Quiet men and quiet lives?
March 20, 2016 1 Comment
Neo has, as my last post (and one of his comments) suggested, begun to weary of the political round. It could all get technically interesting at Convention time, but Clinton versus Trump looks a bit like LBJ versus Goldwater – but who can tell? In the meantime, we either go to ground and contemplate our navels (I’m quite happy with mine, how about you?) or we find other games to play.
As some of you know, I love what, to my generation, are old films. In particular, I love John Wayne – not least because he reminds me of my Daddy (I know, that’s my complex – what’s yours?). One of the other reasons I like him, and his films, is that you know where you are. I don’t know about you, but I go to the movies (when I do) for escapism. It no doubt makes me a shallow girl, but there’s plenty in my real life to make me think in shades of grey (can you even use that one any more after the dreadful film?) and I watch films to come away feeling better from the experience. I never came away from a John Wayne film without that feeling. I like clear lines, so, in the Quiet Man, John Wayne’s character, Sean Thornton, comes back to the home of his parents, plunging from the hurly-burly of the steel mills of Pittsburgh, to the most idyllic image of rural Ireland ever filmed (no wonder it won the Oscar for best cinematography), and he falls for Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher, a red-haired fiery beauty – who falls for him. But the course of true love never runs smooth, and although they are to be married, it falls apart when her brother, ‘Red Will’, played by the incomparable Victor McLaglen, refuses to release her dowry. As an American, Thornton can’t see why the money matters, but to Mary Kate it represents her rights and her independence, and his refusal to fight for it disgusts her. She does not know that Thornton is former champion boxer who killed a man in the ring. In the end, he does, indeed, fight for her and wins – and the whole film is an utter delight.
Why though? At one level it could be read as a very simple love story with some pretty obvious plotting devices. Part of the answer are the performances, it is not just that O’Hara and Wayne have real chemistry and are on top form, but the supporting cast is also wonderful – McLaglen is his usual great value, and Barry Fitzgerald almost steals it playing the matchmaker Michaeleen Oge Flynn. It works because the great John Ford conjures up the things which matter in real life including greed, pride and ambition – and he makes a good story out of them. We can identify with Sean as the outsider with a secret – and a heart as big as a city, and we can sympathise with his ignorance of the local customs. But we also see a humility there too – a willingness to try to learn and to fit in – without losing his integrity. Mary Kate is almost a Bronte heroine – fiercely proud and independent, but trapped by her sex and times into a place where the option open to her seems to have narrowed to being a house-keeper to her bullying brother – to whom she gives almost as good as she gets. But there’s a sense of life being wasted and yet, heavily as she falls for Sean Thornton, she, too, will not do so at the price of her integrity.
That word, integrity, seems to me at the heart of so many of Ford’s films. Men, and women. make choices, and often the rewards for a loss of integrity seem greater than those for retaining it – but Ford gets what we want from him – that his characters choose what is right. His worlds are complex reflections of reality, but he never loses us in relativism; men are men if they make the sacrifices necessary to sustain that identity, and Ford shows us them in many dimensions.
Yes, sure, it’s escapism, but into a dimension which feeds us and has us coming out of the film thinking the world’s a better place.