How ‘The Quiet Man’ Mined Irish Nostalgia for Oscar Gold
It might be supposed that a man named John Martin Feeney was of Irish descent; and it might also be supposed that, since he often called himself Seán Aloysius O’Fearna, he was proud of that ancestry. It was true – although as the Hollywood director John Ford, he became best known for movies based in the American Wild West. In 1933, however, by which time he’d already made over 70 films, he read a warm, nostalgic love story titled “The Green Rushes” that made such an impression on him that the bought the movie rights. It was the start of a long journey to his ancestral home.
It took nearly two decades to find a producer to back the story of Sean Thornton, who, after emigrating from Ireland to Pittsburgh, becomes financially successful, hits a crisis in his life and decides to go back to the place he was born, buy the family land back and settle down there. Even Ford’s three Best Director Oscars (among other wins) couldn’t persuade studios that there was something in the script. He’s reputed to have been told it was a “silly Irish story that won’t make a penny.”
Eventually, he cut a deal with B-movie house Republic Pictures to make The Quiet Man on a tight budget – on the agreement that he first made them a Western to counter the expected losses. Thus he, along with his favorite leads John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, made Rio Grande before heading to Ireland for three months in 1951. They’d all taken significant wage cuts to get the green light, which almost certainly boosted the sensation of camaraderie.
Watch Sean Thornton Come Home in 'The Quiet Man'
Ford’s habit of shooting wide landscapes worked well in the Irish counties of Mayo and Galway; and, blended with his idealization of life in 1920s Ireland, The Quiet Man was to become a film that defined a romantic notion of the Emerald Isle forever afterwards. Among the characters who helped define it was O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher, the mercurial redheaded love interest (“I have a fearful temper. You might as well know about it now instead of finding out about it later. We Danahers are a fighting people”). Oscar winner Victor McLaglen received another nomination for playing Mary Kate’s brother, “Red” Will Danaher, the local bully (“He’ll regret it to his dying day – if ever he lives that long!”). Barry Fitzgerald’s depiction of Michaeleen “Oge” Flynn provided both the funniest and saddest moments of the story (“When I drink whisky, I drink whisky; and when I drink water, I drink water”). In fact, Wayne once complained: “For nine weeks I was just playing straight man to those wonderful characters, and that’s really hard.”
Ford himself doubted during production that the development of Sean and Mary Kate’s relationship was too weak to carry the movie. “I don't know whether I’ve got a picture here or not,” he confided to Wayne, whose enthusiasm pulled the director through. It was actually the perfect central structure since, despite the ups and downs of getting together – and in particular Will’s refusal to allow their marriage, then being tricked into letting it happen, then Sean’s failure to understand why Will’s withholding of Mary Kate’s dowry means so much to her – they never change how they feel about each other.
Watch John Wayne in 'The Quiet Man'
With Will outbid for the old Thornton lands, he’s set against Sean from the start, and becomes even more so when he discovers the marriage plot. But Will and Sean are actually very similar, and after the longest and most drawn-out two-man fight scene in movie history, they become friends. Michaleen’s subplots are always created out of a sense of care; and the warm relations between the Catholic and Protestant church leaders adds to the illustration of a village trapped in a time when only going to Cohan’s pub really matters at the end of the day.
The Quiet Man set was a happy workplace, with members of the Ford, Wayne and O’Hara families all taking part in front of and behind the camera, alongside the best-known Irish talent of the day. The director is said to have written to a friend that leaving Ireland “seemed like the finish of an epoch in my somewhat troubled life. Galway is in my blood and the only place I have found peace.”
Watch John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in 'The Quiet Man'
When post-production was completed the film was 129 minutes long, but Republic refused to release anything longer than 120 minutes. Ford, feeling that he’d taken out everything he could, claimed he’d done what was asked of him and staged the final cut for the studio, stopping the reel at 120 minutes just as the epic fight scene commences. “You’re begging me for the last nine minutes; do you think the audience will be any different?” he’s reputed to have asked. The stunt made his point.
The Quiet Man premiered in London on June 6, 1952, and hit American screens on Aug. 21. From a budget of $1.75 million – modest for Ford but steep for Republic – it made $3.8 million and drew seven Oscar nominations and two wins, bringing Ford his fourth Best Director award. It became a cultural touchstone both for American Irish and many in Ireland itself, and it remained a personal favorite for Ford, Wayne and O’Hara, who listened to the stirring tradition-based soundtrack during her last hours in 2015.
Watch Sean and Mary Kate’s Wedding Night Fight From ‘The Quiet Man’
A movie like The Quiet Man couldn’t be made today. The ‘50s depiction of “getting on with it” in a relatively poor ‘20s rural life – with heavy drinking and domestic violence rife among both genders in a social structure that enforces gender expectations – wouldn’t be tolerated as the background against which people compromise and live happily ever after because they chose to. In particular, the key element of Sean’s refusal to engage in a fistfight with Will (because he’d killed a man in the prizefight that made him rich), and the community’s discomfort in living with such a “quiet man” until he proves he’ll physically fight for his wife, would have an entirely different tone today. So too would Mary Kate’s position as a woman whose standing is dependent upon men.
But of course, nostalgia for “getting on with it” is about simpler and happier times. Perhaps that’s why the film remains so popular today, hailed by many big movie names, with a museum and replica cottage welcoming visitors not far from the often-visited shooting locations in Cong, Co. Mayo, and Pat Cohan’s pub screening the movie every day of the week.
Watch the Showdown From ‘The Quiet Man’
Watch ‘The Quiet Man’ Trailer