Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Day reminder WITH SPOILERS

Remember your Marquis of Queensbury rules. Um, just who was the Marquis of Queensbury anyway?

The link is to the most famous scene from John Ford's classic romance film The Quiet Man. Ahhh, every St. Patrick's Day I break out the DVD and watch this film. The romance involved isn't so much Sean Thorton (John Wayne) courting the fiery redhead Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara), it's director John Ford being in love with Ireland itself. Ford was the son of Irish immigrants, and the theme of "Those Who Are Irish, and Those Who Wish They Were" pops up a lot in his films. Actually, I kid: Ford's recurrent theme throughout his films was Community, be it an actual town, an outpost of U.S. Calvary, or a band of brothers of some form.

Alert: here on there be SPOILERS, I do give away a lot of the film's plot. Still and all you should see the film, it's near perfect.
Here, the community is Innisfree, an idyllic coastal village two steps removed from Brigadoon or Avalon. Thorton is returning to the home of his parents from the United States, bringing with him wealth but a troubled soul. He wants to find heaven, which Innisfree has become for him, and he just wants to settle in his father's abandoned house and grow roses. Conflict immediately rises up when he repurchases the property from the Widow Tillane, drawing the ire of "Squire" Will Danaher who coveted the land (and the widow). Thorton had also come across Will's sister Mary Kate ("O that red hair of hers is no lie") and becomes smitten with her (and she with him), but being American is unschooled in the then-Irish customs of matchmaking and courtship. Will, as head of his house, refuses to let bygones be and allow his sister to even look at Sean. So the townfolk of Innisfree, coming to think of Thorton as "the best man in Innisfree" (another reason Will Danaher hates him), decide to help out by tricking Will into thinking the Widow Tillane won't marry him until Mary Kate leaves his house. The ruse works well enough to lead to Sean and Mary Kate's wedding... but then Will Danaher finds out he'd been tricked and refuses to pass on Mary Kate's dowry. Sean, having his own small fortune, doesn't see the bother: Mary Kate, knowing the money is her sign of independence from her brother, is infuriated her new husband won't fight for her rights. Their passionate love turns to equally passionate anger, and the Innisfree folk share the doldrums. It's just that, other than the Protestant minister who follows the sport of boxing, no one knows that Thorton had accidentally killed a fellow boxer during a fight ("For what? Lousy stinking money.") and has been guilt-ridden about throwing a punch ever since.
Things come to a head when Mary Kate shames Sean by running away: finally angered up, Thorton chases after her and drags her from the railroad station. Having interrupted a squabble already in progress, the train crew and just as quickly the whole town of Innisfree come arunning to witness the confrontation. Thorton openly calls Will Danaher out for the dowry in front of the whole community, and when he refuses Thorton calls the marriage quits. Now embarrassed that his sister could be shamed by the annulment, Will tosses the money at Sean's feet and curses him.
Sean takes the money and heads straight to a nearby kiln. Mary Kate meets him there and opens the oven, letting her husband toss her dowry into the fire. He's proven he has the backbone to stand up for his love: she's proven she had no interest in the money, just only the integrity of being his wife. All demons are resolved except one, and that leads to the epic donnybrook between Sean Thorton and Will Danaher.
The fight quickly proves to be more comedic than tragic: Will is physically fit enough to trade blows with the more professional Sean, and the two quickly figure out it's not really a fight to the death. What really happens is that the town of Innisfree is rejuvenated: the town elder (played by the director's older brother Francis) literally springs from his deathbed to watch the fight; the local police are more interested in tallying bets from other agencies; the Protestant minister wagers (a bit unfairly as he knew Thorton's rep) with his visiting bishop; and the Widow Tillane finally expresses her love for the bull-headed Will. The film ends with a reaffirmation of the community (and a shot of Will Danaher and the Widow Tillane on the courtship cart), with all the major cast members waving Hello to the audience.

Did warn you about the SPOILER, but you should still see the movie. As I mentioned earlier, it's John Ford's love letter to his old family's homeland of Ireland, and of the four Directing Oscars he'd garnered over his career I'd wager the one he got for Quiet Man had to be the one he most prided on. If you see enough of Ford's films, you'll notice he works like a canvass painter: scenes staged with almost snapshot-framing precision; vast landscapes in incredible detail (every director loves to film in Monument Valley: Ford's the only one to ever do that place justice); characters posed (sometimes rather stiffly) as for portraits to hang on museum walls. The Quiet Man is Ford at his best. It was filmed almost all on location (a rarity in those days when it was cheaper to film in California and pretend it was Toronto: now it's the other way around), and Ford's eye captures the beauty of the landscape. The cinematographers (Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout) also won Oscars for their work on this film as well. The location scenery caught in Technicolor was so gorgeous that it actually causes a problem: for certain shots Ford had to film 'outdoor' scenes on a stage, and the switch is so noticeable (especially during a horse race and especially the rousing fight) that it jars the viewers. It's the film's biggest flaw.

You can tell it's a love letter because the film is really an American's dream of an ideal Ireland. People of Innisfree may be improvished but they're happy. Most mentions of the Troubles are practically asides: the local Sinn Fein plotters are more concerned with the next lager than with blowing up buildings. There's an elderly gent in some scenes, upper class gentry, and I think he's meant to be an implanted English lord. There's a running gag of seeing this guy in the background completely oblivious to the going-ons, while the Catholic priest played by Ward Bond and the leprechaun-like matchmaker played by Barry Fitzgerald are the true town leaders. The film ends with the mostly Catholic townfolk cheering on the Protestant minister in order to convince his bishop to let the minister stay: only an Irish-American long separated from the religious divisions that still rack Ireland and Northern Ireland would conceive such a scene back in the 1950s.

What makes this movie near-perfect is also the cast: the biggest problem in a lot of Ford's films is that the actors' performances tend to be a bit stiff, but in the Quiet Man nearly everyone is relaxed and you can tell the cast are enjoying themselves. The performance that will shock you the most is John Wayne's: while he's usually the hero and 'gets the girl' in a lot of his films, the Quiet Man was the first one (maybe the only film) where he's genuinely a romantic figure first and action hero last. His acting alongside Maureen O'Hara, especially the tender scenes, and the wordless flashback to his boxing accident showed actual acting chops. Usually it's John Wayne starring as John Wayne: here's, it's John Wayne as Sean Thorton. That Wayne didn't even get nominated for an Oscar for this role remains one of the Top 10 Injustices in Hollywood History (it ranks below Edward G. Robinson never getting an acting nomination at all, and above Annie Hall beating out Star Wars for Best Picture).
Maureen O'Hara, by the time of this film, was one of Hollywood's most beautiful leading ladies, probably the most beautiful redhead in film history. Her performance in Quiet Man is all passion, nearly combative with every character but with firm purpose and with genuine desire. Her pairing with Wayne here is considered one of filmdom's greatest romantic performances ever (Speilberg payed homage to the kissing scene in E.T.).
As for the rest of the cast, well. Ford was well-known for working with a standing company of regulars, and for each of them this was a good time for them to dust off their comedic skills. Victor McLaglen is usually a clownish figure in a lot of them: here it's put to good use as the bullying brother who needs a good bop on the nose to put him in his place. He received a Best Supporting nomination here. Equally up to the task were the likes of Ward Bond (who serves as narrator as well as the head priest Father Lonergan) and Barry Fitzgerald (as the matchmaker Michaleen Ole Flynn). You have to watch Fitzgerald's slow burn when he finds the newlywed's bed in shambles. The rest of the cast was pretty much related to everybody else (Maureen's brothers played the young priest and/or one of the Sinn Fein drinkers, uh plotters). As another sign of this being John Ford's love letter, his older brother Francis gets a lot of prime scenery-chewing, and at the end Francis gets the only solo shout-out to the audience.

My film-viewing fare tends towards science fiction and action thrillers. The Quiet Man is one of the few romances I even openly admit to having seen, and one of two I own on DVD. 'Cause there's nothing wrong with that: it's one of the best movies ever. Makes you wanna finish up filing for a passport so you can go visit Innisfree!