Thursday, May 20, 2010

1952, Year in Review: The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man
Directed by John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald
Grade: B

There's something permanently lovely about John Ford's "The Quiet Man", even if watching regressive sexual politics and unending traditionalism isn't exactly my cup of tea. If there's one knack Ford had it's for capturing community spirit and togetherness through the internal conflict of an ingrained collective. In two of his Oscar wins, The Informer and How Green Was My Valley, the Irish and Welsh villages debate over how to solve the problems of betrayal and capitalism respectively, and the approach towards the conflict in "The Quiet Man" doesn't differ greatly from that of these pictures.

Set in Innisfree, a village in Ireland, the film is a romantic comedy of sorts, devoted to the relationship between a disgraced Irish-American boxer (Wayne) and the sister of the village's chief land-owner, 'Red' Will Danaher (McLaglen). Sean Thornton's return to the town after a lengthy absence instigates resentment in Will, who wanted to buy the Thornton property. Moreover, the newfound Americanised ideology of Sean angers Danaher, and exacerbates their relationship considerably. Through the help of the townsfolk Thornton is finally able to court Maureen O'Hara's Mary Kate, despite the remonstrations of brother Will, but in the process further complicates his and her position within the community.

Essentially "The Quiet Man" is about the difficulty of cultural convergence, and the problems one faces when encountering a very concentrated way of life. Mary Kate is in love with Sean but she's also fiercely protective of her background and tradition, to the extent where she'd give him up to preserve a level of perceived dignity. I don't necessarily feel that Thornton was that cavalier a presence for audiences at the time, since post-war American life seems, by all accounts, a period in which people wanted to negate tradition. Still, it is mostly left up to Sean to do the converging, since Ford is evidently keen to reinforce those core cultural values and woo us into buying into Innisfree as a home from home.

Despite the undeniable candor "The Quiet Man" feels too reverent of Ireland's salt-of-the-earth, brazen, simplistic life (considering Ford's Irish heritage, it's little surprise) that it often distracts us from considering whether that's an appealing option to Sean. The indiscretion which forced him to give up physical confrontation altogether reveals a more sinister element to his character, yet this other persona is referred to so sparingly that Sean comes across as little other than a charming, quiet man marooned in an environment that feels specifically designed to test his patience. A late decision to show his fists acts as a realisation of the conviction of his earlier actions, but is a fundamental encouragement of unhealthy, needless aggression and curbs the ambitions of an otherwise successful fighter.

But then, the film works so well at crafting humanist qualities in its characters that I feel a tad guilty about denouncing it for neglecting Thornton's perspective. After all, he's rather like the only visitor in a circus of attention-seeking souls that court petty playground feuds and rollercoaster romances. Maureen O'Hara too indulges in Innisfree's salutation of drama as a fixture of rural insularity, and even as Mary Kate often forms the serious obstruction to happiness for both herself and Sean, it's telling that she isn't silly enough to think that he won't eventually come across to her way of thinking. Sean is only an outsider as much as the town will allow, and the majority of Innisfree's gala parade are always on his side.

Showcasing a celebratory attitude towards resistance to change, "The Quiet Man" doesn't comprehensively address the resentment estrangement often leads to. Still, the impressive ease with which Ford establishes a commonality that appear so wholly self-governing and sustainable ensures that it ranks as a fetching achievement. Bruises come with building bridges but the strain ends there.

Academy Awards

Wins:

Best Director: John Ford
Best Cinematography, Colour

Nominations:

Best Picture
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Victor McLaglen
Best Writing, Screenplay
Best Art Direction, Colour
Best Sound, Recording

2 comments:

Alex in Movieland said...

I know very little about this film. The only Oscar-winning direction of John Ford that I've seen was How Green Was My Valley and it was kind of a mess :)
I need to see Grapes of Wrath, even though I doubt it would top Rebecca, The Great Dictator or Philadelphia Story.

Erich Kuersten said...

Dude, are you sure you're only 22? you write rather awesomely. It's one thing to write well, and another to write academically. To make academically flavored writing flow like good prose, that's the real deal, almost impossible to find. Good work!

You make many good points about Ford's sentimentalizing the repressive Catholic small town mindset of his own made-up idea of Ireland, not that I've been there. But of course Ford was also a drunk, and I've been there, and buried in all his work is attention to who's drinking what, and what situations call for a wee dram. Note in FORT APACHE for example that Henry Fonda's uptight colonel always ends up sharing or buying a drink once the problem's been dealt with and everyone's terrified and palms sweaty and the women are out of the room. Alcohol is the alchemical force that turns enemies into friends... and this expands later by the time of the Quiet Man and that movie I forget where Wayne fights with Lee Marvin for about 20 minutes on some tropical isle. Brawling (while drunk) then also becomes an alchemical force.

A major strength also with Ford is the understanding of "men with the men, women with the women" (old AA saying). Meaning, men need to be together to share common strengths and women as well. They help each other stay mythic and form strong subsets of the group. For Ford, what's going on with the wives all sewing and conspiring is just as important as men drinking and brawling. That's something very rare! Man, I've rambled. Anyway, I enjoyed your very keen alacrity! ****