Film & TV

The War of the Sexes in The Quiet Man

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (Republic Pictures)
The 1950s classic still has a lot to say.

Editor’s note: Madeleine Kearns writes a weekly column noting peculiar aspects of cultural, artistic, and natural marvels.

‘Here’s a good stick to beat the lovely lady!” an old woman tells Sean Thornton (John Wayne) in The Quiet Man (1952), as — pursued by an eager swarm of villagers — he drags, tosses, and boots his wife, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), across an Irish field. O’Hara recalled how, prior to shooting the iconic scene, both Wayne and the film’s director, John Ford, had ganged up on her, mischievously placing sheep’s dung in her path. “I was mad as hell,” she said. “But I had to laugh, too.”

Winton Hoch, the cinematographer, had a different complaint. During six weeks of filming, he had only six days of intermittent sunshine. Still, his efforts paid off. Ireland could scarcely be cast in a better light: emerald meadows, glistening brooks, quaint stone bridges, and the unsurpassable beauty of Hollywood’s feistiest redhead. To match such aesthetic splendor is an equally charming love story. Of course, nowadays, the film would likely cause raised eyebrows, as it’s replete with examples of “toxic masculinity,” “gender stereotypes,” and even the possible trivialization of domestic violence.

The movie begins with Sean Thornton (44-year-old Wayne), an Irish-born American, arriving by train — “three hours late as usual” — near the fictional town of Innisfree. As he rides with an old family friend, Michaeleen Flynn, he spots Mary Kate (31-year-old O’Hara) herding sheep and falls immediately in love with her. Michaeleen warns him of her notorious temper: “That red hair of hers is no lie.”

Mary Kate returns Sean’s fascination. When she learns that he has bought the cottage her brother, Will, intended to buy, she rushes off to clean it for him. He comes home during a storm to find the fire burning and the floor swept. She hides, but startles herself with her own reflection in the mirror (I’m sure there’s some symbolism here, for those looking: see Paradise Lost). Screaming, she rushes out the door as Sean yanks her back and kisses her. She briefly permits him, then attempts to whack him across the face. The two stare at each other:

MARY KATE: It’s a bold one you are. And who gave you leave to be kissing me?

SEAN: So you can talk?

MK: Yes, I can, I will, and I do. And it’s more than talk you’ll be getting if you step a step closer to me.

S: Don’t worry. You’ve got a wallop.

MK: You’ll get over it, I’m thinking.

S: Well some things a man doesn’t get over so easy.

MK: Like what, supposing?

S: Like the sight of a girl coming through the fields with the sun on her hair, kneeling in church with a face like a saint.

MK: Saint, indeed.

S: And now coming to a man’s house to clean it for him.

MK: That was just my way of being a good Christian act.

S: I know it was, Mary Kate Danaher. But it was nice of you.

MK: Oh. [Beaming] Not at all.

There is quite a lot packed in that brief scene. Her assertion “I can, I will, I do,” reminiscent of Jane Eyre’s “I am a free human being with an independent will,” then her admission of weakness, that he has the physical advantage, followed by his remark that she has another, more mysterious, advantage. Incidentally, there’s a funny story about the filming of this scene. “That day I was mad at him [John Wayne], for real, and I intended to break his jaw,” O’Hara once said in an interview. “He puts his hand up and stops it and it that moment he snapped my wrist back and cracked a bone in my wrist.”

Later, while they are courting, Sean comes too close and Mary Kate moves to strike him. “Woman!” says Michaeleen, their chaperone, “have the decency not to hit the man until he’s your husband and can hit you back.” On their wedding night, after Sean has refused to retrieve her dowry, Mary Kate runs into their bedroom and locks the door. But her husband kicks it down: “There’ll be no locks or bolts between us Mary Kate, except those in your own mercenary little heart.” He then kisses her and throws her on the bed (which promptly collapses) before exiting to sleep by himself on the kitchen floor. Her marriage not yet consummated, Mary Kate seeks out the advice of her parish priest, fishing on the riverside. “Woman!,” he tells her, “Ireland may be a poor country, God help us. But here a married man sleeps in a bed and not a bag and for your own good I’ll tell you a thing or two —” but then, having caught a fish, abandons his thought.

There is a danger of taking the film too literally. In the 1950s, domestic violence was more tolerated than it is now. This was obviously bad for all involved, especially women. As late as 1964, one study picked up by Time magazine concluded that spouses stay in abusive relationships because their fighting can “balance out each other’s mental quirks.”

‘The periods of violent behavior by the husband,’ the doctors observed, ‘served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man, while giving his wife apparent masochistic gratification and helping probably to deal with the guilt arising from the intense hostility expressed in her controlling, castrating behavior.’

But in The Quiet Man, the rough-and-tumble is more symbolic of the passionate and comical clash of opposing forces — an innocent encounter with the other — than it is representative of the terrible violence of domestic abuse or the kind of soulless sadomasochism found in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Based on a short story by Maurice Walsh, the movie was dismissed as a “silly Irish story that won’t make a penny” when Ford first pitched it to Hollywood. But the director believed in its “strange humorous quality and mature romance.” He was right. With a budget of $1.7 million (massive for the time), The Quiet Man became one of the top ten grossing films of the 1950s. And its popularity, rightly, endures to this day.

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