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Gender Roles in John Ford’s ‘The Quiet Man’

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John Ford’s The Quiet Man is unquestionably one of Ireland’s most well-known films. It remains, to this day, a popular Hollywood love story as well as one of the most dominant representations of Ireland in film. A worldwide success, it won audiences over with its majestic landscapes, lighthearted dialogue, and beautiful cast. Despite its enduring appeal, it is also highly criticized by many; its depiction of exceedingly stereotypical stage-Irish characters, almost to the point of condescension, can be seen as problematic, to say the least. It is certainly not an apt portrayal of Ireland, past or present, and this lends to the reading of it being a predominantly American pastoral view of a paradise lost.

Set in post-war Ireland, in the fictitious village of Innisfree, the story begins with Sean Thornton (John Wayne), an American who comes home to the land of his birth and buys a little thatched roof house that once belonged to his ancestral family, falling in immediate love and marries a lovely red-haired girl (Maureen O’Hara). Her brother refuses to pay her dowry and the two men fight until the quarrel is eventually resolved through a fistfight. It is reported that Ford had been thinking of making this film for 16 years before he finally set out to his parent’s native land of Ireland to begin production. “The Quiet Man”, a short story written by Maurice Walsh, published in 1933, heavily resonated with Ford, evoking thoughts about his own heritage. He adapted the story into a script and cast actors that he had previously worked with in Hollywood, big stars with Irish backgrounds.

Both Wayne and O’Hara had worked with Ford on a number of films previously, cementing a friendship with the director. One of the most noted of these films is Rio Grande, a Western with a lot in common with The Quiet Man. Both films deal with fighting for one’s honor and trying to regain something that has been lost. Many of the visuals are similar too; the scenery might have changed, but the beautiful panoramic landscapes have not. Switch the rolling emerald green hills for an expansive view of the American frontier; Ford clearly has a strong emotional relationship with land and ownership. In a way, it can be said that while filming Rio Grande in the United States, he was dreaming of what he would later produce in Ireland. He takes familiar images from post-civil war America and imbeds them into post Anglo-Irish war Ireland, understanding how comparable the two could be.

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In Des MacHale’s “The Quiet Man as Cult Movie”, he describes how much he loves the film and gives several reasons why he considers it to be in cult standing as far as films are concerned. His writing is highly entertaining, inspiring the reader to rush out, find a copy of The Quiet Man, and watch it at once; however, he (knowingly) neglects to take a speculative approach when depicting the film and its background. Still, the information he does provide does help with some interesting facts that some audience members might not have known about, and the way in which he organizes his findings is rather helpful. For example, it mentions a few factors that help lead to the extreme popularity of the film, such as the Ford factor, the Wayne factor, and the O’Hara factor.

James MacKillop’s “The Quiet Man Speaks” analyzes the film in a more critical manner, delving into its inner workings and the people who made it. He explains much of the background and the backdrop, analyzing key scenes and characters in greater detail. He goes on to dissect the many memorable performances that help give The Quiet Man the popular standing that it holds.

One of the most memorable aspects of The Quiet Man is Mary Kate Danaher, played by O’Hara. A native of Ireland, O’Hara was quite a sensation in Hollywood. She was often cast opposite Wayne, and their chemistry is undeniable. She always played her roles in these films with passion and intensity. With The Quiet Man, there is more of a vulnerability with her character, perhaps because this time she was playing the role of a feisty colleen, something very prevalent in Irish cinema. The Irish colleen is an attractive young woman who is strong in image, but not very progressive in nature. She is quick to fight for what she believes in, but succumbs easily to the demands of the males around her, whether it is her father, brother, priest or husband. The film depicts Mary Kate as an intelligent, quick-witted, and healthy young woman who can do just about anything- except live an independent life.

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In the film, she and Thornton fall in love and eventually get married. Their relationship is tumultuous, to say the least. Her brother is not keen on her leaving the homestead, as he would much rather her take care of him. So he withholds her dowry, making her feel that her marriage is solidified and that she no longer possesses her identity, as noted by McKillop later in the chapter. Thornton thinks this is a ridiculous way of thinking, insulting her. This causes tension between the newlyweds. In one very famous scene, Mary Kate is literally dragged by Thornton through a field because she was trying to run away. The whole village seems to be following the couple as she is hauled home, enjoying every minute of the spectacle. An old woman picks up a fallen branch and hands it to Thornton, saying, “Here’s a good stick to beat the lovely lady,” upon which he takes it. The image is shocking, especially to contemporary audiences,  simply not registering well with people of this era. It is shocking to see a woman react in this way and even more shocking to see a man treat her in this violent and disrespectful manner.

At the end of the film, Mary Kate finally receives her dowry from her brother and finally feels like a proper wife. In another memorably cinematic scene, she and Thornton stand together watching and cheering the Protestants minister and his wife along with the other villagers; then she turns to him smiling, grabs a stick he is casually holding in his hand, and throws it into the grass. They both laugh and run home through the countryside together. All the while, in the background, a jaunty tune is playing, uplifting and full of hope. It can be read that the action of throwing away the stick is a symbolic breaking of old traditions and allowing new ones to be formed for future generation of Irish women.

— Trish Ferris



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