“Ireland is where strange tales begin and happy endings are possible.”

— Charles Haughey

John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” opened in 1952 to a warm reception, and then after the 1953 Oscars, took hold in movie history for all time.

Every St. Patrick’s Day it pops up on the Turner Classics screen. Most Americans under 50 have never seen “The Quiet Man” except on the small tubes in their living rooms. Now, thanks to the Maine International Film Festival, they will get their chance to see it on a big screen in living color, and what a surprise they have in store.

“Quiet Man” tells the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) an ex-Pittsburgh steel worker who became an American boxing champion. As Sean rises to fame and fortune and nears the world championship, he accidentally kills his opponent in the ring. Stricken with guilt, Catholic guilt of course, which is the worst kind, Sean cashes in his chips, quits the ring and goes home to Ireland, where he was born.

“Quiet Man” tells the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) an ex-Pittsburgh steel worker who became an American boxing champion. As Sean rises to fame and fortune and nears the world championship, he accidentally kills his opponent in the ring. Stricken with guilt, Catholic guilt of course, which is the worst kind, Sean cashes in his chips, quits the ring and goes home to Ireland, where he was born.

Brought to America as a small boy and raised in Pittsburgh, Sean still has the smell of peat in his hair and the memory of all that is green in his heart. Here he hopes to find peace. Arriving at the station, Sean meets old Michaeleen Flynn, played by the great Barry Fitzgerald. Michaeleen, who knew him as a “snotty nosed kid” will be his guide, conscience and eventually, the matchmaker that wraps it all together.

We learn that Sean, with his career savings, is here to buy the ancestral Thornton home, a tiny, unassuming cottage in a magical landscape. It’s empty, but owned by a wealthy widow, Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick) and coveted by a huge man of property and town bully, Squire “Red” Danaher (Victor McLagen).

So there’s our conflict, but a larger one is about to walk on the scene in the stunning form of Red’s sister, Mary Kate. Who would this be, other than Wayne’s favorite co-star and lifelong friend, Maureen O’Hara?

When Sean sets about moving into his cottage, he discovers Mary Kate has been there, secretly sweeping and washing. This, of course, is the spark that sets the love story afire. A scandalous moment in a following scene, when Sean, waiting outside the church after Mass, offers a palm full of holy water for Mary Kate’s fingers to take, shocks the devout, but his audacity grabs hold of Mary Kate’s heart, and no one doubts how this will end.

The townsfolk come to love the brash and audacious American and take him into the heart of their pub life. But when Sean, now deeply in love with Mary Kate, toys with a century of protocol and without the requisite courting, rushes to ask Squire Danaher for her hand, thunder clouds roar over the scene.

Still bitter at the loss of his bid to buy Sean’s house, Squire refuses to give his blessing. But with the trickery of Father Lonergan and Michaeleen, Squire gives in. After the wedding when he discovers he’s been duped, he refuses to give up her dowry, 350 pounds cash, and her beloved antique furniture. Sean cares little for it, but from centuries-old Irish law, the dowry is a symbol to Mary Kate of her place in family. Sean goes for it, and a fist fight takes place. It’s the fight the townsfolk have been waiting for.

It starts when Squire lands a lucky sucker punch. This ends Sean’s reluctance to fight again. His honor and place in the community, not to mention his home peace, is at stake. He gives one back and then another. Mary Kate smiles and goes home to prepare dinner, knowing that her honor is about to be saved.

While the townsmen place their bets with Michaeleen, it ranges back and forth over two miles across the emerald countryside, ending up in front of the town pub, where the matter is settled and the bettors take their winnings. That fight, and one of film’s great horse races over the rocky landscape are only two of the marvelous scenes in a film laced with them.

John Ford has long been known for being a sentimental director, and despite the bows and arrows, trumpet calls, fist fights and dive bombers, no Ford film has gotten past the first twenty minutes without a large chunk of sentiment. Along with Victor Young’s score, laced with great old Irish songs, “Quiet Man” keeps massaging the heart.

Winton C. Hoch’s haunting cinematography is the best work he’s ever done and that’s saying a lot considering the list: “The Searchers,” “Voyage to the Bottom Of The Sea,” and “Mister Roberts.”

Ford, born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth, made some of the greatest of American movies, including the wonderful “Grapes Of Wrath.” They range from war films to the Great Depression, from the far west to the grimy streets of “The Informer,” starring McLagen.

In “Quiet Man” Ford pulls together almost his entire movie entourage with Fitzgerald, Sean McClory, Jack Mac Gowran and Ford’s beloved elder brother Francis, himself an actor and director.

“Quiet Man” was nominated for seven Oscars in 1953 and won awards for director Ford and cinematographers Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout.

 

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