The Quiet Man
Frank S. Nugent (Story: Maurice Walsh)
John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Francis FOrd, Eileen Crowe
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John Ford was one of history's most prolific and well respected directors. And while I'll forever remain mystified as to why How Green Was My Valley was a better film than Citizen Kane, there is little denying his ability to capture small town life and people as they should be.
The Quiet Man is a quaint, slice-of-life film about self-retired American boxer Sean Thornton (John Wayne) who decides to return to his birthplace in Inisfree, Ireland to escape himself and return to the salt-of-the-earth living his family had come from. In purchasing his ancestral home from a wealthy spinster, he sets in motion a vengeful battle between himself and another noted local landowner, Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) who happens to be brother to the handsome red head Sean falls in love with at first sight. Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara) lives up to the reputation of her fiery mane, obstinate, strong-willed and passionate.
Ford's film is as much concerned with conveying life in a small Irish town as he is with the narrative thrust of his story. From the moment Sean arrives in Ireland, we are introduced to countless colorful citizens, including the gaggle of opinionated bystanders at the train station intent on trying to help him find Inisfree, but more interested in gabbing with one another, and also the drunken carriage driver (Barry Fitzgerald) who carts him off to the town. These are lively, believable people who embellish the colorful natural tableau across which the film is set. Despite the poor film-to-video transfer that I watched, it's easy to see how beautiful the area of Ireland in which the film takes place is. From the supple green meadows to the vivid white homestead with its brazen emerald green doors, the film is a better Travelogue for the Irish countryside than a lot of Travelogues in evidence during the period.
Fitzgerald and McLaglen, and most of the rest of the cast, are caricatures to be sure, but they are lovable ones. Despite how stereotypical a lot of the performers are in the film, they are nevertheless a wonderful supporting cast for the film's two leads. My opinion of John Wayne has not changed a lot in the last several films I've seen of his, but I can understand why he was so beloved by audiences of the period (and even still today). He has a commanding screen presence that dominates each scene he's in. Choosing the perceived ideal of the American male to portray Sean Thornton was an inspired idea. Not only did he feel out of place, but he also felt strangely at home in the spartan world of traditions.
But the film would be nothing without Margaret O'Hara's outstanding performance. Mary Kate is a role any great actress would have loved playing and I could easily have seen Katharine Hepburn, no stranger to strong female roles, in the part; but seeing O'Hara on the screen removes any idea that she could have been replaced. Her indelible work as the spirited, head-strong "spinster" is vibrant and commanding. And despite having a less visible career on the big screen as her co-star, she waltzes into each scene she shares with Wayne and manages to make him look less formidable in comparison.
It's hard to pick a better John Ford film to represent the rest of his lengthy filmography, but The Quiet Man stands firmly alongside Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath as films that should define Ford at his best.
January 10, 2011