If you know John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN (1952), then you know me better than you think. Some say this film is an Irish western… A love story… A romantic fantasy of Ireland. For me, all of these can be said as true, but more specifically it’s also a love story of the deep roots of Irish family and community. If you have never seen THE QUIET MAN (1952), then “nil tu foirfe, ach maithim duit” (roughly in Gaelic, ‘you’re not perfect, but I forgive you.’) My love for this film goes deep, so please forgive any spoilers and fiery passion that may lie ahead.
Like myself, director John Ford was American but fiercely proud of his Irish heritage. He patiently waited fifteen long years from the time he purchased the rights to this story from Maurice Walsh in 1936 to finally bringing his swan song to the big screen. He had the perfect cast in mind. But studio heads were not so confident and they didn’t want to risk financing Ford’s pet project that they predicted to be loss on the books. His pick for the male lead, John Wayne was under contract at Republic Pictures. Working with Merian C. Cooper, Ford was able to convince this studio to allow him to make THE QUIET MAN but only if he agreed to make a guaranteed money maker first. And that he did, with the successful RIO GRANDE (1950). As the third of Ford’s cavalry themed westerns starring Wayne, RIO GRANDE also marked the first feature pairing Maureen O’Hara (whom Ford worked with in his HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) and John Wayne. Their chemistry blazed on the screen so Ford knew immediately he made the right choice for his leading roles.
Ford wanted to film in the area of Ireland near his ancestral roots of Galway. Most of the on-location shots were accomplished in the town of Cong, county Mayo and at the Ashford castle grounds nearby. The rest of the filming, mostly of interior shots, were completed back in the studios. But the cast and crew’s time spent while shooting on location in Ireland is where the love of family truly comes to light. John Ford employed his favorite cast of actors for this film but also utilized members of his cast’s and of his own families to fill out the entire roster of production- both in front of and behind the camera. Filming this production must have felt like an incredibly tight-knit family reunion. Here are some examples of this nepotistic cinema family tree:
John Ford’s clan:
John Ford- director, uncredited writer
Francis Ford- Dan Tobin (John’s older brother who was a well-known actor/director/writer himself)
Maureen O’Hara’s clan:
Maureen O’Hara- Mary Kate Danaher-Thornton
James O’Hara- Father Paul (Maureen’s brother who was born James Fitzsimons, aka James Lilburn, and had a busy career with small parts in TV in 1950’s-70’s)
Charles B. Fitzsimons- Hugh Forbes (Maureen’s brother who was also a long-time producer and executive officer of Producers Guild of America)
John Wayne’s family:
John Wayne- Sean Thornton
Melinda Wayne- girl on wagon at the horse race (the Duke’s daughter)
Michael Wayne- teenager boy at horse race (the Duke’s oldest son, producer of many Wayne films)
Patrick Wayne- boy on wagon at horse race (the Duke’s second oldest son who had active acting career, Golden Globe Winner)
Toni Wayne- teenager girl at horse race (the Duke’s oldest daughter)
The Shield brothers:
Barry Fitzgerald- Michaleen Flynn (popular character actor, Oscar winner, born William Shields )
Arthur Shields- Reverend Cyril Playfair (almost 10 years younger brother to Barry Fitzgerald, prolific career in acting in film, TV and stage)
Victor McLaglen- Squire “Red” Wil Danaher [nominated for an Academy Award for this role, Oscar winner already for THE INFORMER (1936), another Ford favorite character actor]
And to fill in the gaps wherever members of the Wayne, Ford, O’Hara, etc. families were not already occupied, actors from Dublin’s famed Abbey theater troop and locals as extras were used, too.
The story itself surrounds Sean Thornton (John Wayne), an Irish American from Pittsburg who has come home to Ireland to rightfully claim his ancestral home. He was born in this small Irish village of Innisfree and recalls fondly his dearly departed mother’s (who died when he was 12) poetically descriptive account of their Irish family cottage where Sean was born and where seven generations of the Thornton clan were born before him. Escorted via horse and carriage by Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) on his way to negotiate the purchase of his birthplace home and land, Sean catches a breathtaking technicolor vision of Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara in popping-off-the-screen colors of deep blues and reds like a dream), as she herds sheep in the field and they exchange penetrating glances.
Sean is seeking peace and quiet and a cover to hide from his past yet finds challenges almost from the moment he steps off the train. The land he purchases from widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick) is flanked by the two biggest landowners of the county- “Red Will” Danaher (Victor McLaglen) and Widow Tillane. The two have a bit of a competitive dynamic so Widow Tillane sells Thornton the land just to spite cantankerous Danaher, which sparks an immediate hatred towards Thornton by Danaher. Otherwise, Thornton’s quietly peaceful and charismatic presence immediately wins all the locals over. Sean attempts to court Mary Kate with Michaleen’s assistance but her brother “Red Will” Danaher and the rigid code of Irish tradition proves to be a very stubborn obstacle.
At a fantastic horse race by the beach the town people, headed by Michaleen and parish priest Father Lonergan (Ward Bond), conspire a plan to bring the love birds together by tricking Red Danaher- by infering that perhaps widow Tillane would be less icy to him if only Mary Kate were out of the house. The plan works and soon the two are married. But at the wedding ceremony, blundering Danaher announces his engagement to widow Tillane without even consulting her on the matter. As one would imagine, that does not go over well. Angered and embarrassed by the deceptive conspiracy, Danaher refuses his sister her rightful dowry. And as before, when Danaher strikes against Thornton in physical confrontation, Sean simply backs down.
One of the locals that warmly welcomes Sean is Reverend Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields), whose wife Elizabeth (Eileen Crowe) calls him “Snuffy,” eventually realizes how he recognizes him. As a sports fan, pastor Playfair discovers that the newest citizen of Innisfree is really Sean “Trooper” Thornton the former prize fighter who quit his boxing career when one of his knockouts rendered his opponent a fatal blow. This is the past he’s been running from, and it’s also why he’s avoided fighting back whenever Danaher pushes him.
While folks were able to persuade Squire Danaher to release Mary Kate’s family furniture on the wedding night, he wouldn’t budge on the dowry. The shame of her new husband not fighting for her reputation and her rightful dowry, sends Mary Kate running off to the train station leaving a farewell note for Sean back at the cottage. Sean wakes up to Michaleen reading the note. Sean knows it’s time to bring closure to his past. By facing the demons of his past and fighting for the respect and love of his charmingly fiesty Mary Kate, we are treated to one of the best fights scenes in screen history that brings the entire town (even Squire Danaher and Widow Tillane and both Catholics and Protestants alike) all together.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family, THE QUIET MAN was more than just a classic film to me. We are quite proud of our heritage. I’m fortunate to have Irish roots on both sides of my family tree. My father’s side hails from the O’Sullivan’s, of County Kerry. On my mother’s side, our family name is O’Donnell of County Donegal. I loved listening to my grandmother (my mother’s mom) tell stories about her grandparents’ trip to America from a little Irish town of Cashlenaan in Donegal and what being Irish meant to her. She spoke of visiting her cousins in Ireland when she and her sister visited. My mother also told me many stories of when she visited as a child, even kissing the famed “Blarney stone.”
For some folks, celebrating Irish culture means drinking some beer or whiskey on March 17th. For me, being Irish is not about a beverage or a holiday, it’s something our family celebrates daily. As a child, the folklore stories of leprechauns, fairies and selkies were told in rich detail so they almost seemed possible. But one family tradition that stood out was watching THE QUIET MAN. I envisioned that somehow with that fiery red hair, ivory skin and high cheek bones that both my grandmother and Maureen O’Hara shared, plus that Irish, head-strong temperament that I see reflected in every female of my family, this family story was somehow my own. I felt an instant connection to this film that was deeply personal. I understood Ford’s dream.
To me, Maureen O’Hara exemplified what a woman should be- strong, independent, outspoken, smart, beautiful, sassy, courageous, naturally athletic, tough as “one of the boys” yet ample in feminine curves… all with that magnetic smile and hearty laugh. She also is a great example of how many Irish women are unrecognized feminists because they often take pride in traditional roles while still demanding respect from their male counterparts. As the character Mary Kate, there’s a funny scene where she’s serving a table of men a generous supper. She scoops potatoes onto plates as she swiftly circles around to each and exchanges sharply quick verbal commands to keep them all in line.
Is this a feminist moment? You bet. Modern day or younger generation feminists may have a tougher time agreeing with me on this, but Maureen O’Hara- both as Mary Kate and off the screen- struck a beautiful balance in feminism. Here was a woman who held some very traditional roles as a woman (domestically, as a mother, in beauty…) but held her own with the men (she did all her own stunts- including being dragged and roughed up on equal par with the likes of 6.4 John Wayne and all this when she just had a baby prior to filming THE QUIET MAN), but she never put up with any malarkey. Sounds like a thoroughly Irish woman to me. That’s why she commanded the respect of tough critics like John Wayne and John Ford. And that’s why I think of my grandmother, my entire Irish family, and what being Irish means to me whenever I see THE QUIET MAN.
For ‘proof’ of my deep affection to this thoroughly Irish woman Maureen O’Hara, please check out my post reflecting my experience when I saw her at the 2013 John Wayne Birthday Celebration here, or perhaps you’ve seen me recently on TCM hanging out in the audience, right behind Maureen O’Hara and Bob Osborne from their interview at the 2014 TCM Film Festival. I’m the one smiling from ear to ear, with every freckle on my face positively BEAMING…
This post is also my contribution to the John Ford Blogathon hosted by krelllabs.blogspot.com & bemusedandnonplussed.wordpress.com Check out all the wonderful participating blog posts listed on either host sites.