The Quiet Man (1952) by John Ford
Retro Review by Zach Dennis
Emerging from a field with flowing scarlet hair, Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher shoots a glance at the onlooking Sean Thornton (John Wayne), who has become transfixed by her figure. It is a luminous one. O’Hara glides onto the screen with this ferali curiosity — in one sense, enticed by the gawking Thornton, but also rejecting any sexual advancement.
O’Hara returns to this line of passion over the course of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, a film that seems both tethered and removed from the rest of Ford’s filmography. Ford has always found passion in his characters — sometimes they had to be restrained, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, but sometimes they had to erupt, which happens quite often in The Quiet Man.
The film follows Thornton, a disgraced former boxer returning to the ethereal homeland of his youth in the made-up Inisfree, Ireland. Upon his return, he is instantly ingratiated by the majority of the town’s people — save for Victor McLaghlen’s Will Danaher, Mary Kate’s brother.
Danaher’s venom towards Thornton originated from their first exchange when Danaher learned of an American coming into town looking to purchase the land separating Danaher and The Widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick). Danaher entered Tillane’s home with his hair rustled and spit flying from every which way of his mouth — a trend that would continue for just about every other instance in the film when we see him — and is in disbelief when Tillane willingly gives the land to Thornton after Danaher brags about the sheer common sense it would make to give the territory to him.
From there on, Danaher holds a grudge against Thornton — even going as far as to write his name on his fabled list and asking a worker to scratch a line through it. The entire grudge comes to a head when Thornton asks for Mary Kate’s hand in marriage, which requires the giving away of his sister, but also of her fortune.
Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch shoot the film like Monument Valley in any of Ford’s well-known western masterpieces, but the element of color explodes on the screen in a much more vivid and open way in The Quiet Man that doesn’t have much of a rival in the rest of the director’s work.
The Irish countryside runs in green and gold, embalming into a hue reminiscent of a Georges Seurat painting. What is so striking about The Quiet Man is how all of these colors come together to form a swirling sea of passion and emotion. The greens and golds intertwined with the deep scarlet of O’Hara’s locks, the royal blues of the rivers cutting through the countryside and the stoic solids of Wayne’s attire.
But the passion captured by Ford is equally unparalleled. In one sequence in the film, as Mary Kate and Sean begin the courting process, the two escape the grasps of their handler, Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), and escape to the seclusion of a hill and a dilapidated church grounds.
Rain begins to pour onto the two lovers as they attempt to escape under the fallen structure for some sort of reprieve from the weather. It doesn’t work as a drenched Wayne, brooding in a white shirt that exeutiates his still massive physique, takes O’Hara into his arms and kisses her.
As is the trademark of Mary Kate, she resists the initial advance — unsure of whether or not this feeling is something to be followed — only to succumb to the passions erupting inside of her.
This happens time and time again in The Quiet Man. Each character seems overloaded with a variety of emotions that can bubble to the surface at any point and time. Wayne’s Thornton keeps his usual stoic, aloofness but can immediately swirl into a fit of jealousy and rage at the stubbornness of O’Hara’s Mary Kate.
The same can be said about her. Mary Kate shifts from the curiosity she displayed in her entrance to the movie, into a unstoppable confidence and back into a small curiosity in a matter of seconds.
Inadvertently, Ford seems to be adhering to the basic tenets of color theory. For a brief explanation, color theory is utilized in film in order for the filmmaker to present emotion through our innate human characterizations of a specific emotion a color exhibits. In the case of The Quiet Man, Ford follows a more analogous pattern — as I mentioned before, sticking to an arrangement of red, orange and gold — in order to convey the emotions of his characters.
The curious aspect is less Ford’s use of the theory but how he actualizes it. The characters of Sean, Mary Kate and Will, among others, feel more like embodiments of the analogous pattern rather than representations.
To better clarify, Ford’s characters feel more like shapes and figures of their colors rather than the palette or background dictating their emotions or feelings. Sean, Mary Kate and Will feel more like fragmented mental configurations — almost like this section from Disney’s Fantasia — rather than fully actualized narrative beats.
What is so effective in The Quiet Man is less the plot by plot beats that these characters follow — we can expect the path taken by Sean and Mary Kate, and how the climax with Will would eventually transpire — but by the complexions of their color.
Mary Kate seems much more adherent to a pattern of red and orange — a complexion that generally defines as corresponding with “domination, aggression and a thirst for action.” At the same time, she also contains elements of dark orange — “deceit and distrust” — as shown in the film’s opening scene as I mentioned before.
Sean is generally filmed with a bluer texture, generally associating him with confidence, intelligence, truth and trust. Blue is a deeply masculine color, but Ford seems to continue the analogous pattern by giving Wayne’s Sean elements of dark purple — a color associated with gloom, sad feelings and frustration.
The characters come together and separate with such ferocity and consistency that it causing the darker complexions — the dark orange or purple — and instigates the film’s conflict both in the plot and with the two main characters.
This constant shifting of emotions coupled with the gleam of the lush countryside in the background forgives any narrative or casting misgivings the film may have and illuminates the reason Ford may have wanted to create this story in his own ethereal homeland.
Ford approaches the film and its narrative in simplistic, idealistic way. The film takes places in the 1920s, years before “The Troubles” would befall the country, and many of the characters harp on that idea of tradition. In this way, it makes sense why Ford would want to head to Ireland and capture this story.
As a director, he was known for re-kindling America’s past in the West, and this story feels like one last vestige of the Ireland many knew and loved — before conflict would dispel on the green countryside so often highlighted in the movie.
The Quiet Man has a nationalist quality to it, but one that lacks much of political attention that Ireland’s conflict would soon attribute to such notions. McLaghlen and Wayne fight over masculine honor and pride rather than something deeper politically or religiously. The town’s Protestant pastor and Catholic priest are well-acquainted and share a kinship, including working to bring Sean and Mary Kate together.
In this way, The Quiet Man seems a little off from some of Ford's more interrogative work — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and The Searchers — where he took this idea of the American West and challenged it both in its characters and how people perceived this "idyllic past."
But this film also doesn't want to — or have to be — like that. The charm is in the intensity of these characters and the fulfillment — and execution — of their various passions. In this way, The Quiet Man overtly succeeds — and creates one of Ford's most breathtaking and entertaining works with it.