By William C. Dowling
Today, it is The Quiet Man's picture of a premodern or preindustrial Ireland--an older society of dowries, cattle fairs and donnybrooks--that more often draws the objections of Irish commentators. A common move is to portray Ford's image of Ireland--"a never-never Golden Age," as Harlan Kennedy describes it, "a time of simple pastoral integrity"--as a mode of cultural imperialism, with Hollywood perpetuating various Irish stereotypes whose origins lay in long centuries of English political domination. Along with outright falsity, remarks James MacKillop, the sins attributed to The Quiet Man include "sentimentalism, condescension, clich and gimcrackery."
Taken together, Kennedy argues, such qualities add up to a view of "Irishness" that is "not less patronizing and oppressive than the collar-and-lead colonialism long exercised by Britain." In recent years, as Irish Studies has attempted to make a place for itself in an Anglo-American postcolonial discourse driven by identity politics, this has become more and more the standard line. Thus, for instance, Lance Pettitt's recent Screening Ireland approaches The Quiet Man from a perspective deriving less from film study or Irish history than from the "postcolonial" theorizing of such writers as Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Ania Loomba, and Edward Said.
In Ireland, a sense that American cinema represents a threat to Irish cultural independence is nearly as old as the republic. "We cannot be the sons of Gael and citizens of Hollywood at the same time," wrote one Irish nationalist in the 1930s. This is the spirit in which so much contemporary Irish filmmaking has defined itself specifically in opposition to The Quiet Man's image of Ireland as, in Luke Gibbons's phrase, "a primitive Eden, a rural idyll free from the pressures and constraints of the modern world."
The truth about Ireland is therefore to be sought in the bleak social reality that The Quiet Man's pastoral idyll hides from sight, as in what Terry Byrne describes as the "mind-numbing and desperately depressing" existence of the characters in Joe Comerford's Traveller (1978), or the rural poverty portrayed in Pat O'Connor's The Ballroom of Romance (1982), or the squalor of the Dublin squatter society--drug addicts, dealers, prostitutes, pimps--in Cathal Black's Pigs (1984).
Even a commercially successful film like Roddy Doyle's The Commitments (1991) is taken to provide a modicum of truth in what might be called the Corpo flat realism of the scenes taking place in Dublin's public housing projects: "an alternative body of imagery," as Gibbons calls such material, that can be seen as addressing "the realities of Irish life."
As Gibbons's phrasing suggests, his sympathies are on the side of the new Dublin realists against what he describes as the straitjacket of stereotype. Yet Gibbons has also, virtually alone among Irish commentators, grasped the sense in which The Quiet Man has for nearly fifty years been serving as a mirror for Irish cultural anxieties, provoking reactions having very little to do with the film itself. His essay "Romanticism, Realism and Irish Cinema," which goes some way toward taking The Quiet Man seriously as a work of the artistic or cinematic imagination, anticipates several points I want to make in this essay.
Nonetheless, my attempt will be to get entirely beyond the matter of "alienating images" of Ireland, as Gibbons calls them. For my argument will be that John Ford saw in "Ireland" something like the imaginative resource that Yeats found in Irish myth--"a symbolic language," as Yeats himself once puts it, "reaching far back into the past"--and that The Quiet Man is far closer to Shakespearean romantic comedy, and to the premodern world of village festivity and pagan ritual we glimpse in its immediate background, than to anything in recent Irish culture.
My argument will be, ultimately, that the power of The Quiet Man is the power of cultural myth.
II. Ford the Irishman v. Hollywood
The making of The Quiet Man has itself become a myth, a story about Ford's long struggle against the Hollywood studio system to make a film that, though it had intense personal meaning for him, was seen as having no commercial potential. From the time in 1936 that Ford bought the rights to Maurice Walsh's Saturday Evening Post short story "The Quiet Man" as well as to the expanded version included in Walsh's collection Green Rushes--this is the version that, adding such characters as the shaughraun (matchmaker) Michaeleen Oge Flynn, would become the basis of Ford's film--he tried to interest producers and studio heads in this tale of an American prizefighter who, having killed an opponent in a boxing match, returns to his ancestral homeland in hopes of finding peace.
In 1935, when Ford had made The Informer on a Hollywood sound stage and a very tight shooting schedule, the making of a Hollywood film for personal or artistic reasons was still possible. By 1945, when Ford returned to Hollywood after three years as head of a wartime Navy photographic unit, the idea had become virtually unthinkable. "You're in Ireland and we're in America," wrote Ned Depinet, an RKO distribution head to whom Ford showed the screenplay of The Quiet Man, "and I'm not going to pay for that."
Yet Ford's own career warns us against taking the struggle to make The Quiet Man as any simple allegory of artistic integrity versus the profit motive. For the key to Ford's genius as a director was precisely his ability to turn the constraints of the studio system to artistic advantage. He had learned his trade in the ruthless economic competition of the silent film industry and had come of age as a director of sound films under Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox. Such Ford masterpieces as How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath were produced under what are sometimes called the assembly-line conditions of the Hollywood system.
A genuine appreciation of the artistic possibilities made available by the system may be heard in Ford's insistence, in an interview with Jean Mitry, that "it is wrong to liken a director to an author." "He is," Ford would say, "more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises--the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations."
On the other hand, one hears throughout Ford's career a note of longing for a more pure or personal mode of artistic expression. "There's nothing surprising about the difficulty of doing things you yourself believe in in the movies," he said in a 1936 interview with New Theater magazine, "when you consider that you're spending someone else's money. And a lot of money. And he wants a lot of profit on it." Ford's long association with Dudley Nichols, a screenwriter whose political sympathies lay with the radical left, is partly to be explained by their shared sense of being involved in a sort of guerilla warfare against the studio system as a machine relentlessly geared to the maximization of profits.
"Another 16-inch shell into the MGM glamour empire," Nichols jubilantly wrote Ford after seeing the final cut of The Long Voyage Home, a film he and Ford had adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill. This is the context in which the project of making The Quiet Man would come to symbolize for Ford and members of his film "family"--most importantly, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara--a struggle for artistic expression against the commercial imperatives of the Hollywood glamour empire.
A major clue to The Quiet Man's portrayal of Ireland lies in its importance to Wayne and O'Hara and other members of what is sometimes called the John Ford stock company. For the stock company served Ford throughout his career as a surrogate community or extended family able to protect him as an artist from the otherwise destructive commercial pressures of Hollywood. In the numerous interviews and reminiscences left by its members, it is true, no one speaks in direct terms about the way Ford's film family insulated him from commercial pressure.
They tend to talk instead about the set of a Ford movie as something very like a magical space, a sphere sustained by complex rituals and ceremonies to which newcomers--always at the risk of an explosion from the mercurial Irishman sitting in the director's chair--had to be introduced in whispers. Yet all seem to have understood, as their long loyalty to The Quiet Man as Ford's "Irish project" makes clear, that the magical sphere he created around himself was for Ford the equivalent of an imaginary Irish village or family, with its rituals and jokes and loyalties and feuds, held together by the testy and wholly unpredictable presence of Ford himself as paterfamilias or head of the clan.
The story of how Ford came to Hollywood has become a legend. He grew up as John Martin Feeney in the Munjoy Hill section of Portland, Maine, the son of Irish-speaking parents in a Irish Catholic immigrant community. His older brother Francis, a handsome scapegrace driven out of Portland by a bit of local scandal, had lost touch with the family for several years, drifting into an acting career in the fledgling film industry in Los Angeles, where he had emerged as an important director as well as a successful leading man.
Meanwhile, back in Portland, their mother Abby, who as a native Irish speaker had never learned to read and write English, was an enthusiastic fan of the new silent films being shown at the Empire Theater. On a weekend in 1914, the inevitable happened. Abby Feeney returned to announce to her family that she had just seen her eldest son, listed in the credits as Francis Ford, in a starring role. They contacted Francis through his studio and he made a short triumphal visit to his old home town. Shortly thereafter, some weeks after graduating from high school, John Martin Feeney was on his way to join his older brother in Los Angeles.
Virtually from the moment of his arrival, Ford set about establishing the private world within filmmaking that would sustain him through a long Hollywood career. Within an astonishingly short time, he had surpassed his brother Francis's reputation as a gifted director, demonstrating a special talent for making the two-reel westerns that were a staple of silent film production. As has often enough been remarked, part of his genius lay in translating the cultural values of his parents' rural Ireland to an American setting. Ford's westerns, as Luke Gibbons has observed, "are often vitalized by an infusion of Irish themes--collective violence, family ties, rituals of solidarity, a longing for community."
What is less often remarked is that these same rituals of solidarity, meaningful only within an established community, were central as well to the way Ford actually made his films. Here lie the origins of the John Ford stock company: the major stars--Harry Carey in the silents, Wayne and Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen and Maureen O'Hara in the period of sound--who appear over and over in Ford's films, the grips and prop men and stuntmen who moved with Ford from production to production, the writers (Dudley Nichols, Nunnally Johnson, Frank Nugent) and cameramen (Gregg Toland, Joe August, Winton Hoch) who show up again and again in the credits to his films.
In reminiscences by members of the Ford stock company, even the smallest of these rituals of solidarity assumes a mythic importance. Consider, for instance, the accordion playing of Danny Borzage, who would greet the arrival on the set of each principle player with a theme drawn from a film they had done with Ford--"Red River Valley" for Henry Fonda, "Wagons West" for Ward Bond, "Marquita" for John Wayne--and softly fill in the background between takes with Ford favorites like "Bringing in the Sheaves."
Borzage's presence on every Ford set for over forty years has a great deal to do with the emotional quality of Ford's films. "Upon arriving on the set," recalls Harry Carey, Jr., "you would feel right away that something special was going to happen. You would feel spiritually awakened all of a sudden. . . . This feeling has never happened to me again on any set." And Carey, like everyone else, remembers Borzage's music as an essential part of the mood: "He certainly was not a particularly good accordion player, but his music moved you. It wouldn't be a Ford set without his sounds of plaintive sadness that pulled at your heart, that made you feel, Thank God I'm here to do a scene for that Old Man by the camera'."
The Quiet Man assumed symbolic importance for members of Ford's film family not least because it incorporated so many of these rituals into its own story. Those who have objected to the film as a hopelessly sentimentalized picture of Irish society--"a tourist's vision of Ireland," as MacKillop says--have, for instance, been especially hard on the music in the story, as though it portrayed the Irish as a happy-go-lucky people always ready to break spontaneously into song no matter how terrible the tribulations of poverty and history.
A favorite example in condemnations or dismissals of The Quiet Man is the scene in Cohan's pub where the company learns that the tall American stranger in their midst is Sean Thornton, come home from the steel mills of Pittsburgh to his ancestral village of Innisfree, at which point an accordionist strikes up "Wild Colonial Boy" and all join in a rousing rendition of the song. Yet this scene is not in any simple sense about Ireland. It is at some level, as reminiscences like Carey's remind us, about the real community from which The Quiet Man had emerged as a work of cinematic art, for whom Danny Borzage's accordion was a constant reminder of mood and purpose. At such moments The Quiet Man is gazing through or beyond its Irish story to a deeper relation between ritual and community.
The story of how The Quiet Man at last came to the screen does read like a fable of Hollywood greed versus artistic integrity. Its villain was Herbert B. Yates, a former tobacco magnate whose Republic Pictures specialized in cheaply-produced westerns--the typical shooting schedule was seven to fourteen days--and whose only major asset was a contract with John Wayne, who after having been lent to directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford was emerging as a major star. Unable to get out of his contract with Yates, Wayne attempted to improve his own lot by bringing Ford to Republic.
The result was a draconian deal: Ford would make three films within a two year period, none to exceed $1.25 million in budget. The lure was The Quiet Man, a project that Yates detested--he described it to John Wayne as a "phony art-house picture"--but that he agreed to let Ford make if the first of the three films turned out to make a profit. With the recent success of Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon behind him, Ford chose to begin with a western. Wayne was already under contract at Republic. Ford borrowed Maureen O'Hara from Fox and shot Rio Grande. It was a box office success, and the Ford film family was, at long last, ready to move on to The Quiet Man.
The shooting of The Quiet Man has lingered as a local legend in County Mayo and environs, one suspects, because it was so obviously a celebratory occasion for members and relations of Ford's extended film family. To permit Ford to make the film within the rigid budgetary limits imposed by Herbert Yates, John Wayne agreed to work for a greatly-reduced fee. Wayne brought his four children along on location, and Ford gave them parts in an important scene in the film. Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen, veteran stalwarts of the Ford stock company, played major roles as the unsaintly parish priest Father Lonergan and the blustering squireen Red Will Danaher.
McLaglen's son Andrew was assistant production manager. Maureen O'Hara played Mary Kate Danaher, the fiery-tempered Irish girl with whom Wayne falls in love over the objections of her bullying brother. O'Hara's own real-life brothers Charles and James Fitzsimons play the former IRA commandant Forbes and the young priest Father Paul. Barry Fitzgerald is the irrepressible shaughraun Michaeleen Oge Flynn, his brother Arthur Shields the Protestant vicar Mr. Playfair. And Ford's own brother Francis, whose early success in silent films had given Ford his start as a director, plays the white-bearded village elder Dan Tobin.
The Quiet Man is often described as Ford's homecoming to Ireland, and to a degree this was so. A reporter from the Connaught Tribune, for instance, was suitably astonished to hear the Hollywood director drop into Irish in an interview, unaware that Ford's parents were from the gaeltacht, or that Irish had been spoken in his home in Portland, Maine.
But the real homecoming of Ford and The Quiet Man company was not to Ireland but to Innisfree, the wholly imaginary village in which the story takes place. It is Innisfree that embodies the sense of community and shared ritual that had permitted Ford and his film family to create their own magic space in a Hollywood presided over by the likes of Herbert B. Yates, for whom the entire meaning of a film was its box office receipts.
This is the space Frederico Fellini would later have in mind in describing Ford as someone "who has made out of motion pictures a fairy tale to be lived by himself, a dwelling in which to live with joyous spontaneity." The subject of The Quiet Man is in this sense not Ireland or the Irish but the survival of art in a time in which "the filthy modern tide," as Yeats called all those forces of modernity hostile to mind or spirit or imagination, has swept away all but a few fugitive traces of a world once coherent and whole.
The Quiet Man has a great deal in common with Shakespearean comedy. The resemblance was remarked almost immediately by Lindsay Anderson, the English film director who remains the most perceptive critic of Ford's work. Like Shakespeare, Anderson wrote to Ford in 1953, referring to both The Quiet Man and Ford's next film The Sun Shines Bright, Ford had succeeded in creating a world that was "all harmony and reconciliation," exactly like "one of those late untidy' magical comedies--Winter's Tale or Cymbeline."
His observation holds obviously true at the level of plot, where Ford's famously digressive style of film narration bears a marked resemblance to what Anderson calls the untidiness of Shakespeare's later comedies. At the deeper level of comic structure, however, The Quiet Man bears a far stronger resemblance to the comedies Shakespeare wrote in the period between The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It, with their characteristic movement--as Northrop Frye once says, thinking in particular of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It--"out of the world of experience into the ideal world of innocence and romance."
This comic structure was brilliantly analyzed in 1959 by C.L. Barber in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, which isolated in these plays what Barber calls a "saturnalian pattern" derived from holiday games and customs that had survived from an earlier pre-Christian culture, and in many cases from pagan rituals already archaic when Aristophanes was writing comedies in ancient Athens.
Thus it is, on Barber's account, that Shakespeare's romantic comedies are so filled with allusions to English village games--"morris dances, sword-dances, wassailings . . . mummings, disguisings, masques"--associated with the procession of holidays--"Shrove Tuesday, Hocktide, May Day, Whitsuntide, Midsummer Eve"--that for long centuries had governed the rhythms of the European medieval year.
Their essence is caught in Barber's notion of a saturnalian pattern, Saturnalia having been the Roman festival during which normal social hierarchy was inverted and masters waited on their servants. The point of the pattern lies precisely in the principle of ritualized disorder called misrule or the-world-turned-upside-down, a moment of collective freedom from the rule of an unvarying obedience to authority that might otherwise threaten to become intolerable.
An important point in Barber's analysis is that the rule of authority reversed or inverted during the holiday interlude need not be that of social hierarchy merely, but may be that of a rigid moral or religious code demanding an unreasonable purity of motive and behavior. Thus it is, for instance, that a valuable source of information about the holiday games and customs of Shakespeare's day comes not from the village merrymakers but from their Puritan critics, who correctly saw in them a survival of pagan rituals in which the ordinary rules of continence and sexual morality were temporarily suspended.
A particular object of Puritan detestation was the May Day customs associated with "bringing home the May," in which young men and women went into the woods together--a certain amount of sexual dalliance being expected and tolerated--to return with the Maypole, a slender sapling set up in the center of the village to celebrate the return of spring. "They strew the ground round about," wrote the Puritan Phillip Stubbs disgustedly in a polemic entitled The Anatomy of Abuses, "bind green boughs about it . . . and then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols."
As Stubbs and his fellow Puritans clearly understood--it is what Stubbs means to get at in talking about "Idols" and "heathen people"--the green boughs strewed around the Maypole were survivals of an ancient fertility worship for which the rebirth of nature in springtime bespoke a mystery of regeneration--Dylan Thomas's "force that through the green fuse drives the flower"--so powerful as to temporarily sweep away conventional morality. The archetype of the May Day ritual as it existed in Shakespeare's time, no doubt, was the Bacchic ritual of the ancient Greek and Roman world, in which drinking and sexual license combined to create something like a complete suspension of ordinary social rules.
A strong element of Bacchic release survived, at any rate, in the Elizabethan customs that permitted a great deal of drinking and verbal and physical bellicosity during the period of holiday license, usually under the direction of a Lord of Misrule chosen to preside over the festivities. Barber quotes in this connection Sir Thomas Urquhart, who describes this personage as "the King of Misrule, whom we invest with that title to no other end, but to countenance . . . Bacchanalian riots and preposterous disorders."
The point of the saturnalian pattern in Shakespearean comedy, as in the holiday games and customs to which the plays so frequently allude, is the revelation that the ordinary or workaday world, which seeks to present its claims to sober morality in exclusive and unconditional terms, is after all no more than one possible world among others. This is the point missed by Puritans like Phillip Stubbs, who treats the very idea of common holidays, or time taken out from work or business and devoted to festivity, as an offense to God and man.
In a work like Stubb's Anatomie of Abuses we are already very close, as Barber points out, to that emergent social and economic order described by Max Weber's famous essay on the Protestant ethic or by R.H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, "a world of isolated, busy individuals, each prudently deciding how to make the best use of his time."
Against this, Shakespearean comedy counterposes the vision of an earlier social order in which individual life had taken on meaning within the communal existence expressed in May Day or Hocktide ceremonies of misrule, which is why the festive comedies so often give the effect of "a group who are experiencing together a force larger than their individual wills."
The comic structure of The Quiet Man is very close to this Shakespearean pattern. The major difference is that in Shakespeare the symbolic opposition between the world of sober morality and that of holiday freedom is normally made internal to the play. Thus, for instance, in As You Like It the Elizabethan opposition between Stubb's Puritan values and those of the May Day merrymakers is reproduced in the opposition between the court, ruled over by the usurping Duke Frederick and his followers, and the Forest of Arden--the green world, as it is usually called by scholars of Renaissance literature, representing "a region defined by an attitude of liberty from ordinary limitations."
In The Quiet Man the green world is Ireland, or at least the version of Ireland that Ford locates in the imaginary village of Innisfree, counting on his audience to recognize the Yeatsian or poetic overtones of the name. The opposing world that corresponds to Stubb's Puritan values, on the other hand, especially as these have led in modern times to a dissolution of community in the name of a relentless economic individualism, is that absent or distant America from which Sean Thornton has returned to Innisfree.
The Quiet Man's story revolves around a deep underlying tension between the opposing world views of Innisfree and twentieth-century America. This is posed at the beginning of the story as a problem about romantic love and traditional marriage customs, originating in the overwhelming romantic attraction between Sean and Mary Kate, which corresponds in the film to the overpoweringly "natural" forces set loose in Elizabethan May Day revelry or the green world of Shakespearean comedy.
Early in The Quiet Man, for instance, this sense of release gives us the scene where Sean impulsively kisses Mary Kate, and where she slaps and then a few moments later kisses him just as impulsively in return, as the wind howls about the windows and bangs the shutters of an as-yet-untenanted White o' Morn cottage. Later in the story, the same overflow of barely-controlled romantic passion sets in motion the jubilant "escape" of Sean and Mary Kate from the fussy propriety of Michaeleen Oge Flynn in his role as shaughraun, ending in the famous thunderstorm scene in the graveyard where wind and rain rise up as if in response to the elemental force of the attraction between the lovers.
The great puzzle of Innisfree thus becomes, for an altogether mystified Sean Thornton, how so powerful a passion can be blocked by mere custom or tradition, here represented by Red Will Danaher's refusal to let his sister marry the American stranger. For in America--where, as Sean once plaintively says, all a man has to do is honk his horn outside the house and the girl comes running out--brothers or parents or family or community have no part in such matters. A painful undercurrent of pure emotional bafflement always runs just beneath the comic surface of The Quiet Man, at times coming very close to tipping the story over into personal heartbreak.
Nowhere is this possibility more obvious than in the scene where an uncharacteristically grave Michaeleen Oge Flynn must explain to Sean Thornton that in Ireland his proposal of marriage to Mary Kate means, by itself, exactly nothing: "This is Ireland, Sean, not America. Without her brother's consent, she couldn't and wouldn't." The near-tragic undertone of the scene lies as much in the heartbroken dignity of Mary Kate's speech before she runs upstairs--"Sean Thornton, I thank you for the asking"--as in the image of her tear-stained face watching at the upstairs window as her lover departs.
A major complication in this context is Mary Kate's independence of spirit. For had Sean Thornton simply had the misfortune to fall in love with a woman weakly submissive to social demands, there would be a problem for him but none for the story. But Mary Kate Danaher is, as we see almost from the beginning, the very opposite of such a woman. The resemblance between The Quiet Man and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has been noted often enough.
It is nowhere more obvious than in those scenes where Mary Kate responds to any hint of male domination with a fearless physical defiance: aiming a ferocious blow at Sean Thornton when he presumes to kiss her in the White o' Morn scene, threatening her brother with a heavy piece of crockery when he moves as if to chastise her physically--"You do," she says, "and there'll be a fine wake in the house this night"--or taking a wild roundhouse swing at Sean, to the great delight of the onlooking villagers, in the "dragging" scene. Mary Kate is, like Shakespeare's Kate, a barely-controlled elemental force, and a central question posed by The Quiet Man is why she then chooses to submit herself to custom or tradition.
The Quiet Man will resolve this problem by giving primary importance to a relation between marriage and property that was a survival from early or pre-Christian Irish law. The film brings into view a pagan Ireland--the world of the fine or kinship group and its all-embracing claims on the individual--that serves much the same purpose in Ford's story as do the holiday customs of May Day or Hocktide, with their insistent reminders of an earlier pagan Europe, in Shakespeare's romantic comedies.
Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball's Family and Community in Ireland, a classic sociological study revealing how marriage and kinship in rural Ireland are shaped by a body of custom and tradition dating from early Irish law, serves as an especially useful guide to the way The Quiet Man invokes this earlier social order. For their study was among the small group of books that Ford ordered to be sent to his screenwriter Frank Nugent--others included an English-Irish dictionary and Liam O'Flaherty's Land--as preparatory research for writing the final shooting script of The Quiet Man.
Family and Community in Ireland describes rural Irish marriage as a transaction between families or kinship groups in which property functions much more as a symbolic medium of group consolidation or alliance than as a medium of exchange in the modern sense. It is precisely this conception of property that Sean Thornton, as a newly-returned American, is initially unable to grasp, just as he is unable to grasp the notion of community or collective solidarity that explains Mary Kate's otherwise mystifying insistence that he claim her dowry from her brother.
For behind Mary Kate's insistence, as behind the rituals of marriage negotiation reported in Arensberg and Kimball's study, lies the older notion of kinship alliance described in studies like Alwyn and Brinley Reeses' Celtic Heritage: "In medieval Ireland and Wales, the most highly esteemed form of marriage was a contract between consenting kin-groups -- marriage by gift of kin' . . . --and between partners of comparable status, with proper arrangements about marriage payments. . . . The approved union, even among common people, was a match' negotiated by two families."
In The Quiet Man, of course, there can be no consent between families, for Sean Thornton's parents are dead and he has no siblings. (Thus the men of Innisfree, who recognize his ancestral right to "Thornton land," will assume the status of a surrogate family or kinship group in relation to Sean, taking his side in the quarrel with Red Will Danaher and even fighting for his rights in the wedding night sequence where Danaher refuses to bestow on his sister the furniture she inherited from her mother and grandmother.)
But the underlying issue in the conflict between Sean and his bride is a breakdown of custom that she feels as a matter of deep personal shame and he finds wholly unintelligible. So long as Mary Kate has married a husband in "American" terms--that is to say, as a union of two isolated or unattached persons operating in a social void--she will remain a woman in exile from her own community, an unintegrated figure cut off from communal life and values. She will also remain, in terms of ancient Irish law and custom, an unequal partner in her own marriage.
The notion of marital equality here, though it has been mistaken in feminist commentary on The Quiet Man for gender equality of the modern sort, goes back once again to a notion of balance or equality between kinship groups. Property serves in this instance as a symbolic medium for establishing what Nerys Patterson calls the "legally defined degrees of relationship according to which a woman was more or less vested with rights in her husband's household and fine."
There were seven orders of marriage or connubium, with the highest being Lanamnas comthinchuir--"connection of equal, or joint, property," as Patterson explains, in which the term for property has "a general meaning of equipment,' and also a special sense of household goods," and in which the marriage property was contributed by both partners--and the next, already far inferior in the rights to which it entitled the woman within the household, the lanamnas fir for bantinchur, "a relationship in which the woman was supported on the property of the man." The latter is what Mary Kate has in mind when she tells Sean that without her dowry she is only the servant she had always been in her brother's house.
In The Quiet Man Mary Kate's insistence on her rights of dowry culminates in the scene where, her brother having been at last shamed into handing over her fortune, she moves in perfect concert with Sean, throwing open the door of the threshing furnace as he picks the banknotes up off the ground and throws them into the flames. Here we witness not simply the immolation of the banknotes, but of Sean's false (or American) understanding of property, and thus of his earlier misunderstanding of Mary Kate's motives as having been, as he once bitterly puts it, "mercenary."
In terms of an older body of Irish custom or tradition, Mary Kate's inequality in their marriage is immolated as well. In a film filled with unforgettable moments, the inexpressible jauntiness of Maureen O'Hara's walk as the crowd divides and she strides off toward their cottage, a woman at last perfectly reintegrated into her own community and at peace in her marriage, is among the most unforgettable.
Yet the threshing fire scene is a mere prelude to the great donnybrook episode that follows, for which everything else in the story has been in a manner of speaking a preparation. The donnybrook sequence expresses in nearly pure terms a standard theme in Ford's films, the idea that the communal energies released in innocent or ludic violence have a power to redeem community, purging old antagonisms and widening the circle of social acceptance to include even those previously banished to or left on the outside.
Here The Quiet Man is closest to Shakespearean festive comedy, a resemblance wholly attributable to the sense of saturnalian or Bacchic release, or what we earlier heard Sir Thomas Urquhart, speaking of the village revels of his own and Shakespeare's time, call Bacchanalian riots and preposterous disorders. As in Shakespeare, moreover, the mood of festive or holiday release is meant to include the audience, who, as Barber says in relation to plays like Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream, "have gone on holiday in going to a comedy."
Only the Reverend Mr. Playfair, a compulsive collector of sports memorabilia, knows about Sean's having killed a man in the ring, leading to his vow never to fight again. The tremendous drive of the donnybrook sequence, its sense of a accelerating rhythm so powerful that it can only end by sweeping along every member of the community, derives from the way this secret functions as a taboo or ritual blockage, a source of behavior that even Sean's strongest supporters among the villagers find mysterious or unaccountable.
It is Mr. Playfair, himself a featherweight boxer during his college days, who at last succeeds in making Sean understand why his refusal to fight Red Will Danaher will lose him his wife's love. "It's an old custom, and a good custom," says Mr. Playfair about the dowry, thus opening the way to release of the pent-up energies that culminate in the donnybrook.
Yet even Mr. Playfair is not permitted to see what the film's audience has seen: the nightmare flashback in which Sean, floored by Red Will Danaher's punch during the earlier wedding parlor scene, is in his groggy state visited by a vivid involuntary memory of killing his opponent in a professional boxing match.
The prize fight flashback is a technical tour de force. Its pitiless lighting and intercut close-ups combine to produce an effect that is on one level harshly "realistic"--this in direct and calculated contrast to the romantic or pastoral mistiness of Hoch's Technicolor photography in the outdoor Irish scenes--and on another surreal or hallucinatory in the manner of those Bosch or Grunewald paintings where leering faces seem to jump out at the viewer from an unnaturally flattened perspective.
Commentators on The Quiet Man have usually taken the flashback as an explanation of Sean's failure to understand his wife's attitude toward her fortune. He killed Tony Gadelo, he says bitterly to Mr. Playfair, for money: "lousy money, a piece of the purse." It is a revelation not only about prizefighting but about the power of money in a country where human values have been eroded or dissolved by a remorseless economic individualism.
From that perspective Sean persistently mistakes the meaning that her dowry has for Mary Kate--"Money!" he exclaims at one particularly explosive moment: "Is that all you Danahers ever think about?"--a view of money or property that, quite as much as any simple objection to violence, lies behind his resolve not to fight Danaher.
The nightmare flashback involves a much harsher condemnation of American economic individualism than Sean Thornton, whose thoughts are focused entirely on the death of his opponent, will ever be asked to understand. The truly nightmarish element in the flashback sequence is not the death of Tony Gadelo--that is, as the gentle Reverend Mr. Playfair remarks, "just one of those things," the sort of accident that might happen in any sport involving strong physical contact--but the press photographers, figures updated from Bosch or Grunewald, who climb through the ropes once the ringside physician has pronounced death.
With hats on their heads, cigarettes dangling from their lips, eyes weary with cynicism, they fire flashbulb after flashbulb at the corpse on the floor--now, at last, with a towel mercifully draped over its face--and then at the stunned, stupefied, half-comprehending agony of Sean Thornton watching helplessly from his corner. By morning, we understand, their pictures will be splashed over the sports pages of mass circulation newspapers in an America where death and personal agony are important mainly as they can be used to sustain advertising revenues.
The Quiet Man's great countermovement toward a vision of innocent or ludic violence begins in the scene by the riverbank where Mary Kate switches into Irish while describing her unhappy marital situation to Father Lonergan. The scene is itself a comedy of ludic violence: Father Lonergan's battle with the great salmon he has been trying to catch for ten years, which, after a great deal of splashing and shouting and thrashing about, the fish wins.
But the ceremony of Mary Kate's confession in Irish, the Gaelic speech of that older Ireland that predated the coming of Christianity, is wholly serious as it signals a break or rupture in cultural time. Though the Mr. Playfair has tried to prepare him by pointedly remarking that he considers Sean now to be "in training" for the fight with Danaher, it will take Sean Thornton some hours yet to understand that he is operating in an altered social dispensation.
Yet from the moment that Mary Kate switches from English to Irish, the rules governing life in Innisfree will be those of an earlier Irish society where property has no meaning outside communal values and where, within a closely-related context of festive or Bacchic release, certain ritualized forms of violence or abuse have a power to regenerate community.
The culminating theme of redemptive violence begins in the "dragging" scene in which Sean Thornton forcibly marches Mary Kate the five miles from the Castletown train station to her brother's fields. As we have seen, the episode drew a great deal of angry comment in Ireland when The Quiet Man was released. In subsequent years, as Anglo-American film criticism has been more and more influenced by feminist ideology, it has assumed the same virtually unmentionable status as the ride of the Ku Klux Klan in Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
Yet the villagers of Innisfree understand, as does Mary Kate Danaher herself, that the dragging scene is not some gratuitous display of male violence, but a ritual of community meant to put right the violated kinship relations that Sean Thornton, with his American understanding of property and marriage, has until this moment utterly failed to grasp. It is a ritual meant as well to reintegrate Red Will Danaher, who as a gombeen man or acquisitive purchaser of other people's property has throughout the film displayed proto-American tendencies toward what C.B. Macpherson labeled the ideology of possessive individualism.
The Quiet Man is closest to early Irish custom in the dragging scene, which directly echoes various marriage rituals meant to dispel antagonisms between kinship groups through what the Reeses in Celtic Heritage call "displays of mock hostility." Thus, for instance, "in parts of Ireland, on the day of bringing home the bride, the bridegroom and his friends would ride out and meet the bride and her friends at the place of treaty. Having come near to each other, the custom was of old to cast short darts at the company that attended the bride, but at such a distance that seldom any hurt ensued; yet it is not out of the memory of man that the Lord of Howth, on such an occasion, lost an eye'."
In Wales, the meeting of the two parties led to a "mock scuffle," whereupon the bride's party rode away with the bridegroom and his friends in pursuit. When he catches her, the bridegroom " leads her in triumph and the scene is concluded with feasting and festivity'." In Ireland, the same source reports, "the ride of the bridal party is termed dragging home the bride'." In The Quiet Man, where Sean Thornton and Mary Kate have earlier gone through the formalities of a legal wedding ceremony, the plot demands that this be played out on a delayed basis. But the point remains the same: their marriage can be made "real" within its community only through a cleansing ritual of innocent or ludic violence.
The ritual quality of the dragging scene in The Quiet Man, which as Ford conceives of it is inseparable from its comic character, is signaled throughout by the hilarious counterpoint of elaborate politeness, suitable to the drawing room or Sunday parlor, with the knockabout physicality of the march across the meadows. Thus the villagers and train crew, for instance, madly on the run to catch a view of Sean and Mary Kate as they start on their epic walk, nonetheless pause momentarily to tip their hats or curtsy to the visiting Protestant bishop looking wonderingly on from his car.
And thus Mary Kate, when she loses her shoe, not only has it retrieved for her with an air of ceremonious courtesy by the station master, but finds a moment in the mad physical whirl to acknowledge his gallantry with a gracious "I thank you kindly, sir." Even in the most famous line in the scene, "Here's a fine stick to beat the lovely lady," commentators have tended to overlook the way the graciousness of "lovely lady" underscores the theme of innocent or ludic violence. In a setting where violence is so obviously and inevitably moving toward an ultimate reconciliation, the speech is in effect the village woman's way of welcoming Mary Kate Danaher back into her own community.
In purely formal terms, the signal of the donnybrook as entry into the world of saturnalian release is the punch with which Sean Thornton floors Red Will Danaher at the end of the threshing furnace scene. Sean throws the banknotes into the fire, ducks with a professional boxer's contemptuous ease the wild roundhouse right Danaher aims at his jaw, then delivers a short, explosive counterpunch to the midsection that crumbles Danaher to the ground. This is the moment that Mary Kate, with the triumphant air of a woman who has at last seen her world come right, exits the scene as the crowd parts before her.
Yet the festive or Bacchic nature of the scene is fully signaled only some moments later in the sequence, when Michaeleen Oge Flynn spontaneously assumes the role of Lord of Misrule, firing a pistol into the air to abruptly put a stop to what has rapidly been turning into a joyous free-for-all. This is, he announces in the tone of someone who expects to be obeyed, a private fight, in which third parties have not been invited to participate. He then adds, altogether less hopefully, that when the main bout resumes it should be conducted according to Marquis of Queensbury rules.
As the donnybrook sequence gathers momentum, betting on the outcome gradually becomes an activity equal in importance to the fight itself, supplying a mode of vicarious participation that serves to channel the energies and emotions of the entire community into the common drive toward saturnalian release. Michaeleen Oge Flynn's busy and officious role as bookmaker is in this sense an extension of his role as Lord of Misrule, giving him direct control over a donnybrook carried out in the symbolic terms of odds and wagers rather than physical conflict.
Indeed, by the end of the donnybrook episode betting will have carried the all-embracing saturnalian spirit far beyond the village limits of Innisfree, as when a local policeman takes a call from his supervisor at distant headquarters about the reported "riot" in Innisfree. ("What did he say?" a policeman standing by asks the policeman who took the call. "He said to put five pounds on Danaher's nose.") At the end of the day, even the visiting Protestant bishop will have lost fifteen pounds to the local vicar.
The famous last scene of The Quiet Man has been derided as another element in the film's idyllic fantasy about an Ireland that never existed. Father Lonergan organizes the villagers of Innisfree to "cheer like Protestants" as the bishop is driven through the village, thus convincing him that the Reverend Mr. Playfair has a much larger congregation than the two or three people who constitute his actual flock.
Yet The Quiet Man's vision of benign and mutually respectful relations between Catholics and Protestants belongs also to its festive theme, and in particular to the notion that violence, when it has occurred within a more fundamental context of communal values, may have the power to bring about a redemption or reconstitution of community.
In The Quiet Man's world, where Irish freedom has been achieved and the violence of the recent past is even now undergoing transformation into a half-mythologized national memory--the point of Michaeleen Oge Flynn's irrepressible stream of IRA jokes, which would not be jokes if the War of Independence were still going on--not even the deep antagonisms of politics and history are immune to the general mood of festive reconciliation.
In a recent collection of essays, the cultural critic Stanley Crouch remembers what it was like to have seen John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, set in a Welsh coal mining village, while growing up in an African-American neighborhood in the United States.
"There was something in the tale that spoke to the world surrounding me," recalls Crouch, "even though the people, superficially, were so different. . . . I can see my younger brother . . . that street and those people . . . rise into asphalt, concrete, fences, lawns, bricks, homes and life once more. . . . I am back there just as the boy was in How Green Was My Valley, and nothing is dead, nothing is gone, all is made perpetual through the regeneration of memory."
The cinematic depth of Ford's storytelling, Crouch says in the same essay, "gave me one of my earliest experiences of the universal achieved through aesthetic form." As perhaps goes without saying, The Quiet Man has drawn just this kind of response among viewers who return to it again and again, and who see in it, as does Crouch in How Green Was My Valley, a story that looks through or beyond its Irish setting to a more universal level of human experience.
It is The Quiet Man's perceived universality that constitutes a major problem for those who have been unable to see in the film anything more than (in Luke Gibbons's phrase) "a dream-world of stage Irishry and nostalgic sentiment." The key to that universality lies, it seems to me, in the archetypal comic pattern I have attempted to describe, the pattern of saturnalian release that gives The Quiet Man so strong a resemblance to such Shakespearean comedies as As You Like It or A Midsummer Night's Dream.
For viewers in all ages and all societies are subject to the imposition of social control that must sometimes be felt as repressive or intolerable, and the collective longing for occasional release from the sober restraints of duty and responsibility and moral rectitude is no doubt as universal as any other human emotion one could name.
So where a certain critical mentality is able to see in The Quiet Man and various other Ford films only an irresponsible tendency to escapism--"the prettification of a lie," in David Thomson's deliberately hostile phrase--those convinced of Ford's cinematic genius will instead see in The Quiet Man evidence of his enormous power to visualize, as Northrop Frye says in speaking of the archetypal power of literature, "the world of desire, not as an escape from reality,' but as the genuine form that human life tries to imitate."
This is to see The Quiet Man, in short, as belonging to a comic tradition going back through Shakespeare to Plautus in ancient Rome and Aristophanes in classical Greece, one that invokes the holiday or festive spirit of misrule, as Barber puts it, both as "release for impulses which run counter to decency and decorum, and the clarification about limits which comes from going beyond limits."
The special claim of The Quiet Man, perhaps, produced against the massive resistance of a Hollywood geared to the making of profits, incorporating the ethos and rituals of Ford's film family into the very texture of its story, and lingering lovingly on its image of Ireland as a green world so far magically exempt from the remorseless economic individualism of the America in which Sean Thornton killed an opponent for a piece of the purse, is that it is a festival for our own time.
In an age of American cultural hegemony and accelerating global consumerism one may perhaps say about Ford in The Quiet Man, as Evelyn Waugh once did about P.G. Wodehouse, not simply that "he has made a world for us to live in and delight in," but that "he will continue to release future generations from an captivity that may be more irksome than our own
Copyright (c) 2002 by EIRE-IRELAND: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Irish Studies. Notes to all sources may be found in the printed version of the article: Eire-Ireland 23:1 (2002), pp. 190-211.
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