One of the undiluted pleasures of cinema to me is its transportive value, especially when the sense of setting is so powerful a movie makes me absolutely dream of one day finding and living in the place it takes place in. The Irish town of Inisfree, where the 1952 romance The Quiet Man, is not a real place except in the dreams of the filmmaker* but the Irish counties of Mayo and Galway where it was shot certainly are real and The Quiet Man certainly made me desire to one day witness the beautiful lush seemingly endless landscapes of brilliant lively greens in every possible shade met by an unblemished cool blue sky as cinematographer Winton Hoch captured in loud Technicolor. Nor of his serene and wonderfully sleepy view of the streets and churches and fishing holes and all the other domesticities of the town proper, designed and shot with a rustic adoration and intimate amiability.
Yep, you’d have to expect whoever the hell directed a movie that lays its eyes on the Irish lands with clear-eyed endearment with the island. One might even suspect that director to be Irish himself and would be pretty right that there is Irish in the blood of a man who swears his name to be Sean Aloysius O’Fearna or O’Feeney, though we better know him as the All-American director of mostly John Wayne Western vehicles, Mr. John Ford. Which would make it no surprise as well that he brought along Wayne to star this particular film, as the American returning to his birthplace Sean Thornton. What brings Thornton to his old family farm is matter screenwriter Frank S. Nugent leaves to mystery for most of the movie, but in a remarkably unstressed way that doesn’t stop it from striking the film as such an easy comic work where Thornton tries to adapt to the new culture he’s now living within, standing out in his being played by John Wayne, an actor as broadly American from his amused observations to his tall but slightly lazy gait about a land he hasn’t travelled since he was a child.
Absolutely soon as Thornton steps foot into the green glades of his new home, he’s rapt with attention at the young woman wearing cool blue shirt to offset her blazing red hair and skirt shepherding the sheep and who takes immediate moves to avert his gaze. We later learn her to be Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) and even without Thornton’s courting of her, Mary Kate’s eldest brother and the man of the Danaher house Squire “Red” Will (Victor McLaglen, another Ford collaborator who gives a performance as red-faced and sputtering in its mask as in his Oscar-winning turn in The Informer) has his own grievance to hold against Thornton. Squire Danaher had his eyes on White O’Morn, the cottage of Thornton’s birthright residing right in view of the Danaher house, for purchase. Thornton’s return and easy friendship with every town in contrast to Red’s tolerated but undangerous antagony makes it sure quick for Thornton to take back his spot.
Tradition favors the way that Squire Danaher imposes between Thornton and Mary Kate unless Thornton takes up his fists to defend the honor of their courtship and yet Thornton refuses to indulge in that sort of violence, for reasons related to his escape to Ireland. The movie is generous to two separate points of view: the reasons of Thornton’s refusal to fight Squire Danaher are completely understandable and so the issue is not that Thornton refuses to fight a man, but that he doesn’t seem to take Mary Kate’s dignity seriously enough to fight for it in anyway, particularly once they’re married and her brother refuses to the dowry.
This is the least of the places where The Quiet Man could afford Mary Kate some dignity. Nothing really knocks off O’Hara’s proud and fiery approach the character as a woman of her own strong wills, but we may as well identify now that The Quiet Man‘s gender politics are more than a bit regressive when there’s the matter of how one of the movie’s famous kisses is essentially by force. And yet, I can’t help my male privilege showing by getting intoxicated and swooned by how the power of that kiss, not just because of Wayne and O’Hara’s posture as she collapses in his strong arms, but the force within the wind itself blasting into the room from the open doors and windows, threatening to extinguish any flames except their own body heat, practically pushing the two of them together. It’s only one moment of the high-charged eroticism in that restrained 50s visual vocabulary that gives the The Quiet Man the excitement it demands (and it’s not even my favorite – rainy scenes and cemetery scenes are my personal catnip and that particular kiss also has the benefit of not being as manhandling, just so much more tender) and I think that O’Hara and Wayne are able to accomplish that is what makes me move past what is understandably non-preferable material.
And nothing really gets me past the fact that the movie has an extended sequence in the third act where the butt of the joke is “John Wayne drags Maureen O’Hara uncomfortably across a field”. It’s my least favorite moment in the whole film. And yet The Quiet Man doesn’t find Mary Kate contemptible and finds her grievances with Sean’s lack of action the most valid thing, finding her victory even in that dragging scene when it culminates with Sean and the Squire go head-to-head and insisting that the way of life in Inisfree is certainly more pleasant and preferable and possibly even more dignified to Sean’s rigid Americanism.
And what a brilliant fight that is, extended and exaggerated and full of barreling throws and close-ups of Wayne and McLaglen’s faces taking a wallop and wondering what just happened, rolling in lakes and hay and grassy hills. The traveling manner of the fight and the way that practically every single male figure in the vicinity has to involve themselves and exclaim and cheer (including a very wonderful moment involving a man on his very deathbed) just piles on the good humor and nature of this conflict so much so we can’t imagine Sean and the Squire coming out of this with any more bad feelings for each other.
Early in the film, the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) who sells Sean his home mutters “Inisfree is far from heaven”, but Ford absolutely does not believe that and spends the whole movie proving her wrong with a joyous eye for picturesque locations with sequences indicating the idyllic aspect of living in this Island, like a rousing horse race on the shores of Lettergesh or the quiet fishing hole which the easy-going Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, another Ford mainstay) could be found praying for a bite, all blanketed by Victor Young’s arrangement of Irish airs and bouncy slights. And the cast populates it all in unsubtle Irish caricatures full of personality and bouyancy in joy, most of all in the small impish and grinning Barry Fitzgerald’s turn as jaunting car driver Michaeleen “Óg” Flynn. Nothing about the high-spirited sense of humor feels spiteful, it’s just in service to accenting how colorful this community Ford and Nugent and company wanted to erect as a grand collection of all the things that make Ireland great in their eyes.
That’s what animates The Quiet Man, nothing but love from Ford. Love for a people and a land that Ford is aware he comes from turning over into love for a place and characters that he invented, thereby making that love impossibly infectious to leave the movie without. Every inch of Ford’s directorial ability is spent trying to turn Inisfree into a complete wonderland of color and wind, earning him his fourth (and last) Best Director Oscar and making two hours in the most low-key lovely place feel like such a rush that I can’t wait for the next time I go back.
*There IS an island called Innisfree but it’s not the same place.