The Quiet Man (1952)

Director: John Ford

Quiet%201.bmp

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the years since The Quiet Man premiered, its vision of rural Ireland during some indeterminate time in the 20th century has come under attack. The film—a low-budget affair for B-movie studio Republic Films, the only studio that was willing to bankroll an endeavor nursed by Ford and many members of his “stock” company (including Republic contract player John Wayne) since 1936—has been called a clichéd idealization and infantilization of the Irish people for decades. It was unpopular in Ireland at the time of its release because of the manhandling lead character Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) suffers in its famous “dragging” scene that Irish audiences felt cast them in a bad light.

I don’t presume to intrude on the Irish distaste for the clichés of their culture—wicked tempers, excessive drinking, backward living, sentimental song-singing, the wearing of the green. Indeed, I gave a “thumbs down” to a new Irish film, Kings, for trading on those stereotypes to wallow in the equally stereotypical tragedy of the Irish expatriate experience—a sentiment not shared by the Irish film and television organizations that honored the film and a quarrelsome commenter whose last remark on the subject was not fit to publish here.

Lost in all this rhetoric about the misrepresentations of Irishness is a fact that the Irish seem to wish to disinherit in their rush toward being like everyone else who lives in the “real” world. If you’re one of the people who can’t wait to be Irish for a day on March 17, you may agree with a comment I used to make that the Irish have the best PR in the world. I wasn’t really talking about PR, though—it was something more basic that I couldn’t quite grasp. I now know that it is the Irish mythic tradition. As Joseph Campbell and William Butler Yeats have affirmed, the power of myth transcends national and cultural boundaries—myths are the universal stories of the human animal. There are few people in the developed world who are as connected to an “enchanted” world as the Irish. To truly understand The Quiet Man—its structure, its world, and its appeal—it is important to understand how John Ford created a time out of time, his own Brigadoon.

Quiet%204.jpg

The Quiet Man tells the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a Yank born in the fictional town of Innisfree and taken to Pittsburgh while still a baby. He has returned to the land of his birth to escape reminders of a tragic incident that has scarred his life—a boxer of single-minded ferocity, he accidentally killed a man in the ring. He is met at the train station by buggy driver/matchmaker/bookie Micheleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) and taken into town. Sean sees a red-haired beauty, Mary Kate, walking in an emerald field amid a herd of sheep and determines to make her his. It’s not as easy a task as he thinks, however. Although Mary Kate is strongly attracted to him, Sean has angered her brother, Red Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), by buying back his ancestral home from its current owner, the widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick), who has been resisting Will’s entreaties to sell him the land as well as his attempts to court her.

Hoping to help Sean and Mary Kate make their love official, some of the townspeople, including Father Lonergan (Ward Bond) and Micheleen, persuade Will that Widow Tillane is only waiting to become the sole woman of the Danaher house. Will agrees to Mary Kate’s marriage, but all goes amiss after the wedding when the widow declines his suit. Will refuses to settle Mary Kate’s dowry on her. Without the dowry, Mary Kate does not feel that she has really come into her own and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of her marriage. It’s up to Sean to come to grips with this old world of customs and tradition so alien to his Yankee sensibilities if he wants to win Mary Kate back.

quietman_toinisfree.jpg

From the very first scene, Ford sets us up for a journey to a mythic place. After alighting from the train, Sean asks the train conductor how to get to Innisfree. Before long, a gaggle of helpful onlookers gather to give Sean convoluted and contradictory advice. Only the appearance of Micheleen, who grabs Sean’s bags and quite unobserved by the opinion makers says, “This way,” provides Sean with a way in. This is one of many funny scenes, but it also plants an idea in the minds of the audience that Innisfree isn’t really a very easy place to find—unconsciously, the suggestion that it may be entirely mythic. Of course, those familiar with the works of Yeats will instantly recognize the town’s name as the idyll for which, like guilt-ridden Sean Thornton, Yeats’ city dweller longs in “Lake Isle of Innisfree”:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Quiet%203.jpg

The first sight that greets Sean as he looks upon Innisfree—the Prodigal Son returned—is the cottage in which he was born. Then he is gobsmacked by a vision of a beautiful woman dressed in red, white, and blue, the sun glowing off her long, red hair. He asks himself, “Can this be real?” Again, the viewer is made aware that this place seems unreal to the very modern Sean Thornton—it is a place he has turned into myth through the years in “exile,” embellishing in his mind the tales his parents must have told him, keeping alive a place untouched by time because he has never really seen it. Ford accommodates this fantasy, one that must have held particular significance for him raised as he was speaking Irish as well as English in Cape Elizabeth, Maine; Ford, careful to maintain the film’s timeless quality, never reveals any date except that it is 19__; the settings and costumes are similarly hard to place in a time period. It’s a fantasy Ford will also take pains to puncture—gently—as the very American Sean learns that even a mythic town has its rules.

Quiet%20Man%201.bmp

The elemental nature of Sean and Mary Kate’s attraction shows up in what could be called Ford’s “storms of passion.” In the first, Sean comes into his long-shuttered cottage, only to find the floor swept, the furniture neatly arranged, and a fire crackling in the hearth. He searches for his secret angel as a strong wind buffets his windows. In an impulsive, energetic act, Sean whoops and hurls a stone through a glass pane. Mary Kate screams, and the wind flings open a door. There is Mary Kate bent by the wind and shimmering in a glowing moon. Sean grabs her with a violent passion and bends her backward with a deep kiss. A real spitfire, Mary Kate slaps him hard. Sean recovers himself and thanks her for her efforts. “It was the neighborly thing to do,” she demurs, but her motives are plain to everyone, especially Sean.

Quiet%20Man%203.bmp

The second storm of passion occurs during Sean and Mary Kate’s officially sanctioned courtship, when they are in a cemetery during an electric storm. Mary Kate seems mesmerized by the lightning, and hugs Sean closer with each successive strike. Drenched, Sean’s flesh visible through his clinging, white shirt, they embrace in a passionate kiss once again, acknowledging that they are coming closer to the most elemental act of all—sex.

quietman_inisfree.jpg

The subject of the dowry may seem strange to modern audiences in the United States and Ireland alike. In essence, a dowry, though at the disposal of the husband, is the bride’s property. When she leaves one house to take over another, her dowry affirms her status as the mistress of the house, a woman of substance. She tries to explain to Sean that she has always dreamed of having her own things about her, the things that belonged to her mother, and her mother’s mother. The idea of the clan is strongly felt in Celtic countries, a continuity with history that helps members of a society find and claim their place—just as Sean is welcomed into an initially suspicious town once they know who his people are.

Sean, pained by the stark memory of the real price of the desire for money—Mary Kate gets her furniture but not the 350 pounds that was part of the settlement—calls his wife mercenary. But by seeing her dowry in financial terms alone, he fails to understand that he is reducing her, as she sees it, to no better than the servant she was in her brother’s house. She will have no real stake in their marriage. Indeed, the longer Sean goes without collecting the 350 pounds, the more reduced, “humiliated” in Micheleen’s words, Mary Kate’s status becomes, and she decides to leave Sean the morning after they consummate their marriage.

The final showdown represents a coming together of the entire town, as well as Sean and Red Will Danaher. In a spectacularly shot scene, Sean rides on horseback to the train station. All of the coach doors are open, and he rides up, looks inside, and slams the door if the compartment is empty. An entire row of doors gets slammed, as Mary Kate can hear her fate grow louder and louder as he travels down the platform on his black horse, the opposite of the white knight of romantic imagination.

quietman_walkinherback.jpg

When he finds her, he drags her the five miles from the station to Danaher’s farm, the townspeople gathering like pilgrims in a procession behind them. He drags her when she falls, refusing to stop when she loses a shoe (which a member of their “entourage” returns to her in a scene of antic civility). Without really knowing the import of Sean’s physical command over Mary Kate, it may not really seem inappropriate to the audience, and not just because it is shot through with comic moments. In many traditional societies, “kidnapping” a bride or having clans destined to be joined by marriage wage a mock war was common. In his fascinating article “John Ford’s Festive Comedy: Ireland Imagined in The Quiet Man“, William C. Dowling puts it this way:

The Quiet Man is closest to early Irish custom in the dragging scene, which directly echoes various marriage rituals meant to dispel antagonisms between kinship groups through what the Reeses in Celtic Heritage call “displays of mock hostility.” Thus, for instance, “in parts of Ireland, on the day of bringing home the bride, the bridegroom and his friends would ride out and meet the bride and her friends at the place of treaty. Having come near to each other, the custom was of old to cast short darts at the company that attended the bride, but at such a distance that seldom any hurt ensued; yet it is not out of the memory of man that the Lord of Howth, on such an occasion, lost an eye’.

In Wales, the meeting of the two parties led to a “mock scuffle,” whereupon the bride’s party rode away with the bridegroom and his friends in pursuit. When he catches her, the bridegroom “leads her in triumph and the scene is concluded with feasting and festivity.” In Ireland, the same source reports, “the ride of the bridal party is termed ‘dragging home the bride’.” In The Quiet Man, where Sean Thornton and Mary Kate have earlier gone through the formalities of a legal wedding ceremony, the plot demands that this be played out on a delayed basis. But the point remains the same: their marriage can be made “real” within its community only through a cleansing ritual of innocent or ludic violence.

Sean, Mary Kate, and the entourage come right up to Danaher as he and his workers are threshing hay, symbolic perhaps of Sean’s “bringing in the harvest.” Sean throws Mary Kate back at Danaher when he refuses to pay. Mary Kate is furious because Sean has taken her virginity and is now returning her as “damaged goods,” an outrage meant more for her brother’s benefit and shame than a condemnation of Sean. Danaher relents. Sean takes the pound notes, and with Mary Kate at his side, strides to the fire stoking the threshing machine; Mary Kate opens a door on the machine, and Sean throws the money onto the flames. This act is an affirmation by Mary Kate that it was never about the money itself, but about her ability to do with it as she liked, as something that was hers alone.

quietman_wontfight.jpg

Following this dramatic scene, a donnybrook the likes of which the town has never seen, ensues, as Sean and Danaher punch each other all across town, with Micheleen taking bets. The fight helps relieve Sean of his guilt, realizing that his punches aren’t so magically powerful that they will kill every time he uses them—it was, after all, just a tragic accident. Through this mano e mano interaction, Sean and Danaher bond, truly joining their families together and showing the whole town that the natural order of things has been restored.

quietman_races_waynekids.jpg

This glorious Technicolor film shot largely on location in Cong, County Mayo (which has made Quiet Man tourism a major industry), looks like an array of sparkling jewels surrounded by emerald. The production was a true family affair that included not only Ford’s regular company of John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, and cinematographer Winton Hochs, but also two of John Wayne’s children (shown above in the wagon, flanking Maureen O’Hara), two of O’Hara’s brothers (Charles FitzSimons as IRA man Hugh Forbes and James Lilburn O’Hara as Father Paul), and Ford’s own brother Francis Ford as town elder Dan Tobin.

There are a few political references, as when Forbes toasts Sean and Mary Kate with, “May their days be long and full of happiness; may their children be many and full of health; and may they live in peace… and freedom.” There is also a dig at Irish Americans, as when Rev. Dr. Cyril “Snuffy” Playfair (Arthur Shields) and his wife Elizabeth (Eileen Crowe) call on Sean after he has fixed the cottage up a bit. Mrs. Playfair exclaims solicitously, “Only an American would think to paint it emerald green!” It is in these subtle ways that Ford shows that his fairytale Innisfree actually exists in a real place, but I suspect these references were a way to curry favor with Irish audiences. Even though it didn’t work with them, there’s not much about The Quiet Man that doesn’t work for the rest of us. This is a timeless film about a timeless place of our longing.

  • fox spoke:
    13th/11/2008 to 11:18 pm

    This is a DAMN GOOD essay! One of my favorites of yours… if I say so myself. Of course, I’m part Irish, so I could just be biased. :o)
    But yeah, I’ve always wanted to see this film being a big fan of John Ford and a defender of John Wayne as an actor. I was kinda holding out for Netflix to get some new edition in for rent, but I may just go get that old copy at the video store now.
    p.s. This movie also has one of my all-time favorite titles.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/11/2008 to 8:43 am

    Thank you, Fox. I made a fairly extensive study of Ireland after a visit there back in the 70s, so this essay was kind of a coming home for me as well to a subject I find fascinating.
    Republic Pictures issued a DVD of the film that includes a “making of” hosted by Leonard Maltin. It’s not the crispest copy, but I thought it was acceptable. We may not get another one, in any case.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    14th/11/2008 to 9:39 am

    A gorgeous film by John Ford, and a very entertaining one. That said…PC arguments usually hold very little sway with me but even I cringed with the whole “dragging” scene at the end. Interesting context you put it in, though.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/11/2008 to 1:33 pm

    I like to keep films in the context of their times and cultures before I start getting exercised about PC issues. The Quiet Man is so much a fable; it even has a voiceover narration that’s easy to forget because it’s hardly used at all. I never had a problem with the dragging scene, again, not even knowing why. It touched something primal in me, I guess. But I also know that traditional societies don’t reject violence – they find a way to integrate it into their rituals and customs to keep it in its proper place. I think that’s healthy, and something our society would do well to return to.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    15th/11/2008 to 1:06 pm

    Marilyn, I have to agree with Fox (strange, that): this is one of your best. I especially like the contextual analysis you’ve done. It has been so long since I’ve seen the film, that I can’t remember any of it …

  • Kimberly spoke:
    16th/11/2008 to 5:43 pm

    Very insightful look at The Quiet Man! I really enjoyed reading it.
    I have a personal fascination with the film since it was one of my mother’s favorite movies and she adored Maureen O’Hara (she constantly wished out loud that she had born with Maureen’s red hair). You might find it interesting to know that my grandfather (her father) was Irish born and breed and her mother was British. My mom was the first woman in her family to be born in the U.S. but she felt deeply connected to her family roots.
    I don’t know if she would have felt any differently about the film if she was born and raised in Ireland but it’s interesting to contemplate.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/11/2008 to 6:46 pm

    Thank you Rick and Kimberly.
    It is interesting to contemplate, Kimberly. I think the Irish have contradictory feelings about their “quaintness,” and certainly the Irish I have met disdain the Irish American overemphasis on the Auld Sod. I also think that Ireland is such a recent developed nation that there may be a real anxiety to show they are every bit as sophisticated as Western Europe and the United States. When I was there in the mid 70s, it was still extremely rural and fairly low tech even in Dublin.
    Personally, I think such concerns are a little overblown. Ireland is a leader in high tech today while still being a hotbed for excellent artistic output in theatre, literature, and increasingly, cinema.

  • Phyllis Glazer spoke:
    9th/02/2009 to 5:21 pm

    I have loved The Quiet Man all of my life. It is my favorite movie and Maureen O’Hara my favorite movie star. I finally convinced my husband to let me build White O’Morn for us to live in in Dallas, Texas. I traveled several times to Ireland to find architectural elements and painted furniture as well from Tinkers mostly, sometimes salvage yards and county auctioneers. I would love to know the name of the blue-and-white china in the movie to complete my home.

  • Sean Thornton spoke:
    21st/08/2009 to 1:14 am

    Yes, my real name is Sean Thornton. The Thornton part was easy, it was my father, a huge John Wayne fan, who decided to give me my middle name of Sean. My mother chose Michael as my first name, but you can see who won that battle. So now I live going by my middle name. It still confuses all of the officials who require my full name. I have received so numerous questions about “The Quiet Man” that it has provided much talking points and ice-breakers. It is always a joy to talk about it, it is the favorite film of thousands. This essay is excellent, and I feel I have just watched the film again. Nicely done…keep it up!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/08/2009 to 3:06 pm

    Thank you, Phyllis and Sean Thornton. Just when I think The Quiet Man is starting to fade from the collective unconscious, I hear a stories like yours that let me know how treasured it is. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Julie Hall spoke:
    1st/10/2009 to 12:48 pm

    I stumbled on your site and essay on The Quiet Man.I enjoyed it very much and found it most ensightful. I have always enjoyed this film. I have it on video and love to watch it curled up on on the couch on a wet Saturday afternoon. I am Scots,so a celt and don’t find the film at all degrading believing it always to have been portraying another time. The mirth and pride on Maureen O’Hara’s face is clear as he drags her across the county, showing that she understands exactly what is going on, it does not indicate violence to me at all. The film has such great humour and a lovely sound track. The corney strumming which accompanies the naration even makes me smile.I happened upon Brigadoon the other evening on TV now that is bad, excriciating even but you could not for a minute compare the two.
    I have many favourite moments from this film, you have put me in the mood, I’m off to watch The Quiet Man!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/10/2009 to 1:00 pm

    Julie – It’s a pleasure to have you stop by and comment. I love this film and feel like watching it again myself! Enjoy!

  • Rob spoke:
    19th/12/2013 to 2:12 pm

    Believe it or not, I have never seen this (!)

Leave your comment






(*)mandatory fields.

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood
"You have my highest praise!" – Andreas, Pussy Goes Grrr




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives