Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vintage Movies: The Quiet Man

Is this a courting or a donnybrook? Have the good manners not to hit the man until he's your husband and entitled to hit you back.
In this beloved vintage film, Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to his native Ireland after spending most of his life in the US. He buys back his childhood home White O'Morn from the Widow Tillane and, after a vision of a red-headed beauty (Maureen O'Hara) on the hillside, even consults the village matchmaker. But the path to home and happiness is not to be smooth for Sean Thornton. After a life spent in Pittburgh, he has little patience for the ceremonies of Irish village life, and the local bully Red Will Danaher—who happens to be the lovely Mary-Kate's brother—takes a violent dislike to him. It'll take more than money and a smile for the community to accept Sean Thornton.

This is a hard movie to review, because although on one hand I really love it, on the other hand I feel keenly aware of its shortcomings.

Maybe the best thing about this movie is the richness of its themes.Yes, yes, it looks pretty, the scenery is lovely, the acting is fantastic, it's an updated Taming of the Shrew, you'll laugh a lot. But most importantly, you'll also think a lot.
First and most obviously, The Quiet Man is a movie about Ireland, or some kind of Platonic Irelandishness that never existed, but in which the physical Ireland is able to participate in its good moments. Confused yet? Well, in this Ireland, everyone is friendly, the pub is jolly (and the centre of village life), the clergy are benificent, the train is always late, the sun's always shining, the grass is always green, the fish are always shy, the women are either shawl-clad old biddies or gorgeous redheads, the men are either immense prizefighters or tiny alcoholics, and everyone attends the horse-races. In this Ireland, Catholics and Protestants get on so well that they almost share the same congregation and even the IRA wear bland smiles and carry fishing-rods.
Second and more importantly, the movie is about tradition. (Some plot details follow). After growing up in Pittsburgh, Thornton doesn't understand the Irish traditions. While courting Mary-Kate, he starts off with the correct formalities, but soon it becomes obvious that his heart isn't in it:
Thornton: I don't get this. Why do we have to get [the matchmaker] along? Back in the States, I'd drive up, honk the horn, the gal'd come runnin'...
Mary Kate Danaher: Come a-runnin'? I'm no woman to be honked at and come a-runnin'!
In my least-favourite scene, Sean and Mary-Kate run away from their chaperone to ca-noodle in a graveyard. Mary-Kate objects at first. After all, there is a sequence to be observed:
Mary Kate Danaher: Well, we just started a-courtin', and next month, we, we start the walkin' out, and the month after that there'll be the threshin' parties, and the month after that...
But Thornton doesn't relish the idea of a long courtship. As they kiss—thereby skipping several months ahead—a thunderstorm breaks out, suggesting some kind of Divine displeasure.

If God and village custom disapprove of this iconoclastic wooing, however, the movie certainly milks it for all its worth. Yet as the movie goes into its second act, the culture clash escalates and in the end, tradition has its way.
Specifically, one tradition that most people today would call the least romantic thing on earth: the idea of the dowry, or bride-price, which becomes a bone of contention between Mary-Kate and Sean. Mary-Kate insists that she won't be properly married without it. Thornton, on the other hand, thinks she is just mercenary and because he refuses to take action, Mary-Kate begins to lose all respect for him.

Although the movie never explains the reasoning behind a dowry, it's downright fascinating to see a culture depicted in which its benefits are simply taken for granted (along with the need for respect and leadership). And seeing the movie again, recently, I was struck by its insistence on outward forms of love. Courtship, marriage, and love is done in a community context, not a personal context: Sean can only approach Mary-Kate through the medium of the matchmaker, can only marry her with her brother's consent and the dowry (however small), and soon realises that he will only be able to win her love and respect by taking a certain rather spectacularly public course of action. In this movie, it's not what the characters feel that counts, it's what they do.
As I said, there is plenty to like and plenty to think about in this delightful movie. As usual, despite the G rating, I'd be inclined to advise parents to use their own discretion with this one. They sure could—and did--do a lot with a G rating in those days.

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