Though long known for his John Wayne Westerns filmed in scenic Monument Valley, ironically three of John Ford's four Oscar wins for Best Director are set in Ireland (the other on the back of John Steinbeck's travelling Okies). Being Irish himself Ford has the proper storytelling credentials gifts for the subject matter, and seems to have fun with his ensemble casts. His most famous Irish movie is the only one shot on location on the green isle, and Ford had to struggle to find financing.
After reading Maurice Walsh's short story "Green Rushes" in The Saturday Evening Post and obtaining the rights in 1936, Ford approached core cast members John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara about doing The Quiet Man in 1944. They were willing, but the major studios continued to turn Ford's pet project down, believing that a lightweight Irish story had no commercial value. While Ford pursued backing off and on, O'Hara and Wayne began teasing the master director that they'd have to be recast in older parts if he waited many more years, but the relatively small Republic Pictures opened the door in 1950 with a caveat. Not believing the Irish story substantial either, they were willing to take a financial hit on it if Ford would use the same troupe of actors to make a money-making black and white Western called Rio Grande to balance the books.
Sixteen years after the initial inspiration, Ford was finally able to construct his most personal film, travelling to Ireland for six weeks of filming the lush greens and O'Hara's red tresses in glorious Technicolor.
Even without sweeping Monument Valley as backdrop, you can't help but recognize John Ford's style from the opening sequence, in which American Sean Thornton (Wayne) steps off the train to ask directions to Innesfree. Stationmaster, engineer, and assorted locals all gather to humorously banter and spin conflicting Irish directions before Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) silently picks up Thornton's bags and takes him down the proper road.
The story is slight—a basic melodrama where strong and silent Thornton has returned to his ancestral home and falls in love instantly with stereotypically fiery Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara), whose brother, Squire "Red" Will (Victor McLaglen), opposes the coupling. Irish tradition requires brotherly approval of any marriage, and the couple eventually obtains it with the help of the townspeople ... but not without complications. The brother takes back the dowry, causing Mary Kate to deny Sean conjugal bliss until he gets it back, setting up the inevitable fist fight between the two men. (Ford places the fight during the last nine minutes, ensuring a running time of 129 minutes after the studio had insisted on a two hour cut)
Standard formula fare, but made pleasurable with Ford's flare and some good acting. No denying the Duke playing John Wayne—no one's ever done the strong, silent, macho hero any better, and his charisma rivets the audience. Although half Irish in real life, John Wayne continues to play John Wayne in this film, nearly indistinguishable from many of his Western roles. But Ford makes it work well, and Wayne and O'Hara certainly do achieve sufficient chemistry to make their love affair believable. The rain-soaked kiss in the cemetery comes across authentically, and Wayne's approach to problem solving is ideal—a lesson in stoic determination. In fact, the way the Duke approaches the problems with Mary Kate's brother is the way we'd all like to approach life—remaining quiet, yet true to your principles, deliberately taking matters into your own hands. Wayne may be acting here, but it certainly feels real.
One of the most enjoyable parts of any John Ford creation are the small humorous details, so often woven in with supporting characters. Take note of the numerous family members included in cameo roles and extras--including Ford's brother, O'Hara's brother, and Wayne's children. In this case, Ford has a real lively Irish wake complete with plenty of drinking and reveling. Even the clergy has a good time betting on the fisticuffs, and the audience will enjoy themselves as well.
The Quiet Man doesn't contain the social issues of The Grapes of Wrath, the metaphorical depth of Stagecoach, or Ethan Allan's complexity in The Searchers, but it's pure Irish in flavor and a great deal of fun. And John Ford certainly has a right to some Irish blarney