John Ford has been so fully assimilated into the American cinematic mythos that his Irish heritage often times goes unacknowledged. Born John Martin Feeney to first-generation Irish parents in 1894, the man who would soon come to be synonymous to audiences by the very strong, American surname of Ford, spent the majority of his early Hollywood career building up goodwill by turning out studio product in an effort to realize more personal, nominally biographical projects with less immediate commercial prospects. After getting two closely held ventures off the ground quickly in the mid-'30s (The Informer, The Plough and the Stars), it would be quite some time until Ford was able to realize his next true passion project, an adaptation of a short story by Maurice Walsh entitled The Quiet Man.
Optioned in 1936 after the success of The Informer, The Quiet Man would take 16 years to finally come to fruition. And yet the wait would prove beneficial to the filmmaker, who, coming off a string of some of his most beloved westerns (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, Rio Grande), had, amid the gunplay, matured into a filmmaker of uncommon grace and romantic depth. He'd also built up a stable of actors with roots as far back as The Informer that would be essential to preserving the story's cultural nuance. Save for John Wayne, who by this time was an icon as well as a package deal with Ford, the entirety of the top-billed cast, in addition to many of the supporting players and even extras, were of Irish descent. And in a move uncommon for the time, the exterior action of The Quiet Man would be filmed on location in Ireland, the first Hollywood production to travel to the Emerald Isle.
Starring Wayne as Sean Thornton, an Irish-American boxer in exile from the States after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring, The Quiet Man found Ford refining many of the thematic preoccupations that had interested him over the last decade-plus, including man's attempted reconciliation with a violent past and the attendant pursuit of love in the face of societal and personal opposition. Returning to his hometown of Innisfree in hopes of reclaiming the family farm of his youth, Thornton quickly finds individual struggles—tied partially to his assimilated American demeanor meeting his ancestry head-on—transformed into high domestic dramas of both a romantic and masculine nature. When Mary Kate Danagher (a luminous Maureen O'Hara) refuses Thornton's advances, her brother, Squire Will Danagher (a hulking Victor McLaglen), takes it as a personal vendetta to remove Thornton from the land he promises to once again call home.
Filmed in Technicolor, The Quiet Man is simply a triumph of color-coordinated compositional strategy and Academy-ratio lensing. The barren, panoramic vistas Ford had turned into a visual signature over the prior decades are here transposed to the lush countryside expanse of his ancestor's homeland, all rolling hills and majestic skylines (if Ford hadn't brought Richard Llewelyn 1939 novel to the screen 12 years earlier, I'd ventured to say a more appropriate title for The Quiet Man may very well have been How Green Was My Valley). Ford shoots in his typically epic yet intimate scale, alternating between wide-shot action (shot on location) and close-up encounters (mostly filmed on set in Hollywood), with his actors pitted against one another in tight frames, sparking off their physical proximity as often as they dance casually around each other in verbal sparring matches. As Mary Kate begins to entertain Thornton’s romantic passes, eventually falling for his conflicted charms, Ford loosens his grip on the drama, allowing the comedic undercurrent which had only sporadically surfaced to finally subvert the characters' passionate drives. The film's infamous climax stages a lengthy, hilariously overblown fist fight between Wayne and McLagen, softening the gravity of the drama while enlivening the romantic spirit of Thornton's quest.
Ford would continue on his own, subtler quest of injecting intimate gestures into his work for the remainder of his career. Some of his best, most personal films were yet to come, with such wide-ranging features as The Sun Shines Bright, The Searchers, and 7 Women all effectively working aspects of his own character into their classical frameworks. It's in that handful of films that dealt directly with his cultural lineage, however, that Ford the man can be seen (and felt) most clearly. These aren't necessarily his most advanced moral or aesthetic analyses, but they're earnest, revealing entertainments made by a man of almost effortless storytelling brio. The Quiet Man remains one of the purest distillations of this charismatic filmmaker's diverse artistic nature.
The Quiet Man makes the jump to Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films and they've done right by cinematographers Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout's Technicolor triumph. Newly remastered in high-definition from the original negative, this single-layered transfer does an exceptional job translating the film's deep, bold color scheme. Blues, greens, and especially reds are warmly represented, creating an immersive picture with balanced contrast, hints of depth, and even a thin layer of grain helping to create a heavy, filmic look. Sound, meanwhile, is presented in a modest mono track, but dialogue is clear while instances of music are nicely separated and upfront in the mix. Both audio and video are a sizable step up from Artisan's original, outdated DVD.
Olive has secured a place in a small sect of cinephile hearts the last couple years as they've debuted many overlooked classics in both DVD and Blu-ray form. Yet they've never really supplemented these works with bonus material of any particular merit. So it's nice to see the inclusion of a 30-minute, 1992 making-of documentary with this presentation of The Quiet Man. Hosted by Leonard Maltin and featuring interviews with John Wayne's son and daughter, as well as Victor McLaghen's son, Andrew, the doc relays some anecdotes and production details, lending at least some contextual information for this very personal film. Also included is a nicely illustrated and annotated booklet featuring a lengthy except on The Quiet Man from Joseph McBride's Ford biography, Searching for John Ford. Hopefully we'll continue to see Olive put this kind of effort into their releases from here on out.
John Ford would fight against the currents of Hollywood to realize 1952's The Quiet Man, arguably his most personal work and one of the purest distillations of this charismatic personality's diverse artistic nature. [Slant]