Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Quiet Man (1952)
If I celebrate anything with this column it is the heritage of film that my parents introduced me to while I was growing up, coupled with the movies from the bygone days that don’t seem to get the love they should by our generation. Those movies, for whatever reason, usually share something that the most iconic of the icons can’t share. We are able to see something different and new in our heroes.
Few movies fit that mold so perfectly as John Ford’s The Quiet Man. It’s also fitting that, since I’m out in sunny Arizona, I take a look at a classic Western director and star (John Wayne) as they’ve left the tumbleweed normalcy for the cold, rolling green of Ireland. Also, when I asked my girlfriend Caitlin what some of her favorite old movies were, this was the first one that came to her mind – so I figured it was a solid choice for the week.
What’s beautiful about this film is that it steps outside of the norm in a lot of ways. The most obvious is that John Ford – the man who brought us Western masterpieces like Stagecoach and Fort Apache, and won more directing Oscars than any other director ever – took a chance on a different kind of story. He also took a chance on casting John Wayne – the man who brought us Western masterpieces like Stagecoach and Fort Apache – in a dramatic role that has soft edges around it.
An Irish-American named Sean Thornton (John Wayne) leaves his broken boxing life behind for Ireland to take back his family farm, he meets and falls for Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). Her father brother denies his blessing and her dowry, but Thornton fails to fight for it which injures Mary Kate to the core – causing the married couple to be cold to each other from the outset of their marriage. From then, Sean has to prove his love to her the classic Irish way – by brawling, drinking and burning a bunch of money.
This movie really is a fantastic film, made by an expert filmmaker who gambles and wins big. Not bad for a guy who bought the story rights for ten dollars. Republic pictures was also gambling on something new, and bankrolled the film contingent on the personnel involved delivering a Western. They did, and the world got the brilliant film Rio Grande. That’s right. We got two brilliant films all because of a little studio stubbornness and a director’s dedication to a story.
Beyond the studio, director and lead actor all stepping outside the norm, the film itself does so by creating a sort of Romantic Comedy set between two married people. It’s a drama, for certain, which just happens to have Wayne’s trademarked non-chalant delivery, but very few Romances can find anything interesting about marriage. They are normally obsessed with the discovery of love and the chase, but most end with a wedding scene instead of digging deeper into that institution and re-finding the person you fell in love with.
But don’t think that it’s all that sensitive. Wayne is still Wayne. It’s just that in Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate he finds a bristly match that doesn’t just fall over onto her back when he walks into the room. There’s great tension there, and the pair make a connection which makes the fighting and romance intense while staying natural.
There’s also ridiculous comedy involved. Beyond the severity of the problem – a husband not valuing what his wife values – the solutions for that problem are played for humor. And, yes, that humor follows the Marcus of Queensbury Rules at all times. Wayne gets water thrown in his face, the climactic fight tumbles across what seems like the entire town, and a giant mob starts wrestling in giant hay piles.
Behind all that comedy is a stark story. The reason Sean refuses to fight in the first place comes from his accidentally killing a man in the boxing ring. That’s right. The movie doesn’t hold back whether it’s handling drama or comedy.
Overall, it’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s also a perfect cultural, a rare cultural example where a master filmmaker changes things up alongside trusted actors and a great story. We get to see a different version of all of their talents. And we get to fall in love.
Especially with Maureen O’Hara, who is gorgeous and more woman than any of us could ever really handle. She commands the screen – partially because she’s a much better actor than Wayne, but mostly because it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. She oozes both the lightness of love that initially draws a man in as well as the tempestuous independence that frightens him in the day-to-day reality of keeping her around. She’s stunning, and this role is a perfect one for her talents.
It’s a perfect movie for everyone’s talents, actually. Funny, since it’s not at all what we’d come to expect.
Modern audiences have already caught a glimpse of the film as it’s the kissing scene between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara that fascinates that stumpy little alien in E.T. and gets Elliot lucky at school.
So go see the rest of it. Beautifully shot, brilliantly directed, and John Wayne takes a bucket of water to the face. What more could you ask for?
Editor’s Note: Caitlin has wisely noted that it was her brother and not, in fact, her father that denies the dowry. I regret the error, and plan on remedying it by watching the film again. So everyone wins.