Friday, October 28, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Quiet Man (1952)

I’ve joked on the blog in the past that the time I spent living in Morgantown, West Virginia—from January 1992 to June 2000—is referred to both by myself and the family as “my years in exile.”  My stay there was marked by my longest period of gainful employment: I worked nearly the entire time I lived in Mo-town for University Health Associates, the insurance billing arm of the West Virginia University Medical system.  Among the many friends I made at UHA was an individual who oversaw ordering office supplies for the company…I’ll keep his identity on the Q.T. and give him the nom de blog of Durwood.

Durwood was a big fan of John Wayne movies, and since I had a reputation for being somewhat of a classic film buff myself, it often gave us a subject to talk about since one of my duties was sorting the company mail in the mornings, which I did in an area adjacent to his.  (Conversation tended to break the monotony inherent in the task.)  He even lent me a VHS copy of McLintock! (1963) on one occasion—the movie had just been released to home video at that time, and I had never seen it.  Durwood was a kind of macho guy—the women in my section considered him a bit of a chauvinist, though the ones who had known him longer (as in “I-went-to-high-school-with-him”) clued me in that it was mostly an act.  Anyway, we were holding forth on The Duke one day as I was sorting, and he said to me: “You’d probably be surprised at which John Wayne movie is my favorite.”

I tossed out a few titles—Red River, Rio Bravo—and was completely gobsmacked when he replied “My favorite is The Quiet Man.”  Amazed because it’s also my favorite (though it’s in tough competition with Stagecoach and The Searchers), and I was pretty much my friend’s opposite in terms of temperament, politics, worldview, etc.  And yet…in a way it’s not too surprising.

Ex-boxer Sean Thornton (Wayne) returns to the land of his birth: the peaceful village of Innisfree in Ireland, where he’s welcomed by the populace (normally a little bewildered and suspicious of newcomers) due to his strong family roots.  He arranges to purchase his former homestead, “White O’Mornin’,” from the wealthy Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) …and in doing so makes an immediate enemy in “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who had wanted the property for his own.

The enmity Sean earns from Danaher will come back to bite him in the tuchus…because Thornton has fallen, and fallen hard, for Will’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara).  With the help of seachrán (matchmaker) Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) and parish priest Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond), “Squire” Will is duped into believing that Sean has set his cap for the Widow Tillane, and since Will rather fancies the Widder himself, he reluctantly agrees to allow Thornton to court Mary Kate (Flynn convinces him that he hasn’t a chance with Tillane because there’s no way she would consent to sharing the Danaher home with Mary Kate).  After following custom and tradition in the “expected” fashion, Sean and Mary Kate are wed…but at their reception, Will learns of Flynn and Lonergan’s deception and he refuses to relinquish Mary Kate’s “fortune” (her dowry).

Sean argues to his bride that the dowry doesn’t matter—but he doesn’t understand that it’s of vital importance to Mary Kate; without the “fortune,” she’s little more than a servant in the House of Thornton.  What Mary Kate doesn’t comprehend (in fact, the viewer doesn’t learn this until about an hour into the film) is that her husband could confront her brother with physical violence…except that as “Trooper Thorn,” he sent a man to the canvas and that opponent never got back up again.  He’s taken a vow to hang up his boxing gloves…but as we have learned from so many Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher Westerns, there are some things a man can’t ride around.  We’ll experience that eventual donnybrook between Sean and Will in one of the most memorable brawls ever captured on celluloid.

Whether you’re a John Wayne fan or not, it’s impossible to ignore that in many of the actor’s movies John Wayne played…John Wayne.  The Quiet Man (1952) is a notable exception (as is 1940’s The Long Voyage Home, another film of The Duke’s of which I am quite fond), giving Wayne to play a role quite different from his established silver screen persona.  Wayne fans won’t be disappointed in that The Duke delivers the he-man, two-fisted heroics they’ve come to expect (with Quiet Man’s rip-roaring fight finale) …yet all the same, I think they’ll be captivated by the thespic range he demonstrates as a stranger in a strange land, swept off his feet by a lovely lass he first spots walking barefoot through the lush green pastures of “the old country.”

Though he was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine in 1894, director John Ford (who often insisted on calling himself by his Irish name, “Sean Aloysius Kilmartin O’Feeney”) had a deep and abiding love for Ireland (where both of his parents were born before emigrating to the U.S.A.).  It’s present in many of his movies—The Shamrock Handicap, Hangman’s House (which has a steeplechase sequence similar to The Quiet Man), The Informer—but his Irish influences also dictated many of the themes in his non-Irish works: the rituals of courtship, the loss of a loved one, the presence of a close-knit community and its traditions, etc.  Ford’s return to County Galway (his father’s home was in Spiddal) to make a movie based on Maurice Walsh’s 1933 Saturday Evening Post tale (screenplay by Frank S. Nugent) would win the director his fourth and final Oscar (Winston C. Hoch and Archie Stout would also take home a trophy for their breathtakingly lush color cinematography).

Color films were a positive boon to actress Maureen O’Hara, because the effect of the actress’ striking red hair is completely lost in a monochromatic movie; when we first see Mary Kate Danaher we view her just as Sean Thornton does: a virtual Eve in his ideal of Paradise.  I don’t want to get the impression that it’s all about Mo’s beauty, however; her Mary Kate is one of the movies’ most positive and strong female characters, refusing to consummate her marriage to Sean because she sincerely believes she’s not entering the union on equal terms without her “fortune.”  Yet she gives herself to her husband even though he’s not come through for her (a marked difference from, say, the unsavory association between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind) because theirs is a mature relationship—she accepts that Sean has a reason for not fighting her brother for what is rightfully hers even if she doesn’t realize why.

Because it’s a fine broth of a film, The Quiet Man has become a viewing tradition on St. Patrick’s Day…but the movie is so darn good it seems a shame to limit it to just that day; I got the opportunity to revisit it this week when Olive Films released the classic as another DVD/Blu-ray in their “Olive Signature” series (many thanks to Bradley Powell for the gratis screener) on Tuesday (October 25) of this week.  Sure, and it’s been released on previous editions before but Quiet Man gets the deluxe Signature treatment with some bodacious supplemental features: audio commentary by author-historian Joseph McBride (author of Searching for John Ford: A Life); a visual essay (“Don’t You Remember It, Seánin?: John Ford’s The Quiet Man”) from historian Tag Gallagher; and a tribute to the late Maureen O’Hara from actresses Ally Sheedy and sisters Hayley and Juliet Mills.  “The Making of The Quiet Man,” a featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin that has been making the rounds of the movie’s home video releases since 1992, has an encore appearance on this release as well as “Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures” (available on the Olive Signature release of Johnny Guitar).

The Olive Signature release of The Quiet Man also features a 4K master scanned from the original negative, allowing for an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience of a film that received a total of seven Academy Award nominations including Best Supporting Actor (McLaglen) and Best Writing, Screenplay (Nugent).  The Quiet Man even got a Best Picture nom…and if it weren’t for the fact that the unnominated Singin’ in the Rain (the greatest movie musical of all time) should have won the top prize that year in a saner world, I wouldn’t have any regrets declaring Quiet Man the best of all the nominees (and far superior to the film that did win, The Greatest Show on Earth).  Buy a copy of the Blu-ray (or DVD) and either squirrel it away for the next St. Pat’s or defy tradition and watch it again at your convenience.

1 comment:

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

A lovely post, Ivan. 'Tis a grand film.