Losing My Religion: The Quiet Man
Every Friday during Lent, in Losing My Religion, we’ll be looking at a different movie from a Catholic (or at least, Catholic-raised) director, and how their religious upbringing influenced the film in question. Each movie has at its core that most Catholic of all sentiments: heaping loads of internalized guilt. For this fifth Friday of Lent, we’re looking into the classic romantic comedy from John Ford, The Quiet Man. As of this writing, it is currently available on Amazon Video for streaming rental.
Hey, so, last week’s entry was a downer and a half, wasn’t it? Let’s lighten the mood a bit.
The Ireland-set narrative in The Quiet Man focuses on Sean Thornton (John Wayne, thankfully playing American-raised but Irish-born, here) revisiting the quaint hamlet of his birth to reclaim the family homestead. He’s retired to the Emerald Isle to leave his old life full of horrible guilt behind—dammit. I wanted to lighten the mood, here. Let’s try again.
Sean leaves for Ireland and retires from prize fighting after he accidentally kills a man in the boxing ring—sonofabitch. Okay, so he’s got a lot hanging over his head, and thinks going back to his roots will let him live a life with which he’s more comfortable. Sean makes quick friends with the town matchmaker, Michaeleen (Barry Fitzgerald as the most amiable town drunk you’ll ever find), and quicker enemies with Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen, a hilarious mirror of Sean’s traits).
He seems to find both in Squire’s sister, Mary Kate (a radiant Maureen O’Hara), as their romance finds its hills and valleys among the rolling knolls of Ireland’s fields. She’s as much a challenge to Sean as she is a partner, making up for their physical differences in the strength of her personality. Sean’s love for her is enough to make him forget everything he’s left behind back in the United States, including his temper and tendency to start fights.
But in courting Mary Kate with the conspiratorial Michaeleen and Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, with perfect dry delivery in all his scenes) setting up the match, they step on Squire Danaher’s pride and wind up embarrassing him in front of the town after they’re wed. Sean tries to brush it off, but Danaher lays him out with a cheap shot, setting up a conflict to come.
Ford’s direction of the colorful townspeople, and his way of framing John Wayne as a gentle-meaning giant amongst them, serves to help the audience forget, as easily as Sean, about his guilt from his boxing career. The lush colors of the on-location filming, combined with the quaint characters found in the well-established world feel like an Old World, well more than just an ocean away from Sean’s conscience. Both Sean and the audience nearly forget amongst all the imagery, why he came so far from all he ever knew.
But then Danaher holds back part of the traditional dowry for the marriage as punishment, and forces Sean into a fistfight for his pride, the dowry, and his marriage. Against his own guilty conscience, he sees Danaher won’t let up, and with Mary Kate threatening to leave him over the traditional values of the Irish village, he accepts.
Sean does try diplomacy, to be fair. He speaks with Danaher politely, asking him to make good on the same restrictive traditions he held his sister’s courtship to. Danaher makes him beg first, and then socks him on the jaw. Sean still walks away from the fight. He doesn’t even want to fight him, no matter how much money is on the line. But Danaher embarrasses not just Sean but Mary Kate as well, with him holding back. And in kinda-sexist tradition, that simply will not stand for Sean.
What results is simply one of the funniest, most character-driven, not to mention longest, fisticuffs ever put to film. It takes up the entire third act, in fact. The fight takes so long that in true Irish tradition, they even break in the middle to share a pint. Then the fight sparks back up over who will pay for the round. Sean thumps Danaher over hill, over dale, across creeks, and up banks. Danaher haymakers Sean back into the street, in the pub, in the square, and through town.
Seriously, this fight gives the alley bout from They Live a sidesplitting run for its money. It continues long after either character (or actor, for that matter) has clearly run out of steam, both sides forging ahead out of pure entertaining spite.
The townspeople of Innisfree are, in prime Catholic tradition, equal parts scandalized and enraptured by the fight. They cheer on their respective favorites, with the town skewing heavily in favor of Sean, because really, nobody likes Danaher. Not even his sister, all that much.
Sean’s triumph over Danaher is as much a triumph over his own self-admitted rage and guilt when it comes to his life before Innisfree. He exorcises his own demons by confronting them, engaging them directly, and refusing to let them take control any longer. He defeats his brother-in-law, wins the day, the dowry, and saves Mary Kate from scandalization.
Check back next Friday for Losing My Religion’s sixth entry, Apocalypse Now, the harrowing Vietnam War movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola.