When I heard John Ford wanted to direct “The Quiet Man” sixteen years earlier than 1952, I assumed the delay would make a huge difference in how the film turned out. This doesn’t seem to be the case with Ford’s masterpiece, since it plays like the grandest fantasy of all the Irish cliches of the 20th century. Even though the film bombards us with all the folksy humor, drinking, Irish temper and odd cultural traditions we know already, the rich Technical palette and the presence of John Wayne as retired American boxer Sean Thornton and Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher add interest and lots of conflict to keep the story going.
Wayne’s Sean Thornton, born in Ireland but raised in Pittsburgh, gets off the train in Casteltown, County Sligo, to buy a cottage in Innisfree. He meets a hansom cab driver named Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald) who takes him to the island — but before they get there, Sean spots the lovely Mary Kate working in a field. Michaleen warns the smitten Sean of the Irish ways, and the extensive courtship rites required of any marital pairing. Not that it would be easy for Sean anyway. The high-spirited and gorgeous Mary Kate is no pushover, and Sean must deal with her extremely overbearing brother Will (Victor McLaglen), who instantly dislikes Sean. According to the Irish custom at the time, Mary Kate must get Will’s permission — he being the oldest male in the family — to marry Sean.
Sean, tall and athletic as acted by Wayne, looks quite capable of continuing his boxing career. We learn later that a terrible accident in the ring forced his retirement, and that tragedy also influences his reluctance to take on the strapping Will. Sean wins a bidding contest with Will for his cottage, which sits just across the field from Will and Mary Kate’s house. Sean and Mary Kate decide to marry quickly, and then the story shifts to the problems with Will. Michaleen and other conspirators in town trick Will into giving his consent for Mary Kate’s marriage. The couple marry, but Will refuses to release Mary Kate’s dowry (a whopping 350 pounds). This causes serious problems for Sean, because Mary Kate doesn’t consider it a real marriage without a dowry.
Among the three principals (Sean, Mary Kate and Will), the movie provides lots of conflict and occasional violence. The rest of the cast, including assorted clergymen, railroad workers, the pub owner, and the rich widow add color and charm but they mostly comment on the proceedings. Years ago, I took a trip to Sligo, where my mother was born, so I know the presence of an American in a small village would certainly get people talking.