There are few romantic films that are as beloved and cherished as John Ford’s beautiful and heartwarming classic, The Quiet Man. Intended for years as a pet project, Ford hand selected the story, the stars and the setting of Ireland in order to bring together many elements that meant a great deal to him. Ford’s Irish heritage, and that of Wayne and O’Hara, turned the film into a sort cinematic expression of anthropology, extending the elements of the plot beyond simple mechanics and enlivening the whole film with a passionate and joyful sense of place, family, and tradition (all very consistent with Ford’s career). These elements reached into the lives of those making the film, and in turn, these personal connections become visible to the audience. In a sense, this film is as much a love story between Ford and his fondness for Ireland and for heritage, as much as anything else. But the fact that the film is buoyed by intense chemistry from Wayne and O’Hara, many romantic scenes, and a charming, sexually playful tone, it’s hard to top this film for sheer enjoyment.
Ford had read the short story by Maurice Walsh back in 1933 and had purchased the rights to the story but the film took years to take shape. It’s a story of an Irish-born man named Sean Thornton who has been living in America for much of his life, but who after giving up boxing on account of a fatal bout he participated in, ends up desiring to return to his birth-town of Inisfree to claim his family farm. Upon arriving in Ireland, he finds that another man in town, Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), wants the land as well. Sean ends up gaining the rights to the farm, but earns an enemy in Will Danaher at the same time. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that Sean quickly has eyes for Will’s fiery sister, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). Sean soon finds himself in a familial battle of wits, as he pushes against tradition in order to ask Mary Kate’s hand in marriage without consent from Will. Through some trickery from the townsfolk, Sean is able to wed Mary Kate, however Will holds back the dowry that is owed to her. Mary Kate then decides that she’s going to withhold…..ahem…..the goods from Sean until she gets her dowry back. Thus, the film then turns into a sly and farcical bit of romantic shenanigan-ism as the marriage remains unconsummated and the tension between Sean and Will grows. That is until the final showdown between Sean and Will to decide the fate of the marriage and to recoup the fateful dowry.
Even getting this film off the ground took a bit of doing for Ford. It took some time to get financing, and this finally came from Republic Pictures, who needed Ford and Wayne to do a moneymaking picture prior to filming in order to fund the cost of The Quiet Man. They embarked on making Rio Grande, which isn’t just notable for its standing amongst Ford’s westerns and the Cavalry Trilogy, but also because it paired up Wayne and O’Hara for the first time. It’s plain to see in Rio Grande that the two were a match made in cinematic heaven. It’s no wonder that Ford had eyed these two stars for The Quiet Man as well. Ford had of course worked with Wayne often, and with O’Hara years earlier in How Green Was My Valley. But Ford’s brilliant pairing of Wayne and O’Hara makes The Quiet Man into the memorable romantic picture that it is. Many have noted how Wayne and O’Hara make a great onscreen pair and it has to do with each having an equalizing presence upon the other, meaning that it never quite seems like one is overshadowing the other. Their chemistry together in this film forces them to have a physical and demanding experience together, whether swinging punches at each other, scrambling through creeks and over lush countrysides, and then squaring off in the bedroom for the rights to the upper hand. Their passionate quarreling is only rivaled by their passionate kisses. On multiple occasions, this film has some memorable kissing scenes. Probably the most iconic moment is when Sean enters his farm for the first time to find someone has been tidying up, and there’s a windstorm blowing. He manages to scare Mary Kate out of the house and as the door bursts open, she runs to leave, whereby he swings her back through the open door, then pulls her to him for a kiss. Spielberg’s use of this scene in E.T. made it extra iconic, but there are other memorable moments as well, like when the two kiss in the rain in the cemetery. It’s such a lovely quiet moment between the two of them with wordless interplay as O’Hara pulls in close to Wayne, with his shirt soaking wet. Then there’s the scene on the wedding night as Sean breaks down the door, pulls Mary Kate’s hair back and kisses her in a rough moment of passion. And that’s what makes Wayne and O’Hara such a striking match, as their physicality and passion is believable. So much so, that we can imagine what might happen were they to hop into bed. Indeed, the film has lots of fun, stalling out the consummation of marriage as long as it can possibly go for comedic effect. Like when Michaeleen Oge Flyn (Barry Fitzgerald) happens to stop by the house bringing furniture and catches a glimpse of the broken bed after the first night of marriage, saying, “impetuous”, quietly to himself. Little does he realize what caused the broken bed.
With many exterior shots filmed in Ireland, the film has a strong sense of place, and a beautiful, lush look to it. The wonderful cinematography of Winton C. Hoch adds much to the film and the on-location shooting is enlivened wih elegant framing. Victor Young’s score incorporates many elements of Irish tunes, giving the film a bouncing and jovial quality. Ford’s cast of familiar characters like McLaglen, Ward Bond, and Mildred Natwick add color and warmth to their roles, and many other parts were given to locals in Ireland as well as various bit parts to family members of Wayne, O’Hara and Ford. It’s Wayne and O’Hara that make everything shine, though, and their performances are some of the finest of their careers. A couple moments are noteworthy. Wayne has just had a beer tossed on his face and says in a rather matter of fact tone, “bar towel”. He wipes his face and then asks for the time. He’s told it’s half past five, and then proceeds to punch McLaglen. He does all this with such perfect tone that it confirms that Wayne’s sense of comedic timing was one of his most underrated skills. My favorite moment of O’Hara’s is the moment when Wayne comes to the door to come courting. She nervously comes talking to her brother at the table to ask for permission to go out with him. Her tone of voice here, and the way she is almost out of breath with anxiousness and nervousness seems real. You can hear the sexual charge within her, as she’s desperate to go out with Sean, but can hardly contain her nerves. Beautiful acting.
In the realm of cinematic pairings, the best ones are the ones in which you can believe the two really have eyes for each other, or at least create characters whom you believe really want each other. In the final moments of the film, Wayne and O’Hara are seen happily waving at Rev. Playfair from the edge of their farm. This moment to me is one of the brilliant examples of what makes this film work. Watching closely, we witness O’Hara whisper something into Sean’s ear. They’re both grinning and then she turns and begins to jaunt back to the house, with Sean soon running and tumbling after. And in my mind, there’s only one place where they could possibly be headed.