Directed by John Ford
June 6, 1952 (London and Dublin) / August 21, 1952 (New York)
An American boxer haunted by his past goes back to his family home in Ireland where he meets and falls in love with a fiery woman and must deal with her brother who does not approve of their union.
When you think of John Wayne you generally think of the Western genre, but this is not such a film. Based on the 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story of the same name by Maurice Walsh, here in this classic movie Wayne plays a boxer returning to his family’s ancestral Irish home where he attempts to win the heart of a local woman played by Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara would go on to not only become a frequent costar of Wayne but also his good friend after this pairing.
The Quiet Man was to be their first on screen film together but Republic Pictures studio head Herbert J. Yates did not think this film would do well and forced director John Ford, who had purchased the rights to the story in 1933 for $10 (really!), to make the film Rio Grande with the same romantic screen pairing as this first. Only after that film was completed could he make this movie. Funny thing is The Quiet Man movie did much better.
John Wayne gives a very good performance here as former boxer Sean Thornton. Wayne had an undeniable on-screen charisma but also had genuine talent. I know that may not be a popular thing to say but he had skill and I think it shows here. Under the right director that talent could be pulled out of him and shine on the screen and it really does here. I think too often though he got directors that relied on the John Wayne name to carry the film over the financial finish line and that was a real disservice to him. Wayne’s performance was rather good here and I think he should’ve perhaps won for this before he won for True Grit (which he also deserved).
In the film boxer Sean “Trooper Thorn” Thornton had accidentally killed a man in the boxing ring and as a way to heal his soul he comes back to the Irish town of Inisfree that his family left when he was a very small child. His mother made the place sound like heaven to him and I guess the character decided it was a good place to heal his emotional wounds and start over. I last read the story in middle school and as I recall no reason was specifically given for his return but rather this was alluded to. I am sure there were other differences as well between the film and the story. Hollywood films are rarely one to one adaptions and so long as major changes do not occur that is okay. Be faithful with minimal changes and padding and I think that is what we get here.
Maureen O’Hara plays the redheaded Mary Kate Danaher that Sean is smitten with at first sight and proceeds to quite aggressively court. O’Hara gives us yet another strong and forceful woman on screen. She got some genuine crap parts in her life. I mean that and I am a fan of hers, but she always turned them into something special or at least better than they should have been. She put herself into the roles and that gave her characters life. Mary Kate takes no crap in this film just as O’Hara took none in real life.
For example, there was a scene where the wind was whipping O’Hara’s hair in her face and forcing her to squint. John Ford yelled at her to keep her eyes open to which she snapped back “What would a bald-headed son of a bitch know about hair lashing across his eyeballs?” Touché. Yelling at Ford was just something you did not do. He yelled at you and you just sat there but not her.
Mary Kate’s brother Squire “Red” Will Danaher is played by John Wayne regular Victor McLaglen. The animosity between the two characters is set up when Sean buys back his ancestral home from rich local Widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick) who now owns the property. The Quiet Man is one of the rare John Wayne movies that I have seen McLaglen in where he actually shines as an actor. More often than not he was John Wayne sidekick and while always good he never really popped. This performance reframed my opinion of him. He never got the shot he deserved I now believe.
Shot largely on location in Ireland, the film just looks beautiful. The landscape is like a painting but John Ford as a Western director knew how to do that. There are not so much sweeping vistas here as the shots are framed lovingly with the actors in them. This film is so beautiful you could watch it with the sound off and still enjoy it.
This is Hollywood Ireland so it is doubtful this has too much in common with real Ireland at the time in which it is set but things do feel authentic. There is an internal consistent logic here. That is the best way I can put it. The actors believe in the material and are treating it as if it were real and it shows in the quality of the film that we get in the end.
John Ford was a great director and from what I understand this was a passion project for him. It is something he really wanted to do, and he did it very well. He gathered together a fine cast, some of which were his usual players, and turned in one of several classic pictures on his résumé.
We have a good comedic script with some genuine emotion thrown in that takes itself just seriously enough but not too seriously that it becomes a serious drama. Seriously! And as could happen only in older films the two rivals settle things in a rather comedically done fist fight and end the film on good terms. You could not do that today.
The Quiet Man deserves its status as a classic film. John Wayne and John Ford and Maureen O’Hara work magic here. If you have not seen it why? Watch it!