The Quiet Man (1952)

Posted on January 22, 2014

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Rather than pepper a post on The Expendables sequel with references to other movies (like I did last week, in the column on Lockout), I thought I would write about a terrific movie that has very little action first.

Synopsis

Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns from America to his Irish birthplace, home to his family for seven generations. He immediately starts causing trouble by buying the farm where he was born. Squire “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) had his eyes on the property for years, and the Widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick) decides she would rather have Thornton for a neighbor than Danaher. To make things worse, Thornton falls for Danaher’s sister Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). Together with Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), Thornton convinces Danaher to give away his sister.

Then the real trouble starts.

Short Version

One of the finest movies ever made, with one of the longest fight sequences ever filmed.

Long Version

Okay, let’s get two things out of the way before we start talking about action.

First, John Ford’s movie portrays an idyllic, pastoral, Ireland that probably never existed. It largely ignores the impact of British rule and the overall state of the Irish economy of the time. Its Technicolor exteriors are real places, but the life it portrays is a fairy tale. Enjoyable, but not at all the reality of the time when the short story was written (1930s) or when the film was made (1950s).

Second, it’s just sexist as all Hell. In fact, it’s so sexist that it can be hard for modern audiences to parse the story. It’s baffling to modern audiences why Mary Kate doesn’t stand up to her brother and demand her belongings. We find it hard to understand why she needs Sean to validate her existence by fighting to get her dowry. The gender roles are strictly defined and enforced throughout the film.

If you can’t get past either of those things, you will hate The Quiet Man. If you can accept it as an artifact of its time, there’s an enjoyable story there.

So now let’s talk about action.

Dramatic Tension

Sean Thornton is a retired boxer who ran away to Ireland after killing an opponent in the ring. His sense of guilt is so powerful that he has rejected violence altogether. At the same time, he finds himself in a culture that respects those who have no fear of violence. It’s not that everyone in the village is violent. They certainly are not. However, the threat of violence does not stop them from standing up for themselves.

That puts Thornton in dramatic tension before he ever sees Mary Kate. He’s torn between his desire to live nonviolently and the need to move forward with his life. We’ve all experienced people who act like our very presence is intended to thwart their desires. Think about looking for a parking spot in a crowded lot, or trying to get in a checkout line at the grocery store during the holidays. Or, for that matter, at CostCo on any weekend.

Mostly Thornton makes friends and conducts his business peacefully, but Squire Danaher makes his dislike for the intruder, Thornton, clear.

Love Story

Mary Kate quickly falls for the stranger, but keeps bumping up against his ignorance of local custom. I found this easy to relate to, even as a man. Every woman I’ve ever known had very specific ideas about some part of her life, whether it was the house she wanted to live in, her wedding day, or just what kind of dog she wanted to own.

Watching Mary Kate try to get what she wants while Sean gets in her way out of ignorance feels real and human. Trust me, I’ve been that guy.

It worked out for me, and I’ve got the wedding ring to prove it.

Sean and Mary Kate’s first stumbling block is her things – her furniture, plates, and so on passed down from her mother to her. She doesn’t want the gigantic bed that Sean ordered specially made, and that got paraded through the village in horse carts on its way from the train to the house. She’s shamed by it.

Meanwhile, Will Danaher must, for the first time, be looking at how he lives, and how he will live without her. What will he eat off of? Who will cook for him? He wants to marry the Widow Sarah Tillane, but she thinks he’s an oaf and a blowhard. He doesn’t want to let go of Mary Kate. She and Sean only acquire her things through the efforts of their matchmaker, Michaleen Oge Flynn, and the local IRA.

Then comes the dowry, and that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Two hours of tension breaks, as Thornton tells Danaher to either pay the dowry as promised or take back his sister. Obviously, in our more enlightened time, women are not chattel to be traded or returned. In this fairytale Ireland, however, Thornton is right – and Mary Kate is happy about it. She knows that Sean wants her for his wife, and wants her so much that he will lay aside his convictions against violence to stand up to her brother, Will Danaher.

That’s why, when Danaher pays her dowry, she walks back to her cottage with her head held high. The man she loves proved he would fight for her, and now she can go home and make the tea. The dowry payment makes her an independent woman, completely free of her brother and able to make her own life and her own family.

Action

Aye, and then the donnybrook happens. Legendarily one of the longest fights in cinematic history, and it has to be. Those two hours of tension have built to this. Danaher is a bully, and like all bullies, he can’t stand having anyone as big as he is in the schoolyard. They have to fight, just to settle who’s tougher. It doesn’t really matter to them who wins, they just have to find out.

So what does the action sequence do, in this case?

Not much, except provide a cathartic moment for the audience. The characters and context are well established after 120 minutes. There is no increase in consequences. We’re at the end of the roller coaster, not the point where it keeps climbing. The movie is over, so there is no plot to advance.

Yet the fight is important. There’s a story that, I think, illustrates how important it is. John Ford screened the movie for the studio honchos at Republic Pictures, and it was 129 minutes long. The honchos believed that audiences would not stay in their seat for more than 120 minutes, and that Ford would have to edit the movie shorter. Reportedly, Ford was furious.

A few days later, he told the honchos that “the final print” was ready for viewing. At exactly 120 minutes, during the final fight, the screen went white and the lights went up. Ford pointed out that they were begging him to see the rest of the fight, and predicted that audiences would be no different. The cathartic release was so important that the studio brass relented, and we got our movie.

How do you write a moment like this? The key is that it didn’t matter to the movie how the fight ended. That left the audience in suspense. We want Danaher, the bully, to get his comeuppance, but we fear that Thornton is too long away from the ring and that his commitment to nonviolence has robbed him of some fighting ability. It’s actually suspenseful in ways that many action movies since have completely forgotten about.

Once again, I urge you to read John Roger’s essay on action sequences (in case you didn’t the last several times I recommended it). To summarize: “Don’t write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve.” The fight sequence in The Quiet Man is suspenseful because we don’t know how long it will go on, and since there is no consequence for losing, we do not know who will win.

What is the objective of the fight? Establishing who is tougher, so they can get on with living together.

What complications arise? Mostly terrain. They lose each other in a hay bale, fall into a river, and so forth. The point is cathartic release.

What is the resolution? They get drunk, and go home to Thornton’s cottage, the one that started all the trouble, for tea.

Conclusion

This sets us up nicely for next week, when I’ll talk about The Expendables 2. Spoiler alert: I thought it was much better than the first one.

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Posted in: Movies