I’m not sure there is a better way for a teetotaler like me to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than to spend two hours immersed in Irish countryside with two great stars of the past. Skip the Blarney Stone and shamrocks, give me John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” and I will feel like I have been transported to Ireland for a short time on this day.
John Wayne was the biggest star in movies for years and that is in large part due to his many appearances in Westerns. He made other types of films as well, War Movies, Historical Dramas but undoubtedly, his greatest role outside of the oaters was as Sean Thornton, in this 1950 classic which is basically a romantic comedy. Paired with Maureen O’Hara for the second of their five on-screen performances, the two of them really manage to convey sexual chemistry in an otherwise staid setting. There is a moment when they are trapped by the rain in a ruin of a church, where she accepts his jacket for warmth and his white shirt clings to him as it gets wet, she seems to be doing the same thing.
While the romance is supplied by Wayne and O’Hara, the comedy is supplied by the cast of supporting players in a variety of ways. Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn, cabbie and matchmaker, has a dozen wisecracks that will make you smile and a sly take on all the romantic goings on. Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick and Victor McLagen all provide moments of laughter as well, and the dozens of townsfolk all add in their two cents here and there. It’s certainly not politically correct but it is funny when a local woman provides Sean Thornton with a stick that he can use to beat his wife. As usual, context is king, so watch the scene before you judge.
This really is a cultural journey as well into the country traditions of Irish courtship. One of the big conflicts concerns Sean’s unwillingness to press the issue of Mary Kate’s dowry payment. It is a big enough issue of face to her, that she refrains from the marital bed in spite of clearly longing for the physical presence of Sean. That it is resolved by her chucking the cash away after it has been obtained shows that the money was not the point but her status was. Of course no one other than the Protestant Minister knows the reason that Sean is reticent to raise a fist to his brother in law, and that probably contributes to the culture clash even more. An American audience would probably see the issue Sean’s way, but he has to finally understand it from her perspective, which is what a real marriage is about anyway, and shows that they truly do belong together.
John Ford won his fourth Oscar for Best director for this film and it is easy to see why. The romance, although nearly instantaneous in attraction, still plays out over the course of the film, letting us get to know the two characters really well. There is just enough time with the townsfolk for them to be seen as charming rather than overbearing, and frankly the movie looks gorgeous. As Sean and Mary Kate escape their chaperone on a tandem bike and ride around the countryside, it is easy to see how someone could fall in love with a place and wish to be transported there. For the length of the film, that’s what Ford manages to do, put us in the Ireland of our imagination and make us fall in love. Happy St. Patrick’s Day all.