Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Irish Taming of the Shrew: John Ford's "The Quiet Man."

Movie Review: The Quiet Man

Director: John Ford

Reviewed: 8 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

As a cultural artifact and a piece of the John Ford canon, "The Quiet Man" unfolds as a charming, watchable study of a community. Ford showcases a rustic Irish village complete with a local bar filled with characters while telling an increasingly complex story of the binds of love and family. In re-watching Nicholas Ray's "A Rebel Without A Cause" this year, I was struck by how much the notions of codes play out in that film from the 1950's: where you walk and do not walk in the high school, when to crack a joke, who dates who... In "The Quiet Man," gender roles and notions of propriety take center stage, though treated in a light-hearted way. There are acceptable ways to court in this society, as well as social customs that must be upheld by both families involved. Ford's film is at its best when it depicts the natural beauty of its Irish landscapes and two leads, as well as its codes juxtaposed against the modern era.

American Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to the land of Erin to see the cottage of his parents. Struck by its natural beauty and the beauty of nearby neighbor Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara), Sean offers to purchase the land, setting off a bitter competition with Mary Kate's brother Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who is also the main obstacle of his romantic pursuit of Mary Kate. With the assistance of a local matchmaker Michaleen (Barry Fitzgerald), Sean courts Mary Kate, a tempestuous and fiery woman with dreams of her own and reverence for her family's history as represented in her things and her dowry. When her brother refuses to pay Will the dowry, it sets off a confrontation that builds throughout the entire film, only further complicated by Will's complex reasons for refusing to pursue money.

"The Quiet Man" has a surprising amount of depth to it, building an interiority to Sean through judicious use of a flashback halfway through the film. Mary Kate's defiance when seen through a feminist lens is a powerful evocation of women's rights and independence at the time, though the gender roles that the film falls back upon in its final third complicate that position immensely. It was helpful to talk out the film with others; I was privileged to see it on a big screen at a screening room at University of Houston with the Wonderworks Motion Pictures class. The professor helped us with the Gaelic conversation between Mary Kate and the priest which proves pivotal, as well as uncovering some of the Catholic versus Protestant themes that Ford presents. In talking with my mother, she mentioned how she and my dad visited "The Quiet Man" bridge on their trip to Ireland last year, posing for pictures, and soaking in the landscape. The story has acquired a power, and the tourist trade to Ireland around the film is remarkable. It was my mom who mentioned that the film was kind of like Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." The film's giant scene at the end involves a ridiculously extended fight which brings everyone from the film (and nearby towns) to watch. "The Quiet Man" is a film in love with its own Irishness, its worship of drink and the pub, its wisecracking, leprechaun-like Michaleen, its stranger in a strange land conceit, and its idealized, romantic locale of the small town in a beautiful land that just might be perfect.

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