Emerald Entertainment: John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) – Blu-ray review
argaFord’s most barnstorming ‘print the legend’ moment, whose boisterous charm and vivid craft overpower its reactionary, sentimentalised core.
The Quiet Man
(John Ford, 1952)
The usual line to trot out when discussing John Ford is the immortal advice from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to “print the legend.” Typically, people mean Ford’s Westerns, but The Quiet Man is probably the director’s most glaring piece of myth-making, a hymn to his beloved Irish homeland that only ever really existed in films like this.
Some films just have ‘it.’ Whatever objective qualms you might raise with them, they’re protected by the sheer dedication to movie magic, and The Quiet Man is one such film. This is hokey, romanticised and deeply patronising – if not bordering on downright racist – in its portrayal of the Irish as feckless drinkers, carousers and fighters, bound by strange, antiquated customs that are baffling to John Wayne’s American interloper, Sean Thornton. Hell, it even features the IRA as a gang of benevolent hedonists, getting stuck in for the ‘bants.’ And for the sexual politics…
But never mind all that, because it’s also glorious. These days, there’s a real division between the films that the scholars now regard as the director’s masterpieces, and those that earned him the critical and commercial success at the time. The Quiet Man stands out for straddling the ages – a major hit and the film that bagged Ford his record fourth Oscar for Best Director, but also an evergreen classic (pun intended: just look at the emerald palette in Winton C. Hoch’s shimmering cinematography) that shows Ford’s filmmaking prowess.
In plot terms, there’s not much to talk about: it’s a straightforward romantic drama, its cosy obstacles coming from Sean’s traumatised past, the fiery temper of Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) and the intransigence of her brother Will (Victor McLaglen). Yet Ford invests everything into creating a truly immersive world, a sprawling (and ultimately brawling) canvas populated by a deeply likeable ensemble, from the minute Wayne arrives to some affectionate bickering over directions. The romance is genuine, with the late O’Hara a consistent delight and Wayne visibly moved to raise his game; for once, his perceived woodenness really does translate into gallantry and charm.
It’s that rarity in Ford’s oeuvre: a flat-out comedy, and so avoids the often awkward tonal shifts that mar even The Searchers. Here, he’s constantly looking for fresh bits of business for his actors to enliven their scenes: Barry Fitzgerald, as Sean’s drunken pal Michaeleen, is the obvious beneficiary but the smartest moment is the climactic march back to town, where strategically placed obstacles mean that Wayne has to get O’Hara to jump like a horse, a subtle but very loaded piece of slapstick. And that’s without mentioning what is surely cinema’s only scene where somebody asks John Wayne if he likes Tiddlywinks.
Put simply, Ford directs the hell out of this, knowing when to hang back in a static long take and when to wield his camera; there’s a particularly ecstatic tracking shot of O’Hara dusting down an old piano when Kate realises she’s in love. And then there’s the piece de resistance: one of the best conceived of all movie flashbacks, as a fraught wedding party leads Wayne to recall the tragic end of his boxing career. Few movie memories have the visceral impact of this sparse, haunting sequence.