The making of The Quiet Man in June and July 1951 not only brought excitement and joy to the residents of Cong, and endless photographs and stories for the Irish media, but had the added attraction of having all the razzmatazz of a John Ford production. It was a family reunion and a family vacation for Irish and Irish-American actors. John Wayne arrived at Shannon with his wife Pilar, and children Melinda, Michael, Patrick and Toni (all of whom show up in the horse-race scene ). John Ford brought his son Patrick, who directed some second-unit photography, while his daughter Barbara stayed in Hollywood to edit the rushes. Ford’s brother Eddie O’Fearna was second assistant director, while his elder brother Francis had a cameo role in the movie.*
Maureen O’Hara’s brothers, Charles B Fitzsimons, and James Lilburn, also had small parts. Victor McLaglen’s son Andrew was an assistant director. Ford’s brother-in-law, Wingate Smith, was also part of the production staff. Barry Fitzgerald, who got star billing and top salary along with Wayne and O’Hara, was joined in the cast by his brother Arthur Shields.
Fitted out from head to toe in brand-new tweeds from O’Máille’s shop (see the photographs in the shop today ), they settled into Ashford Castle, still one of the finest hotels in Ireland, looking its best, as the surrounding countryside did in one of the sunniest summers on record. It was brilliant for photography,
The story is set in Ireland in the 1930s. Sean Thornton (John Wayne ), an Irish born American from Pittsburg, returns to Ireland to reclaim his family’s home at Innisfree. He meets and falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara ), the red haired and beautiful sister of the bullying, loud-mouthed ‘ Red’ Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen ). Red Will, however, takes an instant dislike to Thornton, who outbid him for his former family land. But the local villagers think it’s a great match and trick Red Will Danaher to believe that the Widow Sarah Tillane would marry him if Mary Kate was out of his house. He allows the wedding to go ahead. But when he learns that it’s only a trick he refuses to pass over Mary Kate’s dowry.
Thornton doesn’t care about the dowry, but Mary Kate sure does. And this really is the plot of the story. Angered and shamed that her husband will not demand from her brother what is rightfully hers, she brands him a coward, and refuses to sleep with him. In an attempt to force her husband to confront her brother, she runs away, and boards a train for Dublin. Infuriated and frustrated, Sean arrives and drags her off the train. Followed by the townspeople, who sense that a battle royal is about to happen, he pulls his wife over the fields for five miles to Red Danaher’s home and demands the dowry.
Thornton, of course, had a secret. He was a former champion boxer, but in his last fight his opponent died. He quit the ring and swore never to fight again. But he may not have to. Red Danaher agrees to give up the dowry, which immediately he and Kate throw into the furnace. Mary Kate never cared about the money only that her husband would be prepared to fight for his wife. Infuriated by this insult Red Will Danaher attacks Sean, and the two men slug it out through the village, stop for a drink, brawl again, and then become best friends. Thornton regains Mary Kate’s love and respect, Red Will Danaher and the Widow Tillane begin courting, and peace returns to the village.
Fighting with a camera
Believe it or not it’s still a very enjoyable and an amusing movie to watch. There are some very fine acting performances, particularly by Barry Fitzgerald as Mickeen Og Flynn, the wily chaperone while Mary Kate and Thornton are courting. It was beautifully filmed around Cong, Thoor Ballylee, Ballyglunin, Tuam, and Connemara. It made substantial profits, and won two Oscars: Best Film of 1953; and Best Cinematography by Winton C Hoch and Archie Stout.
The Quiet Man was a long time digesting in John Ford’s mind. He first read the story, by Maurice Walsh, in 1933 in the Saturday Evening Post, and bought the rights to film it for $10. But there were to be many films and adventures before The Quiet Man was made. Ford’s war record is nothing short of being amazing. Even before the bombing of Pearl Harbour he had enlisted for active duty. In September 1941 he was commissioned to set up a war photographic unit for propaganda, documentation and reconnaissance work. He recruited some of his buddies from his ‘ family’ of photographers, soundmen, special effects, and editors. In the end he commanded as many as 300 men. He shot film at the battle of Midway (where he was wounded ), he accompanied the tank invasion into North Africa, set up covert operations in Argentina and Brazil, travelled secretly behind Japanese lines into China, and went ashore with the D-day invasion. He won back-to- back Academy awards for his two documentaries The Battle of Midway (1942 ) and December 7 (1943 ). He fought the war with a camera, rather than a rifle.
‘Sexiest picture ever’
After the war he went back to making movies, a total of ten before The Quiet Man**. He made them all at a feverish pace, as if he wanted to put his war experiences far behind him. Most of them were westerns. Understandably Ford could not easily shake away the experiences of the war. In his mind he allowed the native American Indians to become Germans or Japanese, while he explored universal themes of loyalty, and the complicated reasons for fighting for your country. While patriotic, these movies were not first and foremost American propaganda.
Included in this explosion of film making there were some failures. It took a while to convince Argosy Studios to put up the money for the Irish film which would be shot on location. But at last in the early summer of 1951 filming got under way at Cong. When making a film Ford followed his intuition, and could be pretty liberal with the script. Because of his admiration for Ireland’s fight for freedom, and his own bellicose ‘I’m an Irish rebel’ demeanour, he had imagined a strong IRA plot in the film. He invited Castlebar born Ernie O’Malley, an enigmatic IRA officer, and a commander in the Anti Treaty forces during the Civil War,*** as advisor on the set. But Ford appeared to have found a peace in the Ireland of the 1950s that had eluded him up to the moment. He announced that The Quiet Man would feature neither the War of Independence, nor the Civil War. In fact the story begins when those wars have ended. It concerns Irishmen fighting not with Englishmen, but with each other over land and a woman. Ford declared that it would be “ the sexiest picture ever...all about a man trying to get a woman into bed”
Next week: How Ford did it!
* I am leaning heavily on Adrian Frazier’s Hollywood Irish - John Ford, Abbey Actors, and the Irish Revival in Hollywood (The Lilliput Press, on sale €20 ), a wholly original study of the impact of the early Abbey Theatre tours in America in the 1930s.
** The movies Ford made after the war, before The Quiet Man were: They Were Expendable (1945 ), My Darling Clementine (1946 ), The Fugitive (1947 ) Fort Apache (1948 ), The Godfathers (1948 ), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949 ), When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950 ), Wagon Master (1950 ), Rio Grande (1950 ), This is Korea! (1951 )...
*** O’Malley wrote three books on his experiences, the most famous being On Another Man’s Wound (1936 ), now regarded as the one classic work to emerge from that turbulent period. His other writings included The Singing Flame (1978 ), and Raids and Rallies (1985 ) edited by his son Cormac.