers (a film that many critics believe represents his most lasting tribute to the motion picture industry). The Academy honored Ford with four Best Director Oscars, although, oddly enough, none were for Westerns. The films were 1935's The Informer, 1940's The Grapes of Wrath, 1941's How Green Was My Valley (which also won Best Picture, defeating Citizen Kane), and one of the filmmaker's most beloved efforts, 1952's The Quiet Man.

From the beginning, Ford stated that The Quiet Man was the most personal film he ever made (it was also one of his favorites). The film's protagonist, Sean Thornton (played by John Wayne) is an Irish American who follows his roots back to his ancestral home. Ford, also of Irish extraction, could relate to Thornton's journey (at least in a metaphysical sense), and many have seen the character as a stand-in for the director, who spent fifteen years pursuing the motion picture version of Maurice Walsh's short story, "Green Rushes," with a singleminded determination. In fact, a filmmaker with less tenacity would have given up on the project long before it was finally greenlighted.

"Green Rushes" originally appeared in serial form during 1933 in "The Saturday Evening Post." Three years later, Ford optioned the material, but, despite his enthusiasm and growing reputation as a director (he had already won his first Oscar), no studio head wanted to risk any money on a movie that apparently lacked a built-in audience. By 1945, Ford had attached both John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara to the project as the lead actor and actress, but he still couldn't attract financing. Only after signing a three-picture deal with B-movie company Republic Pictures and developing the hit Rio Grande was Ford finally allowed to make The Quiet Man. With a modest budget of under $2 million, Ford (along with his cast and crew) headed to Ireland for six weeks of location shooting. Today, such trips are routine, but, 50 years ago, they were unusual. Nevertheless, Ford wanted the sense of authenticity that could only come from filming in the country where the picture was set.

The Quiet Man is a pleasant, unassuming romantic melodrama that concentrates more on characters, atmosphere, and moments than on overall plot. It's about the tempestuous romance between solid, steady Sean Thornton, a man with a secret in his past, and fiery Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara), whose brother, Red Will (Victor McLaglen), opposes the match. Even once the two are married - a ceremony that occurs after numerous difficulties - the trying times aren't over. Will withholds Mary Kate's dowry, and she won't allow her new husband into her bed until he retrieves the money by any means necessary.

Some have referred to his work in The Quiet Man as John Wayne's greatest performance. And, while it's true that Wayne is more subdued and less overtly macho here than in many of his other films, he doesn't do a great deal to stretch his limited range. For me, the actor's finest effort came in his last film, The Shootist. He is appealing in The Quiet Man, and has an effective foil in Maureen O'Hara (there's no denying the chemistry between the two leads), but, despite bearing the moniker of Sean Thornton, John Wayne is essentially John Wayne. That's not a bad thing, because, although he was never a top thespian in the classic sense, he was a genuine superstar - one of the few actors who could arrest an audience's attention by simply walking into frame. Wayne had presence. It's no coincidence that his voice and mannerisms are among the most frequently mimicked of anyone who has ever graced the silver screen. Over the course of his career, which spanned five decades and more than 150 movies, Wayne was nominated for three Best Actor Oscars (1949's Sands of Iwo Jima, 1960's The Alamo, and 1969's True Grit) and won one (True Grit).

Wayne's Thornton is the kind of man every guy wishes he could be and every woman wishes she could be with. He's strong, silent, patient, good-natured, and, above all, willing to forgive. The Quiet Man is an apropos title - through all the swirling turmoil, Thornton is rock-solid and reliable. When complications threaten his relationship with Mary Kate, he shrugs them off and moves on, refusing to accept defeat. And when Will's stubborn refusal to hand over the dowry endangers the happiness of his union, Thornton takes decisive action.

The Quiet Man is certainly not a flawless motion picture, but it contains at least three memorable scenes. The first, and simplest, is perhaps the most enduring image The Quiet Man has to offer. It comes after Sean and Mary Kate have fled their "chaperone", Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), and taken off on their own. They are caught in a sudden downpour and draw together for shelter, with Mary Kate's head resting against Sean's chest. The instance is intensely romantic, and both actors play it with great tenderness. No one could have accomplished more than Wayne did in that marvelous moment.

The second is the lengthy sequence when Sean finally tames his shrew. With the town in their wake, he half drags his wife over hills and across fields. The segment is wonderful because of the way Wayne and O'Hara play it. The intent, which is achieved, is to be comical, but not overly so. This is the natural end to their struggle. To this point, Mary Kate has had the upper hand. Now, Sean is finally asserting himself, but he is not being cruel - he is simply proving to his wife that he is her match. Respect is important, and this is how Sean earns it.

Finally, there's the big fight at the end between Will and Sean, which ends up spilling into (and out of) the local pub. While this could have been played as a big action sequence, Ford opts instead to keep the tone light, so there's never any sense that real damage is going to be done to either man. The eventual resolution, which leads to peace in Inisfree and harmony within the Thornton household, represents the perfect way to end the film.

In his effort to keep the tone from ever becoming too dark or lugubrious, Ford avoided some potentially thorny issues which could crop up in this sort of drama. Early drafts of The Quiet Man contained incidents related to "The Troubles," but these were excised before shooting began. The final draft contains nothing in the way of antipathy between Protestants and Catholics. Inisfree is a predominantly Catholic town, but the locals still like and appreciate the town's Anglican minister. These quaint feelings of companionability are far different from what we have come to expect from the fine directorial efforts of a modern filmmaker like Jim Sheridan.

While the romance in The Quiet Man is definitely spirited, it's mainly an attraction of looks and actions, not words. My preference has always been for love affairs that are as rich in verbiage as in other areas (that's why I love the films of Eric Rohmer). Conversation is indeed a powerful aphrodisiac, but it's sadly missing in The Quiet Man. Granted, we don't expect John Wayne to engage in many long, deeply meaningful dialogues with his leading ladies, but a little more verbal foreplay would have been rewarding. Sean and Mary Kate have traded many glances but few words the first time they kiss (on the stormy night when Sean enters his new house and finds Mary Kate cleaning it for him).

The Quiet Man is afflicted with a common failing of many lower-budget Hollywood efforts. While the on-location scenes look spectacular (especially since they were filmed in Technicolor), many of the "outside" close-ups were actually done on sets back in California - and they look it. This flaw is not unique to The Quiet Man, but it stands out here because of the contrast between the vibrancy of the shots from Ireland and the flatness of those done inside. Some may consider this nitpicking, but I challenge anyone to watch the movie today and not be aware of where each transition occurs - they're all pretty obvious.

While John Wayne is undeniably the central figure in the film (and likely the primary reason Ford was given the go-ahead to start production), much of The Quiet Man's success can be attributed to the other members of the cast. Irish-born Maureen O'Hara is the perfect match for Wayne: she never allows him to steal a scene without a fight, and occasionally snatches one away from him on her own. O'Hara plays Mary Kate with the fire expected from a redhead, and her character's relationship with Sean is a clear case of opposites attracting. Over the course of her career, O'Hara would play Wayne's love interest in four features (three directed by Ford). The longevity of this screen relationship (13 years) emphasized the strength of their chemistry.

In addition to Wayne and O'Hara, Ford brought along a number of his "regulars" to The Quiet Man. No one appeared in more Ford films than veteran character actor Ward Bond, who here plays the pragmatic Father Peter Lonergan. Father Peter is a likable character because he makes the kind of pragmatic statements most of us wish all priests would utter. His down-to-earth approach contrasts greatly with the didactic stance taken by many members of the clergy (both on and off screen). Another of Ford's frequent collaborators was Victor McLaglen, who plays Red Will Danaher with the perfect injection of bluster. McLaglen, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Ford's 1935 picture, The Informer, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award for The Quiet Man. A third actor making a repeat appearance for Ford was Irish performer Barry Fitzgerald. An accomplished, Dublin-based thespian, Fitzgerald portrays Michaleen Flynn, the matchmaker who arranges and supervises the courtship of Sean and Mary Kate. Fitzgerald is primarily in The Quiet Man to add color and comic relief, and he fulfills both functions ably.

The Quiet Man is most interesting because it offers fans of the cinema an opportunity to see a different side of John Wayne. The majority of the Duke's films were serious (and occasionally downright somber) affairs. The Quiet Man showcases him as the leading man in an old fashioned romantic drama. Cast against type, Wayne pulls it off with aplomb, largely because his tremendous screen presence allows him to get away with gaffes that would sink other actors. Although not a true classic, The Quiet Man is worth more than a cursory glance, especially for those who like Wayne or would like to experience more of his work.

Quiet Man, The (United States, 1952)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1