A dream, a theme park, a veritable phantasmagoria of idealized Irishness--John Ford's 1952 classic THE QUIET MAN (Olive Signature, Blu-ray and DVD) has quite likely turned more people temporarily Irish than any other film ever made. It's the sweetly stereotypical Ireland that people like Ford himself imagined in his fondest fantasies whenever he yearned to return to the emerald isle of his parents' birth.
Here, of course, is the beautiful Irish countryside in all its verdant glory, made even more lush through the Technicolor process--none of Republic Pictures' trademark "Trucolor" for Ford--along with the usual cast of character types one might expect.
There's the diminutive town tippler who's also its matchmaker, Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald); big, strapping farmer Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) and his spinster sister, the impetuous redhead Mary Kate (Maureen O'Hara); imperious, wealthy widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick), on whom Danaher has his sights set; and the town's Catholic and Protestant spiritual leaders, Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) and Reverend Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields).
Ford renders his fantasy vision of rural Irish life with an artist's eye and a poet's heart, providing a backdrop of purity and contentment that the outside world can scarcely touch. Custom is observed at all times--a scenic seaside horse race in which the riders vie for their ladies' bonnets, primly proper courtships whose etiquette seems unduly unyielding, and, at every opportunity, a pint or two in the local pub.
Into this seemingly timeless world comes childhood resident Sean Thornton (John Wayne), long Americanized but yearning to return to his pastoral roots to escape the haunting memory of killing a man in the boxing ring. This gives him a reticence to fight that appears as cowardice when Danaher challenges him over Thornton's brazen courting of his sister Mary Kate. Only later, after much tortured, hopeless struggle against Irish tradition, will Thornton relent.
Meanwhile, THE QUIET MAN seethes with fiery romance between Sean and Mary Kate, he brashly forward and unequivocal, she primly conservative on the outside while barely containing her inner passion. A chaste, chaperoned outing with matchmaker Michaleen turns into a stolen tryst in a secluded hilltop cemetery as the lovers, buffeted by wind and rain, succumb to a desire as uncontrollable as the elements.
It's Ford at his most achingly romantic, his actors playing their roles with heartrending conviction. This is also true of the couple's tempestuous marital relations--for marry they finally do, although a stubborn Danaher, tricked into allowing the marriage, refuses to give Mary Kate her dowry.
Robbed of what is rightfully hers, she rejects Sean when he fails to understand its symbolic importance to her (independence, validation, self-worth) rendering their marriage a shambles from the start.
Ford and co-writers Frank S. Nugent and Maurice Walsh fashioned the screenplay for THE QUIET MAN as though concocting a full-course meal. No sooner do we think we're being served a lighthearted comedy of quaint customs and sexual mores than the course changes to deeply emotional yet sexually-charged romance.
With the ill-fated wedding scene, one thinks the film has crossed over into more complex social satire, and yet here it abruptly veers into the achingly tragic when Sean's agonizing guilt returns in full force.
How the film not only rebounds from this low point but becomes more emotionally resonant and ultimately more joyous than ever is what makes it such an engaging and thoroughly satisfying experience.
All the while, THE QUIET MAN is filled with little moments of grace and sweetness which lighten whatever darkness sometimes threatens to overcome it. Barry Fitzgerald is a joy as Michaleen, the impish cupid who's also the town's bookmaker and most ardent drunkard. The mutually-supportive relationship between Catholic (Bond) and Protestant (Shields) men of God is disarmingly sweet-spirited. Danaher, for all his bluster, is a lovable ogre whose weaknesses are pride and a hopeless love for the widow Tillane which he lacks the charm to express.
The DVD from Olive Films' "Olive Signature" label is in 1.37:1 with mono sound and English subtitles. Mastered from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. There's a commentary by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride that's wall-to-wall and loaded with information. Other extras include: a tribute to Maureen O'Hara featuring Juliet Mills, Hayley Mills, and Ally Sheedy; a visual essay by historian and Ford expert Tag Gallagher; a biography of Republic Pictures president Herbert J. Yates; a fond remembrance by Ford friend and biographer Peter Bogdanovich; and Leonard Maltin's 1992 featurette "The Making of 'The Quiet Man'." The keepcase contains an illustrated 8-page booklet.
THE QUIET MAN reaches its climax with a near-breakup of a marriage and the manly settling of a heated dispute through Queensberry-ruled fisticuffs (which becomes a joyful cause célèbre for the entire village and its surroundings), and ends with a curtain call that not only allows the actors to take a bow but their characters to break the fourth wall and warmly acknowledge our presence. (This part is just so cheerful and uplifting that it always chokes me up.)
And, at Ford's behest, Maureen O'Hara playfully whispers something into John Wayne's ear that elicits a genuinely shocked reaction before their characters skip happily into the privacy of their idyllic cottage like a couple of naughty kids. We'll never know what she says to him, and that's okay.
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