Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Retrospective: The Quiet Man


He's a nice, quiet, peace-loving man, come home to Ireland to forget his troubles. Sure, yes, yes, he's a millionare, you know, like all the Yanks. But he's eccentric—ooh, he is eccentric! Wait 'til I show ya... his bag to sleep in. A sleeping bag, he calls it! Here, let me show you how it operates.
—Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn in The Quiet Man

At the height of his career, John Wayne was the image of the American we wanted to present to the world: strong, competent, honorable and attractive, in every sense of those words. In the 1952 classic, The Quiet Man, John Thornton is quintessential John Wayne, swaggering around his ancestral Irish hamlet, charming the natives and winning Maureen O'Hara's heart.

The love story is clever, pitting Thornton's instant attraction to (and for) O'Hara's Mary Kate Dannaher character against their differing customs, and her brother's enmity. Squire "Red Will" Dannaher (played by one-time boxer Victor McLaglen) is a brawler who had hoped to buy the Thornton farm from its owner, the Widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick). When Thornton persuades her to sell to him instead, Dannaher takes Thornton's charming ways as a direct challenge—not only to his hopes for property acquisition, but also to his undeclared relationship with the Widow Tillane.

If anyone could create a notable supporting character to the Wayne-O'Hara-McLaglen trinity, it is Barry Fitzgerald. He plays Flynn, the local match-maker, as a boozy leprechaun with an eye to any opportunity for a free drink. Flynn narrates much of the film, either explicitly, or, as cited above, in dialog with other characters. He has plenty of opportunity to talk, too—Flynn has a finger in every village pie, it seems.

In fact, the movie is full of endearing comic bits, quietly poking fun at stereotypes and illuminating Irish village life. We can chuckle at the stolid Englishman who calmly reads his paper as a pub fight rages around him, laugh at the Catholic priests who cover their collars to cheer for the Anglican bishop, grin at the reaction of the Reverend's wife when she learns her husband has won a sizeable bet.

But the center of this movie is the clash between Wayne and O'Hara. Sure, the last quarter of the film seems to be concerned with the lengthy fist-fight between Thornton and Dannaher, but in watching it again recently, I realized their fight is a metaphor. Thornton and Dannaher are almost equally matched, weight-for-weight, skill-for-skill. Dannaher's bluster is fueled by anger and stubborn pride, while Thornton's agreement to the fight has a tinge of resignation to it, a "let's get it over with" attitude.

Wayne's quiet American spends a lot of time avoiding this fight, ignoring his opponent's attempts to instigate the fray—even at the cost of losing considerable "face" with Mary Kate. Once having commenced the battle, however, Thornton will not concede. He's in it to win, and will do what it takes to achieve victory, as long as it's within the rules. In the 1950s, these were qualities and attitudes the world ascribed to John Wayne, and by extension, to America.

Thornton cannot beat Mary Kate (although she invites it) until he has beaten her brother, not because it is her custom, but because to do otherwise wouldn't be strong, wouldn't be principled.

Wouldn't be John Wayne.

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