The basic story of The Quiet Man is that of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a native of a small Irish town who has spent most of his life in America (“Pittsburgh, Massachusetts”, as one character claims) and has just returned to his native land to start over.
He bears a terrible secret: as a boxer in America he once accidentally killed a man in the ring. Now he wishes to put that behind him and start a new life with the girl of his dreams, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). The only obstacle is her obnoxious, overbearing brother, “Red Will” (Victor McLaglen), who attempts to sabotage Thornton at every chance he gets. Ultimately, Thornton must decide whether to fight Red Will over Mary Kate’s dowry, a decision which goes against his will to remain non-violent but which is demanded by Mary Kate’s (and the community at large’s) sense of honor.
The basic frame already seems to bear many traits of the Fordian Western. The Quiet Man contains many of the same archetypes as can be found in a film such as The Searchers or High Noon. The fact that on the surface the film’s symbols appear different is no matter, they still signify the same meanings for the narrative.
The differences which occur arise out of setting: the Western takes place on the frontier, where everything is new, customs and practices are still developing, and there is little to no established procedure for anything. Ireland, on the other hand, is the “old country”. Things are run by tradition and people judged by their lineage (Thornton is only truly accepted back home once it is revealed who his father and grandfather were). In other words, the ways of living have long been set, and there is little room for change. These two distinct settings become the lenses through which the archetypes shared by the Western and The Quiet Man are to be viewed.
While the customs of the frontier and rural Ireland are seemingly opposing forces, they serve the same narrative purpose: they are the motivating force behind the protagonist’s actions. In The Quiet Man, Thornton is constantly at odds with the established order, and the conflicts between his individual desires and the demands of the community fuel the majority of the plot (much like in any number of Ford’s westerns).
First, he is frustrated by the very formal customs surrounding courting. He cannot understand why Mary Kate cannot see him without the permission of her brother (her oldest living male relative). The rest of the community, however, despite the fact that they support Thornton and wish him to be with Mary Kate, also insist that the family obligations be respected and upheld. Even after Thornton is finally allowed to court Mary Kate, he must do so with the Matchmaker, Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), present at all times. Once Thornton and Mary Kate are finally married, Red Will refuses to give Mary Kate her dowry. The significance of this act is very different for the two newlyweds.
With his American identity, Thornton feels that it would be shameful to “beg” for the money, and because of his shadowy past as a boxer he does not wish to fight Will. He would rather live with the stigma of being a coward afraid to fight than risk another potentially fatal encounter. For Mary Kate and the community, however, it is shameful for Thornton not to demand what is rightfully his (or hers). The fact that he won’t fight compounds the shame. It becomes so bad that Mary Kate, despite loving Thornton, decides to leave him. It is not until Thornton compromises his own sensibilities that he wins Mary Kate back, but he does so by integrating the customs of the community with his own ideals.
Even with all of these themes and motifs set aside, the basic underlying conflict has a great deal in common with the Western. At its heart, there is the “good man” or protagonist, an outsider, who comes into conflict with the “bad man”, the established, rich, and overbearing land owner. The conflict centers around love (Mary Kate), honor (the dowry) and community acceptance. The Quiet Man is a distinctly Fordian film in every sense. Not only thematically, but in style and presentation as well. Along with having all the old familiar Fordian faces such as Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen and Mildred Natwick, the film possesses the same broad sense of humor and beautiful geographical environment. The cinematography is bright and beautiful, and the characters are suitably archetypal while also being individually complex and flawed. If I were pressured, I would have to rank The Quiet Man as one of my two or three favorite John Ford films ever.
The new special edition DVD has several interesting features, but overall the quality of the disc is a little suspect. The print is bright and colorful, but by today’s standards it’s little more than average. This is not a disc of the quality of some of the Criterion Collection re-masters. Still, the overall package coupled with the relatively low price make it a bargain for any fan of this classic film.