Friday’s Editor’s Pick: “The Quiet Man” (1952)

by on May 19, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri May 20 at 7:00 & Sun May 22 at 5:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


Though Gabriele Byrne’s HBO series In Treatment was not renewed for another season, the actor (and official cultural ambassador of Ireland) has put his free time to good use by programming a series on Irish identity for MoMA, “Revisiting The Quiet Man: Ireland on Film,” which starts today and runs through Friday, June 3.

Byrne and “other special guests” (mysterious!) will be on hand this evening to discuss the series’ eponymous opening-night selection: John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952).


The line-up of films also includes a feature-length documentary about Ford’s iconic movie, Dreaming “The Quiet Man”, which sports such talking heads as Maureen O’Hara, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and the Irish film director Jim Sherdian (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father). That plays Sat May 21 at 5:30 and Sun May 22 at 2:30 .


But will Byrne & Co address the most significant cultural aspect of the film… its ever-poignant  recreation in E.T., the Extraterrestrial!?  Click here to view a glorious Quicktime comparison between the memorable Spielberg scene and its inspiration.



Elliott isn’t the only one taking romantic cues from the Duke. Over at IFC, Matt Singer and R. Emmett Sweeney classify The Quiet Man as a superlative “tough-guy romantic comedy”:

Maureen O’Hara is coy and cunning all at once, galloping around Wayne with athletic (and flirtatious) abandon before stridently abiding by the courtship book. Wayne lets his macho insecurity burn low, impetuously stealing some kisses but playing obediently by her rules. That is, until O’Hara withholds her bedroom favors and flees the emerald coop. Then the quiet man blows up in the hilariously raucous close, where director John Ford, Wayne and O’Hara pack in so many Irish hay-makers and blarney humor it would choke the Lucky Charms leprechaun. And it’s glorious.


The ladies approve too – Molly Haskell describes the film’s surprisingly fresh and subversive romantic dynamic in From Reverence to Rape:

Behind a woman’s defensive “game” there is the very real fear – a fear to which some directors seem more sympathetic than others – of losing herself in marriage, of losing her identity along with her name. This theme becomes the explicit subject of one of John Ford’s loveliest (and from this point of view, most surprising) films, The Quiet Man. In marrying John Wayne, the American who has come back to live in Ireland, Maureen O’Hara’s redhead Irish firebrand inists on recovering her dowry from her a father, a 350 pound “fortune” and her furniture. Wayne is indignant. In characteristic American fashion, he feels his masculinity and ability to provide for her impugned, until she finally makes him understand that it isn’t the money, but what it stands for: The dowry and furniture are her identity, her independence. The furniture, particularly, is part of her personality – like a maiden name – and the money enables her not to be completely dependent on her husband and “absorbed” by him. When she finally does recover the money, she throws it in a furnace.



Rob Nixon on why the movie is “Essential” for TCM:

Ford also undercuts our expectations of Wayne as a strong, dominating man. He’s no shrinking violet here, and the film isn’t a comedy about a tough guy becoming henpecked. But Wayne’s Sean Thornton arrives in Ireland carrying the emotional baggage of a troubled past, and he comes to see how this woman and the land she is an indelible part of can redeem him. When he kicks in their bedroom door after she’s refused to have sex with him on their wedding night, we expect a scene of marital rape such as the one in Gone with the Wind (1939). Instead, he asserts his bond with her, throws her on the bed, then leaves the room to spend the night in his sleeping bag. And when he buys her a horse and cart, he lets her drive –an insignificant gesture in today’s world but no small thing, either in 1950s Hollywood or the romanticized Ireland Ford portrays.


When critics do carp on the movie, it’s exactly for this – the “unreality” of the world Ford creates. Yes, surely nowhere in Ireland is as stereotypical as Ford’s glorification (and the country’s troubles are only hinted at by the benign presence of two IRA men). But Ford isn’t interested in presenting historical fact. This is the Ireland of his imagination and longing, the same sentiment felt by Sean Thornton when he arrives from America seeking the “heaven” his dead mother told him about. Ford’s Ireland is peopled by impish, good-hearted folk (even Mary Kate’s oafish brother has his clumsy soft spots), living in fairy tale thatched cottages surrounded by the lush green countryside (a natural environment given a tremendous boost by Winton Hoch’s Oscar®-winning color photography). It’s as mythically artificial as Ford’s films of the American West, but he knows it and, for once, admits it by having all his characters acknowledge the audience in the film’s final moments, as if to remind us we have seen actors playing a part and not a gritty slice of real life.


Ah yes, about those Irish stereotypes… Irish-centric blog The Evening Herault discusses the film’s tricky legacy in Irish culture:

OK, we admit it: John Ford’s The Quiet Man is Ireland’s most famous, most successful, most moviest movie. Even in French.


We may not all live in thatched cottages any more, with Barry Fitzgerald in a jaunting car outside, but for six decades this film has been massive in terms of how the rest of the world sees the Irish.


And as for the rest of youse who’ve  seen it a million times already in your Nan’s on Paddy’s Day or whatever, let’s not get into an argie-bargie. Enough to say that this filum divides opinions like no other Irish movie.


Either it’s pure Hollywood paddywhackery, or plain whackery (a metaphor for “The Physical Force Road”), or bejaysus this is grand uplifting stuff.

Meanwhile, blogger Marilyn Ferdinand chimes in for the cinephiles with a thorough rundown of the film, complete with lovely Technicolor screen shots:

There are a few political references, as when Forbes toasts Sean and Mary Kate with, “May their days be long and full of happiness; may their children be many and full of health; and may they live in peace… and freedom.” There is also a dig at Irish Americans, as when Rev. Dr. Cyril “Snuffy” Playfair (Arthur Shields) and his wife Elizabeth (Eileen Crowe) call on Sean after he has fixed the cottage up a bit. Mrs. Playfair exclaims solicitously, “Only an American would think to paint it emerald green!” It is in these subtle ways that Ford shows that his fairytale Innisfree actually exists in a real place, but I suspect these references were a way to curry favor with Irish audiences. Even though it didn’t work with them, there’s not much about The Quiet Man that doesn’t work for the rest of us. This is a timeless film about a timeless place of our longing.


And in the words of its leading lady Maureen O’Hara: There is only one fitting way to end our discussion of The Quiet Man, and that’s with a whisper.” She elaborates on the circumstances around the famed ending of The Quiet Man in her memoir ‘Tis Herself (see blog The Sheila Variations for further transcribed excerpts, many on the on-set shenanigans):

No matter what part of the world I’m in, the question I am always asked is: “What did you whisper into John Wayne’s ear at the end of The Quiet Man?” It was John Ford’s idea: it was the ending he wanted. I was told by Mr. Ford exactly what I was to say. At first I refused. I said, “No. I can’t. I can’t ay that to Duke.” But Mr. Ford wanted a very shocked reaction from Duke, and he said, “I’m telling you, you are to say it.” I had no choice, and so I agreed, but with a catch: “I’ll say it on one condition – that it is never ever repeated or revealed to anyone.” So we made a deal. After the scene was over, we told Duke about our agreement and three of us made a pact. There are those who claim that they were told and know what I said. They don’t and are lying. John Ford took it to his grave – so did Duke – and the answer will die with me. Curiosity about the whisper has become a great part of the Quiet Man legend. I have no doubt that as long as the film endures, so will the speculation. The Quiet Man meant so much to John Ford, John Wayne, and myself. I know it was their favorite picture too. It bonded us as artists and friends in a way that happens but once in a career. That little piece of The Quiet Man belongs to just us, and so I hope you’ll understand as I answer:


I’ll never tell.

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