The scene unfolds without words. The man, standing in the doorway, throws a stone. A window shatters. A woman, Mary Kate, darts from the shadows, graceful and timid as a doe. As she flees, the man, Sean, pulls her back into the house and – as a great burst of wind flings out her red hair – kisses her.
The kiss in the wind is one of the more iconic shots in The Quiet Man (1952), a film so stuffed with whimsical romance and broad “Irish” humor that it feels like the cinematic equivalent of a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. It certainly is a vision of Ireland only an Irish American could have dreamed up. But there’s much more to The Quiet Man than twee jokes and nostalgic sentiment. It is director John Ford’s reflection on marriage and community and his examination of homecoming – a journey more fraught than John Wayne’s protagonist, Sean Thornton, first imagines. Its lessons are more subtle than they appear.
The Quiet Man – reaching its seventieth anniversary this year – had been Ford’s passion project since the 1930s. Best known for Westerns, directing his first cowboy picture in 1917 and his last in 1964, Ford did more than any other director to shape the American mythic understanding of the West, and of the country itself, in films like Stagecoach (1939) – which constructed John Wayne – and The Searchers (1956) – which deconstructed him.
But if Westerns are concerned, critically and uncritically, with Manifest Destiny and the desire to chase the frontier, The Quiet Man examines the opposite theme: going home. Rejecting the Oregon Trail, the pilgrim turns around and gets back on the boat. (To those critics who protest that its portrayal of Ireland is unrealistic, it’s worth noting that Ford’s mythic West was also far more an explanatory American fairy tale than a strict historical reconstruction. Federico Fellini would later say admiringly that Ford was a man “who has made out of motion pictures a fairy tale to be lived by himself, a dwelling in which to live with joyous spontaneity.”)
In The Quiet Man’s opening scene, John Wayne arrives in Ireland aboard that most civilized of vehicles: a train. Not a horse in sight. It’s the first hint that we’re about to enter a world that, for all its rosy romanticism, will turn a number of Hollywood clichés on their heads.
Easygoing, enigmatic Sean is returning to the land of his ancestors, having grown weary of Pittsburgh, where they feed men “steel, and pig-iron furnaces so hot a man forgets his fear of hell.” He purchases his birthplace – White O’Morn – in defiance of his burly neighbor, Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). And after encountering her in a field – this is the sort of movie where, when lovers meet for the first time, a harp trills in the background – Sean promptly falls for Will’s mercurial sister, Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara).
O’Hara and Wayne are one of the underrated Hollywood power couples, appearing in five films together (some better than others). Wayne was, contrary to popular belief, a subtle and talented actor, capable of sensitive and romantic performances (see him opposite Lauren Bacall in The Shootist or Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo), but his bond with O’Hara was something special. She had an unsentimental toughness and brass that, coupled with her astonishing beauty, made her the perfect complement and contrast to Wayne’s laid-back, drawling hypermasculinity. The two were friends in real life. O’Hara said they enjoyed matching wits, and she testified before Congress to get Wayne a medal.
This natural chemistry makes it easy to see why Mary Kate is so quickly swept off her feet by Sean’s lack of ceremony and awkward sensitivity. Not long after meeting Mary Kate, Sean shows up at the Danahers’ door holding a bouquet of pink roses in front of him like a weapon. Wayne’s ramrod posture is intentionally funny. His usual demeanor is relaxed and authoritative; here he looks like a gawky teenager frustrated by the tightness of his suit jacket.
On an initial viewing, the story seems like a straightforward romance. The first half builds to romantic ecstasies, as Wayne and O’Hara’s kisses are rendered Homeric by the raging elements. Ford has a masterful, painterly eye for composition, paired with a fine sensitivity for subtle shades of emotion. He shuns a moving camera, preferring to let a scene build in a still frame. There’s no escape, no looking away.
“With Ford at his best,” Orson Welles would later tell Peter Bogdanovich, “you get a sense of what the earth is made of.”
In more elegiac films like How Green Was My Valley or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford uses his still camera to bring us close to moments of heartbreak and bittersweet longing. In The Quiet Man, he uses it to kindle a powerful romance. When Sean catches Mary Kate cleaning his cottage, he grabs and kisses her, her red hair streaming out in the wind through the open door in that iconic image.
But what happens next is just as interesting. Following the kiss, Mary Kate continues her route to the door, flinging tart insults at Sean, only to be called back by his gentle entreaties. He moves closer, enclosing her on either side with his arms. Her back is to a doorway. She’s not trapped. Ford’s still camera moves in close on the couple, letting the tension build.
Sean begins listing the things that drew him to her. The sun on her hair. Her quiet reverence in church. “And now,” he says, “coming to a man’s house to clean it for him?” She bristles and protests that this was simply Christian charity. It’s plainly not, but Sean grants her the lie, mildly. “I know it was, Mary Kate Danaher, and it was kind of you.”
Her whole expression changes. She hides a smile. He’s playing by the rules now. Which emboldens her to break a rule of her own – as she opens the door to leave, she impetuously kisses him, and flees in a gust of wind. Sean is left looking stunned.
That’s the movie, and their relationship, in miniature. Sean breaks convention; Mary Kate is offended; he plays along; she feels seen and so is emboldened to break a convention herself. It is the interplay of ritual and masquerade, the rules that give shape and order to the elemental passions at play. Without them, we would all be swept away.
For this reason, The Quiet Man is in an important respect quite different from the lion’s share of romantic comedies: it’s a movie less interested in courting than what comes afterward. The marriage happens halfway through the film. Following a romantic session in the rain, we cut abruptly to Sean and Mary Kate as a married couple, posed, rigid and wide-eyed, awaiting the snap of the camera. It comes, in a puff of smoke, freezing the stunned newlyweds in wonder. What, their dazed faces ask, have we done?
This is just the start of the movie’s most important conflict, between Mary Kate’s conservative honor culture and Sean’s independent, New World principles. A family dispute brings all this to the surface during their wedding reception.
Marriage does not exist in a vacuum; it is an event with implications for society. Thus, it’s appropriate that the film gives just as much, if not more time, to developing the quirky community of Innisfree as it does its central romance. A great part of The Quiet Man’s charm is its rogue’s gallery of supporting actors. The John Ford stock company is out in force, with everyone getting a moment, from John Wayne’s best friend Ward Bond – the narrator priest, Father Lonergan – to real-life Irish brothers Barry Fitzgerald the matchmaker and Arthur Shields the vicar, to Ford’s older brother, Francis, the old man brought back from the brink of death by the news of a “donnybrook.” Every character actor kills it, no matter how slight the part. (Shout out to “Tiny” Jones, an incredibly petite seventy-seven-year-old who makes the most of her ten-second cameo to scold the six-foot-four-inch-tall Victor McLaglen. It was her final performance. There are no small roles …)
Sean and Mary Kate’s marriage is brought about because the entire community conspires to deceive Mary Kate’s brother: with the blessing of Father Lonergan, they use Will Danaher’s vanity and desire to hoodwink him into agreeing to his sister’s courtship. When a furious Will discovers the deception, he refuses to hand over Mary Kate’s dowry. Despite Mary Kate’s bruised pride and humiliation, Sean won’t fight Will over it. In a passionate wedding-night speech, Sean’s new wife attempts to explain to him that if, as a woman, she has no things of her own, she is simply a slave of men. Sean scoffs at her logic and is astonished when she reacts by refusing to sleep with him. Fight my brother for the dowry, she demands, or there will be no children in this house.
It’s an interesting conflict. Both parties have good and bad reasons for their positions; both find it impossible to understand the other. It’s a conflict of cultures, of genders, and of personalities. Mary Kate wants her freedom and the money means that for her. She also wants it because she’s proud and stubborn and she wants Sean to give in. Sean finds this a mercenary, grubby attitude and resents the lack of trust she shows in him, especially when she accuses him of being a coward for refusing a fight. Yet he also feels free to blithely disregard the sacrifice of the dowry, oblivious that the sacrifice is his wife’s, not his.
He has other reasons. There must be, of course, a compelling explanation for why John Wayne, of all people, refuses to fight. A flashback, more disjointed and realistic than any other scene in the film, finally reveals why. Sean is fleeing his past as a boxer. He accidentally killed a man in the ring, and now he sees money as something vulgar and corrupting, beneath his dignity to pursue. His quietude conceals a deep pain.
The sensitivity of Sean’s nature paired with his deep distaste for the requirements of a machismo culture both confuses and intrigues Mary Kate. It’s not the only contradiction in Sean’s behavior. He offers Mary Kate something closer to egalitarian respect than she’s ever known (“It’s what you think, not him,” he insists when she defers to her brother), but he also acts with a sense of entitlement and sexual license born of his American independence. Can she really be free with such a man?
But there’s the rub. In an interesting gender flip, it’s the man who is affronted that he isn’t trusted by a romantic partner and refuses to explain his decisions. Of course, there’s also the more traditional conflict: lack of respect. Mary Kate’s worst insult on the wedding night is not denying him access to her bed but audibly locking her door on him. The signaled lack of trust arouses his temper in a terrifying way. She later repeats the insult by riding off angrily in the horse and trap he just gave her, stranding him with a five-mile walk home.
The conflict between the two, a secret, finally reaches a breaking point, prompting husband and wife to turn to separate spiritual mentors for guidance. She talks to Father Lonergan and he to the lonely vicar, Reverend Playfair, the one man who knows about Sean’s past as a boxer.
(The film, by the way, eschews any interest in the real political structure of Ireland, aside from an impish hint here and there that one of the mischievous little men in the background is an IRA member, possibly in cahoots with Father Lonergan. The Catholic priest and Protestant minister are friends, and Lonergan ultimately convinces his congregation to hoodwink a Church of Ireland bishop so Rev. Playfair will not be moved to a different parish. However, the triumph of America and Ireland against British wannabe “Squire” Danaher is lauded.)
Both Lonergan and Playfair urge concessions, not intransigence. For obvious reasons, an aging priest is scandalized that a woman refuses to sleep with the husband who provides for her. But the vicar, a married man and a sports enthusiast, seems to intuit that there is a way for Sean’s fighting to be turned toward a healthier end. He asks, “Is your wife’s love worth fighting for?”
Having taken counsel, Sean and Mary Kate meet again at home. She does not renew her complaints and he draws her onto his lap. They stare into the fire, exhausted, guilt-ridden, but together. Not reconciled, though. They do not meet each other’s eyes.
That night, Mary Kate breaks her promise to forswear the marriage bed. Proud and embarrassed the next morning, she packs a suitcase and flees before her husband wakes. If this seems like an overreaction, well, she does sit on the train looking warily out the window. She expects – perhaps hopes – to be pursued.
When Sean wakes and realizes what has happened, he makes his choice. Throwing on his clothes, he leaps onto a magnificent black horse (now he’s a cowboy again) and pursues his wife to the station.
What follows is a show of force which the film plays as slapstick, but which is often – understandably – experienced by modern audiences as reactionary and unacceptable. Sean physically drags Mary Kate back to her brother and demands he take his sister back. Will Danaher, caught in a moment of social shame, instead gives the dowry money to Sean.
Then, an important moment. Sean strides toward the furnace and Mary Kate, moving in unison with him, opens the furnace door. They look into each other’s eyes, smile widely, and throw the money into the fire together.
The film suggests that marriage is often about fulfilling each other’s rituals even when they don’t fully make sense to us. It’s better to love each other well than to be right, the film communicates, and sometimes we don’t even need to grasp what the rituals mean to fulfill them.
Still, why should Sean’s restoration to Mary Kate’s respect require that he step fully into the charade of machismo at the heart of her “Irish” culture? It’s understandable why such logic won’t wash with modern audiences. The greatest weakness of the film is how it treats with neutrality or levity moments where characters equate a husband’s leadership with physical force. (The characters’ logic, needless to say, does not square with a Christian understanding of a husband’s role.) Given the ending of the film it seems unlikely that Ford endorses such a view, but by treating its expression lightly he undermines his broader purpose. After all, the clear endgame of the story is to bring Sean and Mary Kate into a partnership of equals.
And the achievement of marital equality is ultimately a lauded victory. Despite the inappropriate violence of the ritual, once the dowry has been won, it’s clear Sean and Mary Kate have come to a new level of understanding, trust, and equality. It’s a bit of a mysterious thing – Sean doesn’t quite comprehend it. But throwing the dowry into the fire means Mary Kate finally feels that Sean understands what she wanted. It was never the money that mattered to her. What mattered was that he, her husband, fight for her honor in public. If she had to put up with some humiliation to make that happen, well, it was all worth it in the end.
And of course, then there’s the men’s fight. Once Mary Kate struts away home, Sean and Will must continue to fight – and fighting itself is transformed from Sean’s horrifying memory into a joyful communal lark, what commentator William C. Dowling calls a “saturnalian or Bacchic release,” a “ritualized disorder” with Barry Fitzgerald’s character Michaleen Oge Flynn stepping in as Lord of Misrule. The two contestants fall into rivers and haystacks, stop at the local pub for a breather, and accrue spectator after spectator until all of Innisfree is involved. This is not brutality but play. Afterward, Sean and Will happily stagger to White O’ Morn, looking for dinner. The quiet man has come home.