I never thought you could construct an entire movie around the concept of the sleeping-bag but, amazingly, John Ford has managed it.
Ah, Ireland — land of rolling hills, red-haired maidens and adequately painted studio back-drops. Into this land comes Sean Thornton, an American with ways so modern he might as well be from the future to these people and even though he’s a ‘quiet man’ there’s an air of potential lethality about him. He also might be a bit of an idiot. Try to imagine a cross between The Terminator and Keanu Reeves in ‘Bill and Ted’ and that’s pretty much Wayne in this movie as he stumbles about somewhat bemused and out of place and brimming with pre-programmed violence.
Anyway, Sean has returned to buy his ancestral family farm but the local big bully Red Danaher also wants the property and is furious when Sean purchases it, and it’s a furiousness that only increases when Sean takes an interest in Red’s sister, Mary Kate, a fiery yet metaphysically limited young woman who is still afraid of lightning. The townsfolk take it on themselves to hatch a match-making plan realising that if they can hook Red up with the wealthy Widow Tillane then Red might agree to Mary Kate marrying Sean.
Following a horse race with some extremely fuzzy rules it seems as though the plan has worked and everyone will be happy. So happy in fact that Sean and Mary Kate actually frolic in one of the few non-ironic frolicking scenes in cinema. Yet when Red discovers he has been manipulated, and by his own people no less, he is furious again and refuses to give Mary Kate her dowry, the only thing of her own that Mary Kate has ever possessed. Even though Sean tells her the money doesn’t matter Sean’s apparent cowardice to stand up to her brother strains this new marriage, strains that are increased when Mary Kate discovers that Sean’s bucolic bachelor pad might look nice from the outside but, much like Sean’s personal history, is hiding a dark interior and that his new fangled, technologically advanced sleeping bag might be more pathetic than impressive.
Mary Kate needs Sean to stop Forrest Gump-ing about the place and stand up and be a man, yet something is stopping Sean from fully exploding, almost as though he is terrified of starting a fight in Ireland for some reason. Ultimately Mary Kate makes a decision that forces Sean’s hand and, pushed into action, Sean demonstrates that the path to redemption is by treating women with dignity and respecting their personal space and starting a massive fist-fight that’s also a metaphor for sex.
I had no idea ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952) was so silly! Sure, it’s lovely and charming and beautifully shot but it’s also flat out bonkers and totally deranged. And if you don’t believe me then can you tell me why there’s a sentient horse in it? Fortunately it’s also extremely well made and with some very funny dialogue. Almost every line is some sort of veiled sarcastic barb (“Only an American would think of Emerald Green” being a particularly good example) or cutting remark. Then there’s also the skilful way Ford introduces intimations of something being not quite right with Sean’s grandfather, intimations caught through the odd comment or snatch of song lyric. We also start to become suspicious of Sean when we notice that it wasn’t actually Red who was lying about Sean meaning “goodnight” to Mary Kate but that it was Sean who wasn’t being honest to Red. There’s something up with this guy, but what?
When we do find out Sean’s past it’s really nicely done and delivers a hefty emotional punch, even if we are thinking Mary Kate should be on the next train to Dublin. It’s also the point when it feels that this story is a story of redemption and the redemptive power of community to forgive the unforgivable, a message that must have resonated with a society where men had not long returned from abroad after committing similar acts.
Technically the film is a joy with Ford balancing a host of colourful characters all captured by some seriously gorgeous cinematography. There’s also a wonderful use of sound in ‘The Quiet Man’ with music used not just to introduce or emphasise action but also to transition between scenes, such as when Michaeleen whistles a leitmotif of impending trouble only to have it picked up by the orchestra. The movie is filled with lovely little touches like that and even though ‘The Quiet Man’ isn’t perfect with quite a few moments that maybe go on a little too long or outstay their welcome, as well as some creepy and weird dialogue, the movie still flows and meanders nicely along. This film is a pleasant stroll through some ridiculously verdant countryside.
Then there’s the climax which avoids the cliché of portraying the Irish as violent drunks and, instead, portrays them as good-natured violent drunks as the entire film becomes an extended fist-fight. It’s one of those lovable punch-ups similar to the one at the end of Miyazaki’s ‘Porco Rosso’ (1992) where eyes are blackened, lips bust, teeth loosened and heads bopped but with no real damage being down other than the release of a load of sexual tension. And everyone in the village gets involved. What with all the chaos plus the wheat-covered landscape and rumbling traction engines it’s like ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ directed by Terrence Malick.
‘The Quiet Man’ didn’t quite blow me away as there’s maybe a few too many jarring elements to it for my tastes but it is a lovely, funny (at times, very funny), beautifully shot and expertly crafted movie that’s a pleasure to get lost in. Although Mary Kate should’ve seen that sleeping bag as a massive red flag.