The Quiet Man is not often included in critics’ lists of John Ford masterpieces – that distinction usually goes to The Searchers (1956), Stagecoach (1939) or his cavalry trilogy. But it has always been perhaps his most popular, even with Ford himself and my favorite. A highly personal project for the legendary director, he often cited it as his favorite and considered it his “sexiest” picture. On those terms, it may seem tame to today’s audiences who are used to scenes of nudity and near-explicit lovemaking, but the chemistry between Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne can’t be denied. They were one of the best, and sadly underrated, romantic screen teams of all time in their five films together.
The making of The Quiet Man has itself become a myth, a story about Ford’s long struggle against the Hollywood studio system to make a film that was seen as having no commercial potential even though it had intense personal meaning for him.
John Ford was captivated by Maurice Walsh’s short story from the moment he read it in a 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story of the same name by Maurice Walsh. He bought the film rights in 1936 for $10 and set about trying to find backers. But no one was interested in producing a romantic comedy set in an idealized Ireland, especially since Ford insisted on shooting on location.
In 1944 Ford made handshake deals with John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald and Victor McLaglen to appear in the picture if he ever got backing. For several years after, O’Hara spent time in the summer with Ford and his family, taking dictation for story ideas and dialogue on the director’s boat.
The script was first developed by Welsh writer Richard Llewellyn, whose book formed the basis for Ford and O’Hara’s picture How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Ford later gave his and O’Hara’s notes to scenarist Frank S. Nugent, who had written four scripts for Ford since 1948, to write the screenplay. Nugent had long been an admirer of Ford since his days as a New York Times film critic. While Nugent was writing a profile piece for the paper about Ford’s production of The Fugitive (1947), Ford talked him into becoming a screenwriter and handling the script for his next picture, Fort Apache (1948).
The title character of Walsh’s story was changed from Paddy Bawn Enright to Sean Thornton. Nugent also made a change to the lead character’s motives. In the story, he is simply not interested in fighting for something as insignificant as a dowry. Nugent added a backstory that had Wayne’s heavyweight giving up fighting after accidentally killing a man in the boxing ring.
In 1946 Ford and producer Merian C. Cooper formed Argosy Pictures to allow Ford more control over the selection and production of his films. His first Argosy project was to have been The Quiet Man. He wrote his old friend in Ireland Michael Killanin, telling him of his plans to film in Ireland and asking Killanin to work with him on the project. At the time, Ford believed British producer Alexander Korda would finance the film, but the deal fell through and the picture languished several years more.
The story of how The Quiet Man at last came to the screen does read like a fable of Hollywood greed versus artistic integrity. Its villain was Herbert B. Yates, a former tobacco magnate whose Republic Pictures specialized in cheaply-produced westerns–the typical shooting schedule was seven to fourteen days–and whose only major asset was a contract with John Wayne, who after having been lent to directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford was emerging as a major star. Unable to get out of his contract with Yates, Wayne attempted to improve his own lot by bringing Ford to Republic.
Yates jumped at the chance to have someone of Ford’s stature working for his studio. He agreed to let the director shoot the “silly little Irish story” on location on the Emerald Isle in expensive Technicolor but he told Wayne that Ford would have to prove himself with another hit movie before he gave the go-ahead to this project. Ford, Wayne, O’Hara, McLaglen and many of the same crew got together and made the cavalry picture Rio Grande (1950). The movie was a success, and Yates was compelled to back The Quiet Man.
Even though he agreed to the deal, Yates grew nervous as it neared time for Ford and company to pack off to Ireland with their proposed $1.75 million budget. By spring of 1951, he was convinced the film would be a “phony art-house movie” and a financial disaster. He tried to convince Wayne the part of Sean Thornton was all wrong for him and would ruin his career. To appease Yates, Ford agreed to cut his costs and got Wayne and O’Hara to work for well below their standard rates.
One of the conditions that Republic placed on Ford was that the film run under two hours. However, the finished picture was two hours and nine minutes. When screening the film for Republic executives, Ford stopped the film at two hours in, on the verge of the climactic fistfight. Republic executives relented and allowed the film to run its full length.
The Quiet Man was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two, best cinematography and best director for Ford. But The Quiet Man was more than just a movie to Ford: The charming romantic comedy actually was a heartfelt tribute to his ancestral homeland.
Along with winning Ford his record fourth best picture Oscar, The Quiet Man was a worldwide box office sensation.
If you haven’t seen the movie here is the synopsis:
After spending most of his unhappy life in America, Sean Thornton (John Wayne) arrives in the little Irish village of Inisfree to find the peace and paradise his mother used to talk about. The first person to catch his eye is the beautiful and fiery Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara).
Having bought the homestead from the wealthy Widow Tillane, much to the anger of Mary Kate’s brother Will, who wants the property for his own, he sets about courting the young woman. But her brother will not permit it, so the local priest, the vicar and his wife, and Michaleen, the village matchmaker and bookie, trick Will into believing that if he marries Mary Kate off, he will finally be successful in his pursuit of the widow.
At the wedding, however, Will discovers she has no intention of marrying him, even if he does fancy himself “the best man in Inisfree.” He refuses to give Mary Kate her dowry. Sean thinks the furniture and money are unimportant, but Mary Kate insists they belong to her and without them she is not a married woman. She refuses to sleep with Sean and berates him for being a coward who won’t stand up to her brother. But neither she nor anyone else in the village (except the vicar) know that Sean has sworn off fighting after accidentally killing a man in the boxing ring.
When Mary Kate attempts to leave her husband, he follows her to the train station five miles away and drags her back to town on foot. Flinging her at Will’s feet, he tells him the marriage is over unless she gets her full dowry. Will begrudgingly throws the money at him. Sean and Mary Kate pick it up and fling it into a furnace. Satisfied at last, she returns to their home while Sean and Will battle it out.