John Ford is widely known as a maker of Westerns, but his most enduring and popular film – the one that appeals to both men and women of all ages – isn’t about cowboys and Indians.
It’s about an American boxer and an Irish lass.
The Quiet Man (1952) may have been the film dearest to Ford’s heart, a sort of erotic fairy tale set in ‘20s Ireland and overflowing with the sights, colors, eccentric characters, and time-tested customs of the Emerald Isle.
It’s been called Ford’s “benevolent masterpiece.” The critic Dwight McDonald less charitably described it as the best recruiting poster the IRA ever had.
The Quiet Man endures because Ford had it both ways. The film is unabashedly in love with Irish country life; at the same time it reveals the backwardness of that world and a fishbowl existence in which no one is allowed his or her personal secrets. That sense of community can be nurturing or smothering, usually both at the same time.
In the mid-1920s Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to the Irish village of his birth after living most of his life in America, where he became a prize fighter. He grew up being nurtured on the stories of Irish life told by his mother and now that he has retired from the ring (after accidentally killing an opponent), he wants nothing more than to live the peaceful life of a country gent in his family’s humble cottage.
It takes just one glimpse of his red-headed neighbor, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), to convince Sean of the wisdom of his move. His courtship of the proud and fiery Mary Kate leads to marriage.
But when the bride’s blowhard older brother (Ford regular Victor McLaglen) refuses to hand over Mary Kate’s dowry, she puts the brakes on the honeymoon.
The thoroughly American Sean doesn’t see what the flap is all about. He doesn’t care about a dowry. But for Mary Kate it’s a matter of tradition and pride, and she’s not going to sleep with her new husband until he fights her brother for what is rightfully hers.
The Quiet Man is a rarity among John Ford’s films in that sex is front and center. Will Sean and Mary Kate ever consummate their marriage? And will Sean overcome his fear of killing another man with his fists and take on his new brother-in-law?
Ford gave actor Barry Fitzgerald, who played the local matchmaker, one of the film's funniest lines when he visits the newlyweds on the day after the wedding.
The night before a frustrated Sean had picked up his new bride and angrily tossed her on the bed, which collapsed in a heap. He then went off to sleep alone.
With the dawn comes the nosy Fitzgerald, who noticing the wreckage in the bedroom can only imagine a night of epic lovemaking.
“Impetuous!” he mutters to himself. “Homeric.”
The Quiet Man is crammed with amusing character actors like Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford (the director’s brother), Arthur Shields, and Jack MacGowran. So colorful a bunch were they that Wayne called Sean Thornton the toughest acting job of his career:
“For nine reels I was just playing a straight man to those wonderful characters. And that’s really hard.”
Filming took place in Connemara, the poorest county in Ireland (and the only one, Ford proudly noted, that Cromwell never conquered). The place was so backward that electricity only arrived during the filming.
On one level the film is practically a documentary study of a way of life: the pubs, churches, horse races, trains, priests, aristocrats, squires, farmers, field hands ... everywhere Ford aimed his camera there was something quaint and interesting.
The place was so verdant that he started getting telegrams from Republic Pictures executives in Hollywood who had seen the daily rushes and were now demanding that Ford stop shooting through a green filter (he wasn’t).
A particular thorn in Ford’s side was producer Herb Yates, a philistine of the first order, who griped about the budget and hated the title. He couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to see a John Wayne movie in which the Duke was identified as “quiet.” He suggested The Boxer and the Colleen.
Another fight broke out over the film’s running time. Ford was contractually obliged to turn in a movie with a running time of no more than two hours. His cut of The Quiet Man was a good 15 minutes longer than that.
At a private screening of Ford’s cut for industry insiders, he let the film play for exactly 120 minutes, then turned off the projector in the middle of the climactic fistfight between Wayne and McLaglen.
When Yates demanded to know what was happening, Ford said that the easiest way to get a 120 minute run time was to cut out the fight scene. Yates relented.
The Quiet Man was Ford’s top-grossing picture to date and earned the director the last of his six Oscars.
The film also won an Academy Award for its cinematography, and was nominated for best picture, supporting actor (McLaglen), screenplay, art direction, set decoration, and sound recording.
Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- March 5: Wee Willie Winkie (1937) Not rated
- March 12: Mogambo (1953) Not rated
- March 19: The Wings of Eagles (1957) Not rated
- March 26: Donovan’s Reef (1963) Not rated
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 3: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Not rated
- March 10: How Green Was My Valley (1941) Not rated
- March 17: They Were Expendable (1945) Not rated
- March 24: The Quiet Man (1952) Not rated
- March 31: Mister Roberts (1955) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.