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The Quiet Man (1952)
~Review by Grawlix (April 2018)
I’ve never had much interest in John Wayne. I recognize that you can’t blame someone for their fans, but whenever I ran into a booster of Wayne’s (or was exposed to his considerable cult of personality) their focus always seemed to be more on Wayne’s idealized personification of alpha-manliness, mainly due to his exploits off camera, rather than his acting ability which always struck me as, to put it mildly, limited. As such, I’d never gone out of my way to watch any of his movies. I’d seen The Alamo way back when I was a kid (young enough to not know how the real battle of the Alamo turned out, so the ending of that one came as a bit of a shock). And once or twice, out of spite or morbid curiosity, I’d tried watching The Conqueror – a movie infamous for a lot of things, and considered not only Wayne’s worst, but one of the worst films ever made – but I’d never been able to finish it. Perhaps I’ll revisit that one some day. But if I was going to give Wayne a proper try, The Quiet Man seemed to be the best place to start. I’d heard from more the one source that it was Wayne’s best acting performance (one went so far as to state that it was the only time Wayne actually played a character instead of some variation of himself). Additionally, there was the reputation of a climactic fistfight as the centerpiece of the film, which I’d heard alternately as running some 30 or even 60 minutes of screen time. That last part turned out to be a considerable exaggeration, but we’ll get to that in time.
Set in the 1920s, Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an Irish expatriate who returns to his ancestral home after living most of his life in the United States. Sean is immediately smitten with Mary Kate Danaher, a fiery redhead played my Maureen O’Hara. Unfortunately, Thornton runs afoul of Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), Mary Kate’s older brother, after outmaneuvering him in a land deal for Thornton’s ancestral home. This complicates matters when Sean decides to ask for Mary Kate’s hand in marriage as Will, being, for lack of a better term, the ranking man of the house, has veto power over the whole affair. Ireland, it is stressed repeatedly, tends to hew more to the old traditions, and their clash with Thornton’s American sensibilities drives a good portion of the film. Not only is he forced to navigate old-country rituals of courtship, but the matter of the dowry becomes an increasingly sore point, more due to the principle it represents rather than any inherent value it has. Ultimately, Sean and Will are compelled to settle their differences according to what is apparently another old fashioned Irish country tradition: a running bout of fisticuffs through the town.
Wayne doesn’t make a great first impression. He delivers his dialog with the same stilted drawl he seems to use in all of his movies, which has always sounded to me like an odd mix of Howard Cosell and proto-William Shatner. It stands in stark contrast to the natural lilt of the Irish accents employed by the rest of the cast. I supposed it’s something of a mercy that we were spared a Wayne attempt at a similar accent, and his could theoretically be written off by the fact that Thornton spent his formative years in America, but the character is supposedly from Pittsburgh, and he sure as hell doesn’t sound like an native from there either.
Line readings aside, though, there is a certain nuance to Wayne’s performance that I wasn’t expecting. Often times Wayne’s Thornton is forced into a more passive role, partially due to his fish-out-of-water status and partially due to an event in his past that makes him uncharacteristically hesitant. This was apparently considerably outside of Wayne’s comfort zone as he usually played far more proactive characters that single handedly drove the action of his films, and his performance is made all the better for it. One thing I will say about him is that, passive or not, the man has undeniable presence and charisma. Not only does he physically tower over most of the other actors, but his general bearing and demeanor has an odd way of drawing your eye whenever he’s on screen, whatever he might be doing. This does work against him occasionally, particularly when he tries to come off like a spry 35 rather than the hard 44 years old he was when he made this, but overall he infuses the character with just the right amount of quiet dignity.
Maureen O’Hara provides an effective foil. Her Mary Kate exhibits a spirited exuberance that perfectly compliments her natural red locks. She is fiercely proud of her traditions and heritage, even as they work to frustrate and confine her, and her simultaneous hot and cold personality perfectly embodies what the kids would call tsundere today. The romance does develop rather quickly, and some of her reactions do seem a bit too anachronistic to modern eyes, but I’d mostly write those off as obsolete byproducts of 1950s Hollywood.
Victor McLaglen’s Will Danaher doesn’t have as much range to manage, but his performance carries just the right tone of stodgy obstinateness required. Mclaglen is also one of the few other actors that matches Wayne in terms of physical dimensions, giving credibility to their climactic first fight.
Which, speaking of, I must confess turned out to be something of a letdown, at least for me. First of all, contrary to the legends I’d heard, the fight only lasts maybe five minutes of screen time all told, and even those are punctuated with cutaway shots of reactions, oddsmakers taking bets, and the like. It frankly plays out far too cartoonishly compared to some of the dramatic scenes leading up to it. Hoping, as I was, for a rousing example of classic motion picture fight choreography, the actual product was rather disappointing. What’s more, it takes place after virtually all of the dramatic plot points have already been settled, so the stakes aren’t nearly as high as the build up would have you believe.
That aside, though, the rest of the picture is beautifully shot with the then new Technicolor process being used to excellent effect to showcase the lushness of the verdant Irish setting. The overall script is witty, filled with classic old-Hollywood innuendo. The soundtrack consists of a lot of the backing cast singing and playing traditional Irish ditties, which honestly grated on me after a while, but certainly seemed authentic to the period.
While The Quiet Man didn’t give me cause to completely reevaluate my opinion of John Wayne as an actor, there’s no denying that it’s a solid picture on virtually all fronts. It was nominated for five academy awards (none, I’ll note, having anything directly to do with Wayne) and won two (Director for John Ford, and Cinematography) which at least demonstrates that Wayne had enough sense to surround himself with people who could emphasize his good points while minimizing his weaknesses. The pacing of the movie does seem a little off at times, the script sometimes mired in its time, and the the much vaunted final reel was more of a whimper than a bang to me, but it’s a solid film that never drags and looks beautiful.
Final Score: B+
I wanted to love it for a wild fight scene. I wanted to hate it for John Wayne’s involvement. I was given adequate cause to do neither. But what was left was a classic dramatic romance that I couldn’t help but appreciate.
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