Not long after a civil war, a tough as nails fighter who has killed once too many returns to the county he was born in to reclaim the family farm and maybe settle down with a good woman. The only thing standing in his way is “Red” Will Danaher; the toughest, meanest man in town.
The Quiet Man has all the makings of a classic Western; starring John Wayne, directed by John Ford, and written by Frank Nugent, a team who had already created two of the greatest Westerns to ever grace the silver screen: Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers. The trick of it all is, the movie isn’t set in the American West. You won’t find the endless blue skies of Monument Valley here. Instead, you'll find the lush green hills of Ireland.
If you haven’t seen The Quiet Man, you really should. I mean it. The movie is a masterpiece that captures everything great about a John Ford film, including beautiful scenery, great action, fantastic comedy, and fully realized characters. Maybe The Quiet Man has less action than your usual John Ford Western, but it has one of the all time great fist fights. A fist fight so long that it stops for a lunch break.
John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, a man from Pittsburgh who has moved to the small town of Inisfree in Ireland with plans to buy his family home back. From the start, it is clear that the Irish don’t know what to make of Sean. While the men of Inisfree smoke pipes, Sean smokes hand rolled cigarettes. He curses a little too much for anyone’s liking, and he doesn’t understand why he should need the approval of Squire “Red” Will Danaher in order to ask his sister, Mary Kate, on a date.
The meat of the story is a romance between John Wayne’s Sean Thornton and Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher. Their courtship is akin to Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew in that Mary Kate Danaher, as everyone in town points out, is a fierce redheaded Irish lass who isn’t one to just do whatever a man tells her. She has certain demands before she’ll give herself over to Thornton, and while Thornton doesn’t understand why Mary Kate cares so much about old furniture and fifty pounds sterling - Thornton is a rich American, after all - he does his best to get Mary Kate what she wants with the help of the town.
The townspeople, following the instructions of Father Lonergan and Michaleen Oge Flynn, conspire to trick Squire into letting Thornton court his sister. The plan is a simple one - play on Squire’s love for the Widow Tillane. Father Lonergan tells Squire that the Widow Tillane would marry him, but how can she when there is already a woman living in the house? “And a redhead at that!” points out Flynn. Thinking this will all work out for him, Squire agrees to the courtship.
And a quick courtship it is. Mary Kate breaks down the steps to Thornton, and the months involved. The two decide to skip the month of courting, the month of walking out together, and the month of threshing parties and skip right to month four - kissing. Not long after, Thornton and Mary Kate are getting married, much to the joy of everyone in Inisfree. This is, as story dictates, where things go bad.
At the reception, Squire announces to the people of Inisfree that he and the Widow Tillane are to marry, which comes as a shock to the Widow Tillane who refuses. Realizing that he has been hoodwinked, Squire refuses to acknowledge the marriage of Thornton and his sister. Along with the refusal to acknowledge, he says he will not allow Mary Kate to have their mother’s furniture, or her fifty pounds.
Thornton is able to get the furniture, but when Squire refuses to turn over the money, the whole town, with Mary Kate leading the way, wonders why Thornton won’t fight him for it. The fighting thing is a problem for Thornton, a one time heavyweight boxer who vowed to never fight again after killing a man in the ring. This is why Thornton left America, he wanted to get away from the world that held so much guilt for him and find a place where no one would know who he was. Sure enough, fight he must. Since we already covered what happens in the fight, we’ll move on, shall we?
The Quiet Man shares a lot of themes that run through Ford’s more traditional Westerns. The film was made in 1951 but is set in the 1920s for a specific reason - the Irish Civil War, which came hot on the heels of the Irish War of Independence, ended in 1923, so this lets Ford feed in a natural mix of tension and joy between characters. Tension because so many of them, including Flynn, fought in the wars, and joy because for the first time in years, there is peace in Ireland. The town of Inisfree appears to be in the south of Ireland, having both a Catholic Priest and a Protestant Reverend who work together, but at the same time Flynn, Thornton’s closest confidant in the movie, makes it clear that he is still ready to pick up the fight right where it left off. Yes, he’s old now, and a drunk, but as Flynn explains to Thornton, on nice, soft nights, he likes to sit with old friends and talk a little treason.
The “retired gunfighter” trope of Westerns is replaced here with a famous boxer, but he still knows how to ride the hell out of a horse, and he sure talks like a cowboy. In truth, the way Wayne speaks in the movie should stand out as odd - he doesn’t sound like an American from the 1920s, but from the 1860s. I’m confidant that this is on purpose - for one thing, Ford and Nugent were no dummies - they knew what they were writing. For another, the character of Thornton plays into what the Irish would look at as the stereotypical American. In the film, they laugh at his having a sleeping bag and think that all Americans are millionaires. The mixing and matching of Irish and American colloquialisms and style is carefully constructed to help keep Thornton apart from everyone else in the film. During the horse race, everyone has English saddles except for Thornton, who uses a McClellan cavalry saddle - a saddle used by the US military from 1859 through World War II.
The film is also filled with those little human touches that Ford brought to his Westerns. The town of Inisfree feels real not just because they filmed in actual Irish towns, but because the people of the town feel like they exist. Each character, named or unnamed, stands out in some way.
At the same time, The Quiet Man breaks the conventions of the Western as much as it follows them. Yes, there is a fist fight to replace the usual shootout at the end, but no one dies. Matter of fact, at the end of the film, Thornton and Squire are buddies, with Squire courting the Widow Tillane proper.
Ford, who bought the story the movie is based on from Irish novelist Maurice Walsh for ten dollars, spent twenty years toying with it before filming began. Even then, Ford had to fight to get the movie made. Every major studio declined to make it, leading Ford to make a deal with Republic Pictures, a b-movie studio that was, in reality, the smashed together Frankenstein of six “Poverty Row” studios. The Quiet Man would be a major success for Republic, along with making a load of cash, it won two Academy Awards. Herbert Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, thought the script for The Quiet Man was garbage and only agreed to make the film if Ford, Wayne, and O’Hara would make Rio Grande first.
Ford, Wayne, and Nugent would work together again, making what I think many would agree is the greatest Western ever made, The Searchers. I go back and forth on which film is my favorite of Ford’s between this and The Searchers. I find myself arguing the merits of both, and bereft of anything to say against either film. They are amazing films, and they make for a great double feature, sharing some of the same themes, but tackling them in very different ways
John Wayne creates two amazing performances with Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man and Ethan Edwards in The Searchers; both men are so similar, but so far apart. They are two men who made their way through the world by fighting, one with the confederate army, the other in the ring. They both hope that the fighting can stop, but for Ethan, that hope can never become a reality; he is damned to stand outside of mankind, a creature that only knows violence. Thornton, on the other hand, learns to live the quiet life of a quiet man.