The Quiet Man (1952, John Ford)

I’m afraid there isn’t much I can write about The Quiet Man that’s terribly useful, so I’m abstaining from “rating” or “grading” it, at least for now — such quantified indulgences really mean little anyway beyond their appeal to my OCD sensitivities. A perfect storm of personal biases make it a difficult film for me to watch or to properly judge. I can sense the beauty in the bright, phantasmagoric Technicolor photography of Irish countryside — a belated compensation for Fox’s forcing of Hollywood backlots to double for Wales in How Green Was My Valley. (Ironically, The Quiet Man was an improbable venture for ultra-cheap Republic Pictures, not a major studio.) But such aesthetics are all I’ve got.

But beyond that are the problems. It’s a John Ford comedy, and Ford’s sense of humor is very blatantly not mine. (Even in a film I like such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the lighter scenes get me impatient.) Its plotline hinges on macho Hollywood male fantasy of ordering around and abusing young women, whose existence as individuals is never addressed, and as with Birth of a Nation or Pygmalion, I can’t see past my modernist discomfort with the story and its indulgences to see any of the film’s apparently ample virtues.

The largest bias of all, no doubt, is in regard to lead actor John Wayne. His performance in this film is so distractingly grating — coasting to such a great extent on his established “persona” as an actor — that it causes the mind to wander to an exploration of why the Wayne image, among the most indelible visages in American cinema, is simultaneously so iconic and so abhorrent. In this film, he ticks several boxes of classicist hollow movie heroism: a former boxer, his character Sean has come to Ireland strictly to claim some land that belonged to his family before his birth, and along the way he forces his way into the life of a fiery local Maureen O’Hara, and much nonsense about a fight over her dowry (in which he isn’t really interested) ensues.

O’Hara’s Mary Kate gets dragged, undermined, condescendended to, spat at, but relied on entirely for the ridiculous final fight between Sean and Mary Kate’s oafish brother. An implication is repeatedly made that no character actually cares about anything being disputed or debated or fought over, but Blazing Saddles this ain’t. Its comic sense falters because its earnestness does, and because Wayne would bristle at the idea of ever once poking fun at himself. The film hinges on an undercutting of its protagonist and its central situation that its actor can’t abide by because, frankly, he wasn’t very bright and was kind of a hateful and shitty presence in Hollywood!

With the distance of years and a whole lot of modern classic movie fans who feel a need to skip anything involving John Wayne (including but not limited to both of my parents), it’s hard to suss out why a gifted director like Ford found it so easy to look past his complete inability to play anyone except John Wayne — and even that none too convincingly. I was too tuned out to make any decisive statement about the film’s quality but I’m tempted to put it on a plane with How Green Was My Valley, another film cursed with a story almost determinedly uninteresting to me and with basically nothing else to reel me in. I eventually warmed to The Searchers and learned to love Stagecoach, but I can’t abide by this film’s reckless audience-screwing. If anyone’s still on board with it after the cash goes into the fireplace, thus negating the entire basis for the story’s conflict — I accept, but I don’t understand. The same with the more enlightened cinephiles who claim to be able to look past how rampantly misogynistic and cheerily violent this film is. I’m too grossed out to manage such a thing. In that sense, it’s like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers without songs. Enjoy?

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