This has proven to be a surprisingly controversial movie, dividing many as to whether or not it is a great comedy/drama or an insulting pastiche of stage Irishness. At first glance the insulted side of the room may have the case, however if you actually watch the movie for the nuances it is more complex than the first glance might suggest. I fall in to the camp that suggest the movie is a classic.
Despite the famous scene of Wayne grabbing O’Hara and kissing her, we should remember that the female characters are quite strong in this film, Not only do we have her but also “The Widow Tiillane”, note the title of “The” Widow Tillane. Some reference sites simply give the character’s name, this is to underplay the title. In Ireland the prefix of “The” was and is still used to denote a person of singular importance; for example a not dissimilar work, The Field by the late John B Keane gives us the main character of “The Bull McCabe” again reinforcing the impact of the person. This is by way of commenting on the attention to detail in the movie which is often over-looked.
Directed by John Ford (Rio Grande, 1950) and starring just about anybody in Hollywood who ever claimed to have an Irish connection. The story is a steel-worker and retired boxer, Sean Thornton, played by John Wayne (She wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949) who having had enough of the violence of the ring (event become clearer as the movie progresses) where he was a champion boxer who once killed an opponent in the ring, something which weighs heavily on him. He is returning to the place of his birth, a small cottage just outside the town of “Inisfree” after growing up in Pittsburgh. We don’t know much about his background, it was poor and likely that of tenant farmers.
On returning he engages the services of local hackney driver , Michaleen Oge Flynn,[ Michalín Óg Flynn – in the correct form] (Barry Fitzgerald, The Naked City 1948) who as it turns out, is also the local match-maker. Life is never as simple as it might otherwise be.
Shortly after returning Thornton spies the fiery Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara, Only the Lonely, 1991), who is very much the red-head in looks and temperament. Pretty soon Thornton expresses an interest, only to be told by Michaleen that there are rules to follow, Thornton does not have much time for the rules, but goes along with the customs. Now, Mary Kate lives at home with her brother, known by various people as “Squire” or “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLagen, The Informer, 1935) , and Squire Danaher has his eyes on two things, a piece of land next to his own and the widowed owner of that land. Needless to say he’s not only unhappy about his sister being associated with the “Yank” but also majorly upset when he hears that Thornton is buying the property.
The film progresses with Thornton settling in and getting to know the locals, not least of all the Reverend Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields, The River 1951) who as an enthusiastic sports fan was aware of Thornton’s history and the fight that caused him to turn from boxing. These friendships allow Thornton to get an understanding of where he is and what he can do. One thing he is intent on doing is buying the old family homestead, which The Widow Tillane (Barefoot in the Park, 1976) is happy to do. This is the land Squire Danaher wanted and the selling of the land to Thornton makes for trouble.
Danaher may not be able to stop his sister from marrying Thornton, but he can withhold her dowry of cash, furniture and heirlooms . This causes Mary Kate much upset, who is made even more upset by Thornton not being overly bothered by the dowry, not appreciating the importance of it. All this tension rises set against the backdrop of a small Mayo village where life goes on, or at least tries to. This is where the attention to detail is important, such as the attempts to by rounds in the bar, as funny as they are, it is the character of the “Brigadier” who shows the understanding Ford had for the times and the people, because in the pub with also was the local [old] IRA commander, the War of Independence is over and there is no malice between them (there might never have been). An important part of the village life is the part played by the local clergy, both Catholic and Anglican.
Father Lonergan (Ward Bond, Rio Bravo, 1959) is the local Parish Priest who is assisted by Fr. Paul (James O’Hara, Suddenly 1954 – James was the brother Of Maureen). Fr. Lonergan must be the voice of reason advising and plotting to get all the right people married and happy. His plotting extends to helping the local Anglican Minister when his Bishop is visiting; Fr. Lonergan hides his collar and tells the parishioners to shout like “good Protestants” cheering when the Bishop passes, Rev Playfair’s parish is small and he fears he might be moved to another Parish, so Fr. Lonergan’s help is much needed. This should not be seen as anything special, there was never any issues between the vast majority of Catholic and Anglican clergy at this time with many working together to face common challenges.
Needless to say all the tension between Danaher and Thornton reaches boiling point, here Thornton brings Mary Kate back to Danaher, no dowry, no marriage. The money is forthcoming, he would accept the wedding over the disgrace of forcing his sister’s marriage to be annulled. We see that the money was not important to Mary Kate despite all the tension, it was the principle of the matter.
Given the people in question, it is only a matter of time before there is a fight, today we have car chases, then there were the fights up and down the length of the main street, here was no better. Adding to the comedy of the situation, the fight will be under “Marquis of Queensbury” rules. I’m not sure if the good Marquis such a lose interpretation of his rules. The local train is delayed as the locals all rush to follow the fight as it makes its way through the village, even Rev. Playfair has a bet with his Bishop as to the possible winner. At one stage the fight breaks for a drink in the pub before continuing.
As is often the case in these situation , the fight ends with both men starting to become friends, Mary Kate returns home with her integrity intact and ultimately we see Squire Danaher eventually courting with the Widow Tillane; happy endings.
This film is rightly regarded as a classic. Having won a Oscar for its director, Ford, it is still as fresh today as when it first appeared. What makes the film works is the light-hearted approach to the situation. The cinematography is magnificently suited to the locality, the script is tight and nuanced. Usually only appearing every Christmas of St. Patrick’s Day, dig it up, sit back and enjoy. By the way, as a trivia exercise you might want to look at who is related to whom; The Shields Brothers, the O’Hara family, the Wayne family and also Ford’s only family members are all involved in one way or another.
Some great quotes from the movie:
I knew your people, Sean. Your grandfather; he died in Australia, in a penal colony. And your father, he was a good man too.
There’ll be no locks or bolts between us, Mary Kate… except those in your own mercenary little heart!