Is it blasphemy to suggest that John Wayne’s most appealing performance didn’t come from a western? Seriously, while I find it difficult to deny any of Wayne roles in the saddle, my favorite is one in which he didn’t come anywhere near a horse. Maybe it’s the Irish in my blood, but if I have to spend an evening with Wayne, I’d rather choose the green hills of Ireland over the red rocks of Monument Valley.
The public knows Wayne for his unending toughness, for the leathery image of the old west, but I find him so likable in John Ford’s The Quiet Man, as a gentle man who wants only the simple pleasures of home and family. Of course, Sean Thornton finds little peace and civility in the piquarest village of Innis Free. He’s an American, a boxer who has traveled to his native land to settle his roots and buy his family’s cottage from the very unwilling widow Tillane (Mildrid Natwick), who only relents to sell him the property when she finds out that the town hothead Red Will Danahar (Victor McLaglan) wants it for himself. Danahar, a man whose entire personality seems made up of anger, grudges and bitterness, wants to settle the dispute by knocking Thornton on his keister.
Another log on the feudal fire is tossed when Sean is smitten by Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). She’s as stubborn and temperamental as her brother but Sean is in love with her and determines to make her his wife. He knows that between her temperament and her brother’s feuding nature, getting her to altar is not going to be easy. So he employs the town matchmaker (and town drunk) Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) to help. When that doesn’t work cooks up a scheme with Father Lonergan to convince Danahar that the widow Tillane will marry him if he will let Sean court Mary Kate. The widow won’t marry a man with another woman in the house so he agrees to let Sean marry Kate. But the widow won’t be played a fool and refuses to marry Will. Out of spite, he refuses to turn over his sister’s dowry and she won’t consumate the marriage without it because she feels that it signals that she is in servatude. Attempting to leave Sean, she gets to the train but Sean shows up and drags her by the wrist all the way through town back to the house.
She accuses Sean of being afraid of her brother, but this is untrue. Sean has given up his violent nature when he ended his boxing career because he killed a man in the ring. The good Father convinces him that this fight is not for money or fame but for love, so Sean changes his mind. He and Will have it out, fighting up and down the town for hours until they are both worn out. Beaten down but not out they become friends and Sean returns to the cottage, to Mary Kate and the life of a quite man.
The first time that I saw The Quiet Man, I saw it immediately after seeing his celebrated performance in John Ford’s The Searchers, which Ford and Wayne would make four years later. The two performances show the polar ends of Wayne’s talent and the opposite portraits of a man’s violent nature. In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards was a man so wrapped up in bitter hatred that he spends five years on a bloodthirsty quest not to rescue his kidnapped niece but to kill her and the men who took her. Sean Thornton on the other hand is a man who has cast off his violent nature and wants to live a quiet life of peace and contentment. The irony is that he has arrived in the middle of a situation that requires him to fight for that contentment. Thornton is a man haunted by his past (he killed a man in he boxing ring) who sees the future of green pastures and a country cottage. What an irony that he falls in love with a woman whose most outward personality trait is that she is a hothead.
Somehow, I think he sees Mary Kate as a challenge. She’s a gorgeous woman, no doubt, but she represents the kind of violent, quick temperament that he is trying to leave behind. But there’s something else that he sees behind that facade, something sweet that can represent a calm life. Their scenes together are tender and slightly erotic. We believe that Sean is passionately in love with her even while she resists him, which is visualized in the famous moment he comes into the cottage and grabs her by the hand and kisses her while she resists him. He has a way of decimating her angry facade by simple reason especially when she scoffs that he calls her a saint, then thanks her for cleaning his house.
I realize that this all sounds misogynistic, and it probably is. The movie’s trajectory is that Sean wants Mary Kate because he knows what is better for her than she does. Her character seems to be made up of mood swings and it is suggested that Sean is the only man who knows how to shift the gears. This is 1952 and I guess I must settle into the fact that Katie is only living according what is expected of her. Yet, I can also see another point, her foul temperament is a way of pushing back, of throwing up a shield against the man who control (or try to control) her destiny. That’s pretty thin logic, but in thinking of Katie, it is what that movie has to offer a woman with very few options. Born a decade later, she might have become an activist.
The Quiet Man is a simple story, but it is not simple-minded. It’s about people who want something and have to battle the elements to achieve it. For John Wayne, this would be the crux of his career, playing men defying the odds but here playing a man who wants his to chart the course of his own destiny without violence, even while those around him are driving him to it. Unlike most of his roles, the purpose of Wayne’s character is not a conquest of the elements but of finding something to call his own. He wants a home, a wife, children, and a quiet life for a quiet man.