The Quiet Man – Review

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John Ford was a master of Westerns; he and John Wayne made plenty of the things, the latter’s weathered face a perfect backdrop for the former’s brand of introspective yet sweeping images. You’d have thought if you took the two out of the sprawling American West and put them anywhere else on Earth, they’d flounder like a fish out of water – but in the small-time romantic tale, The Quiet Man, in which Mr. Wayne arrives in the quaint green valleys of Ireland, it’s clear that no matter where the two Johns find themselves, they can set up shop easily.

Wayne plays Sean Thornton, a Pittsburgh man who moves back to his childhood home of Inisfree, a small village in the green heart of Ireland. His presence stirs up excitement for the colourful cast of residents, and one in particular: Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), a woman with the rebellious heart to distance herself from her brutish brother, Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen). The two soon fall for each other, but in a series of customs Sean finds completely alien, Mary Kate must win the blessing of her sibling to wed – and eventually, her rightful dowry.

Ford’s tale would play like a frontiers story, like his most famous works, were it not for the swooning romance at its centre. Wayne and O’Hara’s chemistry is a physical, palpable thing – so much so that it captivated the audience a second time thirty years later when used to iconic effect in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The problem? Its 1920-set treatment of women, even for a film released in 1952, is disconcerting; it’s difficult for a modern audience to reconcile the way Sean literally throws his wife around – and admittedly, the way she throws a couple of punches herself – with something that can be viewed as true love. Sure, marriage is a rocky road – but if it’s as bumpy as this one, is there anything in it for either of them?

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But it’s also a road to freedom, for Mary Kate at least. Marrying means receiving a dowry from her brother, which in turn means freedom from the life-long oppression he’s orchestrated. What she does with the dowry when she eventually gets it is shocking, but also completely unsurprising; when Mark Kate explains to Sean that receiving the money would be a liberation, he doesn’t quite understand this particular Irish custom – nor does he understand, or even accept, many others. It’s a clash of cultures that finally turns into a physical one; an extended fisticuffs at the film’s end is a terrific slice of sustained hilarity, but it also feels like it’s saying that violence, in the end, is the only answer.

If there were more of those perfect, magical E.T. moments, then The Quiet Man would’ve ended up as one of Ford’s many other masterpieces. Perhaps its muddied sexual politics is in truth a multi-faceted, generous view of love as a whole, in all its dirtiness – a harder truth Ford knew all but well, and wanted to capture that perfectly (imagine if the film were set in his native America; much less of what conspires in Inisfree would be considered acceptable). In the aspects that seem foreign, quaint and just downright abusive to us now, The Quiet Man can at least show us  how far we’ve come since then – and in the things that we still find all too familiar, how far we’ve yet to go.

The Quiet Man is available now from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series.

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