#238. The Quiet Man (1952)

I swear this isn’t a trend but I had the same issue in writing about The Quiet Man, which I adore, that I had in writing about The Lavender Hill Mob, which is that I’d start the essay, couldn’t finish it, came back to it a couple weeks later, started over, didn’t finish—on and on. I’m not sure how many half-pages I’ve dedicated to this movie already without really making a dent. But I’m finding, fortunately, that the solution to this writers’ block issue might be to just ditch the notebook and sit over a keyboard and punch out some obstinate paragraph about what a hard time I’m having and then go from there.

           John Ford’s The Quiet Man is luminous and green and looks quite a bit like his last passion project about a rural family, How Green Was My Valley?, which is a good movie that stands well on its own, but, much as I try, I can’t help remembering it mostly within the context of its having (wrongly, I think) beaten Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1942.

But Quiet Man is also the first example on the List of John Ford playing with color.

           Accordingly, if there’s a chief adjective to describe this movie, it’s “green.”

           After that, the word is probably be “cozy” or “intimate.” Apart from the star power of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, the movie’s essentially an ensemble piece, with a dozen-odd characters who are all so distinct, so charming in their own ways, that it’s like sitting among friends. Lines stand out that aren’t exceptionally clever but just ring so true to the character that it seems like the kinda movie a couple or a family or a group of friends would absorb as “ours” and hold up as the key to their inside jokes.

           Which is the movie’s chief allure, I think, because there isn’t much of a plot, or even a story. John Wayne plays a retired boxer who’s just come home to the small Irish village where he was raised. The reason for his coming home isn’t spelled out until the third act (if I’m remembering correctly) but, for some reason, just about every synopsis I’ve come across lists it right away.

           “Wayne has come back home because…”

I spent the whole movie wondering if I’d missed something cuz the synopsis had told me the reason for his return but I wasn’t hearing it anywhere in the film. I won’t reveal it here, because I do think Ford put it there for a reason. There’s an added punch that comes from getting your information when and where the director wants you to.

(To justify my own difficulty in writing about this movie: I think the writers gave that secret away right at the top of their synopsis or review because this movie is just exceptionally hard to write about, and they were pawing for content.)

           Anyway. Wayne falls in love with Marueen O’Hara, who falls into a reluctant kinda love with him too, and so we watch their courtship and then their engagement—all through the lens of old Irish custom: getting the family’s approval, the dowry, dealing with surly in-laws who see their women as objects to be traded.

            In this case the villainous in-law is O’Hara’s brother, played by Victor McLaglen, whose abrasiveness is convincing here in respect to his heft, and just the strength of his performance, but there’s a vestige of the avuncular lug he played in Ford’s previous movie, Rio Bravo, which I kinda hated and which Ford apparently only directed so that the studio would be willing to take a risk on his little Irish passion project.

            Scott Eyman’s biography of Ford portrays Quiet Man’s shoot as one of the most Edenic periods of his career. Just about everybody got along and, apart from Maureen O’Hara breaking a bone in her hand while hitting John Wayne, and apart from Ford falling into a depressive slump after O’Hara’d apparently rebuked one his advances, everybody else seems to’ve agreed that the whole thing was a lark.

           And I think that’s a big part of why the movie’s so charming. It isn’t just that the fictional inhabitants of this little Irish village like their home so much, it’s that the actors are enjoying themselves on the set.

           Quentin Tarantino once told Charlie Rose about a conversation he had with Eleanor Coppola: he was struggling to finish the script for Inglorious Basterds at the time and kinda cowering before what looked like an enormous production, larger than anything he’d ever done. Coppola, who’d made a terrific documentary called Hearts of Darkness about her husband Francis’s tormented making of Apocalypse Now, told Tarantino that Basterds was his Everest and that, menacing though it is, you need to climb Everest when you’re still young enough. When you can endure the rigors of it and, if necessary, bounce back from the failure. (Funny But Not Funny: Coppola was so convinced that Apocalypse Now would be a failure that he jumped immediately into making One from the Heart, thinking his simple romantic dramedy would at least recoup it’s money. The opposite happened. His sprawling experimental war picture was a smash, his little conventional love story bombed. So it goes.)

            Ford was coming up on 60 when he made The Quiet Man, which I think was based on a little magazine piece that to which he’d bought the rights several years earlier, and, while the shoot doesn’t seem like a particularly complicated one (certainly not compared to the action of Stagecoach or Rio Bravo), the fact that he was willing to shoot a whole ‘nother movie (i.e. Rio Bravo, the commercial insurance policy against what the studio thought would be Quiet Man’s failure), with a major action set piece and songs and shit, in order to get to this smaller passion project, is, I think, a reflection of that same self-awareness and drive that Coppola was describing to Tarantino. He probably knew he only had so many years left where he could command the authority to make a passion project, only a few years left where he’d have the wherewithal to make two movies in quick succession as basically two parts of the same project.

           So there’s something about the jocularity of his characters, the joy of his actors, and the intimacy between Ford and this material (which he’d been tampering with for the better part of a decade) that makes the movie just feel warm in a way that, like the charms of Lavender Hill Mob, seem to evade description.

            But it’s a charming and fun movie, beautifully shot and incredibly compelling, and it’s also very much the kinda movie that doesn’t totally reveal itself at first. It’s enough of a story that you can digest the broad strokes and arcs in one sitting, but there’s an attention to detail here that screams of being a passion project.

            This one’ll be on the TMAP for sure.

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