Near Silent Complexities of The Quiet Man on Olive Films
By Tony Williams.
The Quiet Man (1952) is another excellent addition to that fine series of DVDs released by Olive Films in its Signature editions. Already acclaimed for its reissue and restoration of classics such as Body and Soul (1925), Force of Evil (1948), and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), the company is now engaging in the reissue on both DVD and Blu-ray formats of other films but this time with expert audio-commentaries and features that well justify the expense of purchasing yet another version. The Quiet Man has already appeared on DVD with an audio-commentary by Maureen 0’Hara that is still worth acquiring until Olive release another version with two audio-commentaries similar to those accompanying the DVD of Citizen Kane. But, in the meantime, viewers can enjoy this superb restoration of Winston Hoch’s expertly shot Technicolor original and view John Ford’s masterpiece in all its pristine visual glory. As Joseph McBride points out, the film is a wish-fulfillment fantasy from an Irish-American perspective and the glorious colors evident in Sean’s first vision of Mary Kate reinforce this perspective. Following decades of misunderstanding by many Irish (one critic remarking that years ago any Quiet Man VHS tape was formerly secreted in a hidden drawer along with items normally found in Geiger’s Book Store in The Big Sleep, 1946), it is now achieving the recognition it deserves.
Those of us who have the opportunity of teaching John Ford – and free from the politically correct misunderstandings by those who have neither seen the film nor engaged in relevant cultural and historical research to understand the nature of rituals consciously employed within the narrative – have long realized that The Quiet Man is less naively celebratory and nostalgic as is commonly supposed but a film having contradictory and melancholic associations that its comedic framework faintly veils. Like the Olive Signature Macbeth DVD, this version has the advantage of an expert and thoroughly researched audio-commentary by Joseph McBride whose notable involvement in Ford scholarship matches his high reputation in the area of Orson Welles criticism. Produced in the light of the recent demise of Maureen 0’Hara, this DVD version reveals her important role in this film both in terms of acting and cultural contributions to the script with Ford.
One of the most interesting developments in Ford criticism today is a deeper understanding of the complex role of women in his films. They are certainly dominated by a particular oppressive gender ideology that existed both in America, Ireland itself, and the Fantasy Ireland of Ford’s imagination. However, several Ford females often exhibit certain admittedly limited forms of agency and opposition to their entrapments on certain occasions, sometimes positive, at other times negative, that appear in certain Ford films as particular examples such as Pilgrimage (1933), The Hurricane (1937), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) show. Ford’s women may not be Amazonian superheroines along the lines of Wonder Woman but they often appear more streetwise and knowledgeable than their male counterparts in recognizing, often silently, the nature of the society dominating both themselves and their different forms of communities. Is not Anne Bancroft’s Dr. Cartwright in Ford’s final film 7 Women (1966) – a film urgently in need of DVD restoration, release, and expert commentary – the logical result of this particular unrecognized Ford tradition? Since work is currently being done on this subject I will refrain from further comment but end by noting that The Quiet Man is not just about the Return of (the) Native Sean Thornton (John Wayne) but also involves cultural conflict and tensions affecting Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen 0’Hara) as a woman in her own community seeking self-worth and recognition in a manner that her future husband finds difficult to comprehend. Beneath Ford’s broad comedy framework exist deep tensions and issues that may not be so easily resolved despite the happy ending of the lovers rushing “homeward bound” following the deliberately artificial “theatrical” curtain call concluding the narrative. Although far different from Welles’s Macbeth (1948), the landscape of The Quiet Man represents as much a “state of mind” as that within the earlier film.
McBride’s audio-commentary provides a mine of detailed information that contributes to one’s deeper enjoyment of this film. Author of the excellent biography Searching for John Ford (2001), McBride contributes insightful elements not just concerning director, stars, the original source material that Ford wanted to film for decades, studio involvement, and locations that are already well-known. McBride also details additional items such as noting that 0’Hara’s brother Charles Fitzsimmons used his legal expertise as a then practicing barrister to resolve technical problems for location shooting, the fact that Barry Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields occupied the Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising and that both were Protestants who nevertheless supported the cause of Irish independence, as well as calculating today’s currency value of Mary Kate’s 1951 350 pound monetary dowry as $17,760. As Lee Van Cleef would say in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) that was “a tidy sum” even then. McBride also supplies a translation of the Gaelic used by Mary Kate when discussing her marital problems with local priest Ward Bond, thanks to Quiet Man expert Des MacHale: “I did not allow my husband into my bed last night. I forced him to sleep in a sleeping bag…Is it a sin?” Yet, the great value of McBride’s commentary lies not only in such details but in the wealth of expertise he brings to a film he has admired throughout the years in a clear, concise, and scholarly manner deriving from his qualities in the classroom. The Quiet Man is a film necessitating the type of scholarly research well beyond the capacities of those frequent “celebrity critics” most DVD companies resort to in the mistaken belief that they will sell more copies. Fortunately, Olive again has not fallen into this trap in their new Signature Series. McBride not only refers to the role of Mary Kate in Brandon French’s 1978 On Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties (Ungar) but also cites recent historical scholarship by William Dowling, Luke Gibbons, Des McHale’s The Complete Guide to The Quiet Man (2004), and others into the elements of ritual and community role-playing in Celtic culture that inform the latter part of the film, which most viewers find problematic. Sean’s dragging of Mary Kate back to her brother is no act of spousal abuse (though McBride notes that such instances did occur in Ireland’s dark twentieth century past) but a ritual act that Mary Kate wishes Sean to perform, one understood by the community, and an act necessary for Sean to exorcise the boxing ring trauma that led to his retreat to an imaginary Ireland he never really knew and which he comes to slowly understand by the end of the film. McBride astutely notes the artificial studio background as Sean gazes towards his parents’ old cottage and the contrasting real location shots, the former anticipating Hitchcock’s later (and misunderstood) use of the same formula in Marnie (1964) as well as an expressionistic studio homage to the work of Murnau and others as Sean and Kate enter the Celtic church’s territory prior to the following sequence that abruptly introduces their marriage. It is no accident that we do not see the wedding since The Quiet Man needs another form of cultural resolution in contrast to the majority of classical Hollywood films.
The Quiet Man is a film of many nuances. It is no accident that Sean refuses twice to take up a stick that Abbey Theatre veteran actress May Craig offers to him when dragging Mary Kate. On both occasions he throws it aside. Listening to McBride’s citation of these sources I’ve often used in class to counter misinterpretations made me realize how important the combination of good teaching informed by reliable scholarship is both within the classroom and DVD commentaries.
Other features are no less interesting. The Mills sisters (Hayley and Juliet, now sadly displaying their own Chimes at Midnight version of the passing of time) along with Ally Sheedy recount their positive memories of both working with and hanging out with Maureen 0’Hara. Another well-known John Ford expert Tag Gallagher supplies an interesting visual essay “Don’t You Remember it, Seanin?” revealing his masterly talent of perceptive visionary criticism, followed by the short ten-minute documentary on Republic Studios founder Herbert J. Yates that also appears on the Olive Signature edition of Macbeth (1948). The familiar “Stage Door Johnny” (a description coined by Film International‘s own Chris Sharrett!) figure of Peter Bogdanovich again supplies another of his cinematic Proustian anecdotal memories (along with his well-known impersonations of John Ford and Howard Hawks) that concludes with Orson Welles’ comparison with two key talents of classical Hollywood – “Hawks is great prose but Ford is poetry.” Finally, Leonard Maltin hosts a 1992 featurette “The Making of The Quiet Man” that includes a genial 1959 interview between Wayne and Ford on the set of Rio Bravo. Like Macbeth, the Olive Signature DVD and Blu-ray versions of The Quiet Man are unreservedly recommended, a very good example of how digital technology, unknown to us who first saw the film on its initial release, contributes to the film’s well-earned reputation.