It takes only a few minutes for John Ford’s The Quiet Man to vault into the realm of the sublime. Broad-shouldered, dewy-eyed Sean Thornton (John Wayne) has just returned to his homeland of Innisfree, Ireland after decades across the Atlantic as a heavyweight boxer, and on his first stroll through the nostalgic countryside, he spots among a swarm of grazing sheep the luminous Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), her ginger hair rendered fiery by the day’s final beams of sunlight. When Sean and Mary Kate lock eyes across the meadow, Ford offers a fairly traditional shot-reverse-shot pattern, with the transcendent wrinkle being that O’Hara’s close-up is captured from the director’s beloved low angle—majestic in juxtaposing the actress’s bright red hair and lips against the powder-blue sky, albeit perceptually impossible if we take the shot to approximate Sean’s perspective. Then the music swells, Mary Kate paces away toward the bottom of Ford’s composition, and we get a more distant image of Sean flanked on either side by a procession of beech trees—the sudden burst of longing now dappled with a tinge of the elegiac.
The Quiet Man’s most evocative scenes center on this correlation between primal desire and the grandeur of the landscape: Not much later, Sean embraces Mary Kate in the threshold of a doorway rattled open by a powerful gust, and in a conflict-cleansing brawl in the film’s final act, rivers are fallen into, haystacks are churned up, and bright green grass is tugged from the ground. Implicit in all this is the notion of the land as a dynamic presence in these characters’ lives—not simply ground on which to settle, but a force to be reckoned with, a place where habitation must be earned. Although Sean spent his childhood in Innisfree and finds himself heartily welcomed back by the coachman, Michaleen (Barry Fitzgerald), who rides him into town, his firm avowal from day one to repurchase his family’s old property carries with it an uneasy air of outsider entitlement. Similarly, his courtship of Mary Kate, known around town for her “temper and lack of fortune,” unfolds like an accomplished man’s conquest of an indigenous innocent.
This being a John Wayne role in a John Ford film, Sean never tips over fully to the dark side. But four years before The Searchers mined this very territory and became canonized for it, The Quiet Man derived much of its complexity from its flirtations with the murkier shades of its star’s persona. Not only is Wayne’s assimilated Yankee etched with a sense of privilege that touches on the nastier registers of American machismo, his shyness is pierced by a propensity for nonverbal bluntness, his initial social grace is later undermined by a pushiness in getting his way, and, most critically, his sterling physical form is recognized for its inclinations to violence. In a radically unorthodox gesture, Ford withholds any particulars regarding Sean’s background as a boxer until a moment of tension with Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), Mary Kate’s brutish brother, that dislodges a fragmented sense memory detailing his accidental murder of an opponent in the ring.
With the exception of this feverish flashback sequence, which plays out in a flurry of isolated visual details lit mainly by a single hard light source, the film is defined by its visually spacious, lustrously illuminated location photography, as well as a sense of color coordination to rival any in the Technicolor canon. Much of the action, including a town horse-racing ritual or a climactic scene featuring Sean rudely escorting Mary Kate by foot back to town from the train station miles away, takes place in the rolling green hills of western Ireland, a lush backdrop for the earth-toned wardrobes and splashes of scarlet. Ford grants even the few studio locations, such as a candlelit pub interior, a sense of lived-in texture ostensibly informed by his own Irish heritage.
The film’s fluency with the Emerald Isle’s wonders accomplishes far more than “fancy scenic effects,” as pejoratively noted by critic Manny Farber in the 1950s. Ireland’s surface beauty, often blatantly coded as a reflection of Sean’s rose-tinted lens, is juxtaposed against the less immediately appealing facets of small-town life, such as the lack of privacy and the vernacular of rumors that such a climate creates. It becomes something of a running gag, for instance, for seemingly the entire Innisfree population to emerge from the background to spectate on nearly all of Sean’s private affairs, or for a wandering chorus of whiskey-swigging townsfolk to spontaneously provide musical accompaniment to whatever bit of business he may be engaged in.
Furthermore, the often rigid, formal physicality of The Quiet Man’s actors—Sean’s confident uprightness and Will’s habit of propping himself up on whatever piece of furniture happens to be within reach both speak to defining character traits—registers a feeling of environmental fixedness, an impression that these folks aren’t going anywhere. Only Mary Kate has the spunk and slipperiness of someone perhaps fleeting and unattainable; indeed, at one point she even makes a bid to leave town for fear of what her growing affection for Sean might mean.
Despite its pedigree as a long-stewing passion project for Ford derived from literary material, The Quiet Man has none of the bloat that such a description might imply. Rather, it takes on the lightness of an old Irish folk tale, an impression strengthened by the story’s framing as the hindsight recollection of the local pastor, Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond), an otherwise relatively marginal character. The film freely mixes crass barroom comedy, a lyrical and fragile romance, a sidelong study of Innisfree’s generational and class fissures, and even a Rabelaisian fist-fighting finale. If it’s an ungainly variety, it doesn’t suggest directorial sloppiness, but the warmth of oral tradition as it dances around a cluster of themes (belonging, redemption, reconciliation) with the vigor of a yarn spun, porter in hand, alongside an open fire.
The Quiet Man's virtuosic Technicolor palette looks impossibly vivid in this new 4K transfer, a true representation of what we all anticipate the format to embody, but don't always get from home-video approximations. An image of Maureen O'Hara's bright red skirt bobbing across an overcast landscape of stone and water counts among the most gorgeous things this writer's seen on a television screen, but it's not just the color timing that impresses: Contrast has been superlatively dialed in, so that even in the darker bar scenes we're able to see minor details in the background that may have been lost in a less careful restoration job. The soundtrack is also tremendous: Victor Young's peppy score and the bellowing voices of the strolling minstrels sit comfortably in the mix alongside the more delicate dialogue scenes.
The lack of a critical essay here disappoints when considering the hearty text supplements on Criterion’s releases (evidently the working model for this new Olive Signature series), but an abundance of visual extras compensate for the absence. The highlight is a brief but substantive video essay by Tag Gallagher that, despite suffering from a slapdash audio mix that places Gallagher’s soft voice far too low against the scene excerpts, is elevated by the critic’s free-associative, poetic approach to interpreting the film. Other tidbits include an affectionately anecdotal remembrance by Peter Bogdanovich, a typically broad Leonard Maltin-led making-of featurette that nonetheless provides some helpful historical context, a piece on O’Hara’s stardom featuring doting stories from some of her colleagues and acquaintances, and a throwaway primer on Republic Pictures. It’s all capped by an asset that’s practically de rigeur for John Ford home-video releases: a commentary by historian, biographer, and critic Joseph McBride, who brings his usual dexterity in blending diverting production factoids (like pointing out that the castle in the credit sequence also functioned as the hotel for the cast and crew) with meaty attention to the moment-to-moment particulars of the film’s form.
Olive Films gives The Quiet Man their Signature treatment, and the result is about as glorious as Technicolor can get on the small screen.