Monday, September 25, 2006

Movies pt. II

Last time I looked at a recent film which was an animated musical epic; this time, let's try something different.

John Ford is best known for his astonishing prowess in the Western genre, bringing us such classics as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In a career spanning some seventy years, Ford directed no fewer than one hundred and forty-five films, many of them starring John Wayne and almost of all of them successful. Among such luminaries as Liberty Valance and co., however, stands a remarkably different film. We might almost call it unique, both in terms of Ford's directorship and in terms of film in general. It was John Wayne's favourite film, and the first film Republic Pictures ever released to be nominated for an Academy Award; the only to be nominated for Best Picture. That film was The Quiet Man, released in 1952 after a long, hard haul.

Ford had initially purchased the rights to the story in 1933 for the princely sum of $10, having been enchanted by its simultaneous subtlety and simplicity. His efforts to finally bring it to the screen where stymied by disinterested production companies, scheduling issues, and the small matter of a world war. Production only began after a deal was reached with Republic, who only agreed to finance the picture on the condition that Ford direct a western for them first, in which Ford's Quiet Man stars - John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara - had to appear. The result of this bargain is the also-excellent Rio Grande (1950), a film unusual (at the time) for its more introspective approach to the genre.

The story of The Quiet Man is, as I suggested, both simple and complex. Overtly, it's the tale of a man trying to start over. More specifically, however, it is broadly concerned with all things under the sun.

Sean Thornton (Wayne) is an Irish-American boxer who, after accidently killing an opponent in the ring, flees back to the Irish hamlet of his birth to escape his old life. He is welcomed more or less enthusiastically by the locals, who (characteristically) remember his parents fondly, but two residents stand out: the ravishing Mary-Kate Danaher (O'Hara) and her loutish brother, the squire Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Sparks between Sean and Mary-Kate begin to fly almost immediately, and before long they're engaged to be wed - by Will won't turn over the proper dowry. What follows (and precedes, really) is a film any Chestertonian can get behind - an intense and heartfelt appraisal of the roles of man and wife, the question of what a man should be willing to fight for, and just what it means to own private property.

The Quiet Man is broadly a comedy, though it is a dramatic and thoughtful one. The issue of the oppression of woman vs. the proper submission of a wife to her husband is brilliantly played out by Sean, Mary-Kate and Will, as is the question of just how seemingly insuperable differences are to be reconciled. Apart from the tension of the main plot, several subplots involving all sorts of interesting domestic matters - economic, historical, religious - unfold with the help of the town's eccentric denizens. The most memorable of these subplots is the ongoing problem of the Protestant Reverend Playfair's diminishing flock, most of whom have been lured away, as it were, by the Whore of Babylon. In a brilliant and delightful turn, during a visit by Playfair's superior to see if he should be recalled, the Catholic Fr. Peter Lonergan gathers his parishoners along the road, and, buttoning up his jacket to hide his collar, tells the assembled townsfolk, "when the Reverend Mr. Playfair, good man that he is, comes down, I want us all to cheer like Protestants." Of course they do, and Playfair is allowed to stay.

More generally, however, the film is replete with many of the things that gladden the Chestertonian heart: good neighbours, good drink, and plenty of singing. There are horse races and thunderstorms, farming and train stations. And of course, at the center of all creation, there is the Inn. It should also come as no surprise that the film has a happy ending, even if it is a fantastic one, and it is all the happier in that it is resolved without loss being suffered by any party. What began as a battle between good and evil (or, perhaps, between resolve and stubborness) has ended not in defeat, but rather in friendship. It's rare in a film, and is highly refreshing.

And of course, all of this takes place against the uniformly gorgeous backdrop of Ireland at its finest, both in town and country. The Quiet Man is a feast for the eyes even apart from its other merits, and has quite a reputation among residents of the area in which it was filmed even today, as the region remains a popular destination for cinematically-minded tourists.

The Quiet Man has been criticised for being relentlessly cheerful and unrealistic, turning a blind eye to the true nature of the problems it purports to address while simply ignoring the problems it doesn't. I can't imagine what the point of art really is if people are actually complaining about this. As a limited and fantastic perspective on certain ancient questions, The Quiet Man is a success. As a comprehensive, documentary-like statement on the Real Problems of Modern Ireland, however, it's an unmitigated failure, and I, for one, am glad of it. It delights, and does not offend. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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