Director: John Ford
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.