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Sentimentality is not a word we often associate with John Ford, at least not the version of John Ford that the popular imagination has conjured in the years since the legendary director’s death. Of the directors who still loom large in Ford’s era, Frank Capra is usually the one we most often associate with gauzy, treacly views of life and love, while Ford is painted with a broad brush as the gruff technician, sitting behind the camera with a scowl while capturing the brutal beauty of the American West. In his later years, with his eyepatch and pipe, he looked more like a field general than a luminary of the cinema, and depending on who you asked, his on-set behavior backed that image up.
So, in fact, did Ford himself. He wasn’t prone to romanticizing his films beyond what you see onscreen, calling directing “a job of work” and often retreating from questions about his cinematic output as a form of art (in interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, for example, he famously offered one-word answers and called “cut” rather than respond to certain questions). That attitude, along with his instrumental role in shaping the Western into a cinematic art form, sanded away many of the finer details of Ford’s life and work in American pop culture. To many, he’s that guy who made The Searchers and Stagecoach with John Wayne, and little more.
But then there’s The Quiet Man.
The film that won Ford his fourth and final Oscar for Best Director (still an Academy record) feels like an outlier among his best-known works, even when placed alongside the light-in-the-darkness vulnerability of The Grapes of Wrath or the bittersweet wistfulness of How Green Was My Valley. There’s a naked emotion to the film, and a contrast that comes when placed alongside Ford’s other collaborations with Wayne, that makes The Quiet Man sing with a brightness that Ford always had in moments, but rarely displayed for an entire feature. It’s that brightness, and an enduring, penetrating charm, that’s made The Quiet Man endure as a classic alongside The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and it’s proof of the director’s oft-forgotten versatility.
But the impact of The Quiet Man goes beyond that of a flexible director taking his “job of work” approach to yet another genre in yet another vibrant location. It’s not just that Ford traded the burnt orange awe of Monument Valley for the verdant seductions of the Emerald Isle. Ford didn’t direct this film because it came across his desk as an attractive prospect, and he thought it might be nice to shoot on location in Ireland for a couple of months. No, Ford chased this movie, just as the title character chased his romantic destiny—and he did it for nearly two decades.
What made Ford take such a personal hand in shaping this pastoral masterpiece, further cementing his place among the greatest filmmakers who ever lived? It starts with Ireland.
Like Sean Thornton (Wayne), the American boxer who travels to Ireland to buy back his family cottage and start a new life, Ford grew up longing for the home his parents left. Born in Maine to Irish immigrants, Ford grew up infused with Irish culture, and with numerous relatives and family friends still on the island, waiting for him to visit. When he read Maurice Walsh’s short story “The Quiet Man” in a 1933 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, it’s no wonder that he saw something of himself in its pages.
Ford would spend more than a decade shaping his own version. Like Walsh’s original story, Ford’s film (scripted by Frank Nugent) follows an ex-boxer who moves to Ireland, marries a local woman and then fights with her domineering brother over her dowry. But Ford greatly expanded and shifted the story to suit his own needs. In his version, Thornton arrives in the fictional village of Innisfree to buy his family cottage not just because he wants to start anew, but because he’s running from a violent past, namely accidentally killing a man during his final bout. In the fiery Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara at her most radiant), Sean sees both chemistry and possibility, and through local matchmaker Michaeleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), pursues her in traditional Irish courtship. This, of course, brings him into conflict with her brother Will (Victor McLaglen), who holds power over her dowry, and therefore her agency in both marriage and society.
It’s a straightforward tale rooted in both old Irish customs and a clash between the old world and the new. Sean spends almost as much time fighting against tradition as he does fighting for his eventual wife. What made it special, even beyond the charms of Walsh’s original story, was the lengths to which the director was willing to go to make it his own. Deeply proud of his Irish heritage, Ford immersed himself and his cast and crew in the Irish countryside, and went to great lengths to ensure the film finally got made. He convinced Republic Pictures (a studio known for serials and genre matinees, not prestige drama) to finance the film after other studios turned it down, and fought with studio head Herbert Yates over everything from the use of Technicolor to the final runtime. According to Sé Merry Doyle’s fascinating documentary John Ford: Dreaming the Quiet Man, Ford cast family and family friends wherever he could fit them, and the ones that weren’t onscreen were often given behind-the-scenes jobs, like working with O’Hara to perfect her Gaelic. In Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, biographer Scott Eyman notes that Ford’s gruff facade seemed to soften, if not crumble, while he filmed on location in Ireland. It shows in the final product. The country’s magic spread to the director’s chair, and then into the very celluloid.
As with all of his films, Ford shot The Quiet Man in a straightforward, unfussy style, preferring to have cinematographer Winton C. Hoch showcase the natural beauty of Ireland rather than through flourishes of the camera (though Yates, ever combative, apparently complained the film had too much green in it). Martin Scorsese, a Ford superfan if ever there was one, notes in Dreaming the Quiet Man that O’Hara’s first appearance is shot without any real finesse. We simply see her, standing amid a herd of sheep, looking dazzling because she’s Maureen O’Hara, not because she’s Maureen O’Hara as shot by John Ford (who was by some accounts nevertheless in love with his star). What Ford does do, though, is frame the story in a very particular way that suggests a journey not just to another country, but another world.
Thornton arrives by train, and asks directions to Innisfree, at which point several local men begin arguing over the correct route to the town. Michaeleen intervenes, quietly offers Sean a ride, and from the moment Sean walks out of the train station and into Michaeleen’s life, we don’t see the train, or any other modern conveyance, again until the very end of the film. During the climax, the train is presented only as a way for Mary Kate to coax Sean into pulling her back to their life together. In an early establishing shot, Michaeleen and Sean’s buggy passes beneath a bridge as the train rolls over the bridge, creating a clear physical delineation: Innisfree is not the world of steel and steam that Sean came from. Innisfree is something else.
Ford served in World War II with distinction, documenting the conflict for the Armed Forces and earning a Purple Heart for his wounds. He saw firsthand the carnage of the world, and brought it back with him, inserting it into The Quiet Man. Sean’s reluctant to physically fight after his fists killed a man for nothing more than a little money. Ford saw the raging torrents of violence that consumed America not once, but twice during his filmmaking career, and combined it with his longing for his ancestral home to create an almost mythic place where that violence hadn’t yet spread. The Quiet Man works not because Thornton eventually does decide to fight again, but because he’s given the chance to choose what’s worth fighting for—and he makes the right choice. It’s no wonder that when Ford returned to Westerns after this film, as Bogdanovich noted in his interviews, the violence took on a more desperate, tragic tone. In Print the Legend, Eyman notes that Ford considered making The Quiet Man his swan song. It was that firm a statement in his mind: An effort to push away the darkness in favor of something brighter.
So, while we’re still not likely to think of Ford as a sentimental man, it’s clear that something in The Quiet Man changed him, and it’s something we can still feel 70 years later. It’s both proof of his unending depth as a film technician and of something else, a side of Ford we rarely got to see, a side he expressed in a letter to a friend reprinted in Eyman’s biography, in which he recounted leaving Ireland at the end of the shoot:
“I remember Michael going to the plane with me but I was all choked up at leaving our beloved Ireland and was afraid I would burst into tears, which I did on reaching my berth….It seemed like the finish of an epoch in my somewhat troubled life. Maybe it was a beginning. Can I still come back? Don’t be surprised if I show up in the very near future. Galway is in my blood and the only place I have found peace….The Quiet Man looks pretty good. I even like it myself. It has a strange humorous quality and the mature romance comes off well.”
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.