There’s a great piece by Jonathan Lethem about John Ford’s The Searchers, the classic Oscar-winning western starring John Wayne. The gist: I like this movie, but boy, given some of the content, maybe I really shouldn’t. Lethem points out issues with racism and the cultural subtext of the film, all of which is problematic, all of which are legitimate gripes, and yet they don’t make the movie completely unlikable to him.
I wish I had a chance to reread that Lethem essay going into this piece on The Quiet Man, which Olive Films has released on DVD and Blu-ray this week in a beautifully remastered 60th anniversary edition. The book with the Lethem essay is boxed up somewhere in my apartment, but it’s what I thought of while watching the movie.
Also directed by John Ford, also starring John Wayne, also the winner of an Oscar for Best Picture, I’m basically pleading Lethem when it comes to The Quiet Man (it’s like pleading the fifth, but it’s got more cachet): I like The Quiet Man, but boy, given some of the content, maybe I really shouldn’t.
The Quiet Man follows Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a boxer from the United States who goes to Ireland in order to reclaim his family land. While there, he falls suddenly and deeply for Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), a fiery Irish beauty with a fluttering accent and red hair rendered all the more striking in hypereal Technicolor. But then there’s Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), her hog of a brother, who doesn’t take kindly to Sean being in town. It’s a conflict driven both by suspicion of the outsider and by the need for alpha male intimidation. You can tell the two will eventually come to blows, and yet Sean holds back even though he’d have the upperhand in a fight. (It’s the Wayne way: simmerings of anger, bubblings or violence, and then the inevitable boil over.) Will is the roadblock between Sean and Mary Kate. If he gets his way, any marriage they have won’t be a happy one. There’s also Michaleen Oge Flynn, a supporting character played by Barry Fitzgerald, who serves as matchmaker and a bit of drunken Irish color. Fitzgerald’s character is a stereotype too charmingly cartoonish to be considered offensive — like Lucky of Lucky Charms, but a couple pints deep.
With all that male pride, it’s a a rough and unhappy union for Sean and Mary Kate in a couple of ways. Wayne was never an actor with range, but he could play the hell out of being John Wayne. It’s the same with Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime: he would only ever play himself, and that was sufficient. As Sean Thornton, Wayne has a certain kind of command that goes with his star status. He’s an imposing conquerer, the Platonic idea of an old-fashioned American movie star who can beat the hell out of everyone else on screen. But the person who takes the abuse for the majority of The Quiet Man is Mary Kate.
There are a few scenes where Sean roughs up Mary Kate, and they’re pretty ugly given modern sensibilities. In one he tugs her hair to kiss her in a way that seems brusque and unwarranted before tossing her on the marriage bed like a duffel bag full of dirty laundry. She’s upset that she can’t have her dowry, acting like a shrill little shrew who only cares about money. It’s clear that her dowry is supposed to mean more to the character than just the money — there’s a sense of getting what she’s owed, a sense of personal pride, an upholding of traditions — but her concern plays out like she’s materialistic and that’s it. She’s also upset that her burly new husband, a former boxing champ no less, seems too yellow to beat the crap out of her own brother. She wanted a butch cowboy, but all she got was some tall, slow-talking, funny -walking doof named Marion.
The most famous scene of sexism and abuse in The Quiet Man occurs when Sean is ready to accept his responsibility as a man and win his wife’s dowry. (Again, simmer, bubble, boil — it’s the Wayne way.) It’s not enough that he’s going to march over to her brother and beat the shit out of him. Sean wants to show the wifey that he means business. So he brings her along to the ass whooping, and he does this by dragging her, kicking her, shoving her over miles of scenic Ireland; a jaunty old death march for the Oscar-winning lass. Sean handles Mary Kate with the abandon of Tom Sawyer swinging a dead cat; and his hand is so big around her forearm, Paul Bunyan-like, it seems like the bones will snap just below the wrist. All the while, the townsfolk cheer him on because they’ve been eager for the boil over too. One kind old woman even offers him a stick to beat Mary Kate with in case she doesn’t oblige. (This is more hilarious than troublesome or problematic.)
This brusqueness, sexism, antiquated gender ideas, and violence against O’Hara are what turn off many people about The Quiet Man. Watching it myself for the first time since early adolescence, I was pretty shocked, like hearing an older relative say something quaintly bigoted (aka old-timey bigoted).
But maybe it’s not necessarily abuse. Maybe they like it rough.
There are parts in The Quiet Man where you realize that Mary Kate can give as well as she can get, and there’s a bit of seduction to their aggressiveness with each other. They’re both in on the game. Maybe this physicality is a given in their relationship. Their first mutually consensual kiss is the stuff of high romantic literature: in a cemetery, in the pouring rain, their clothes so soaked through you can see their skin through the fabric. (Only John Wayne’s skin, so calm down, fellas.) Later in the film, Sean plants a firm and playful smack on Mary Kate’s backside and she turns to look at him. She’s not upset. By the look on her face, she’s turned on. Maybe it’s okay if they’re both in on the game; maybe the safe word is “dowry.”
But it is okay? This is one of the dilemmas of encountering older art with dated values and viewing this older art with the progressive views of the present, i.e., views on abuse, gender roles, feminism, machismo, etc. In other words: how do some people measure the past when burdened with ideological guilt and the cynicism of the present?
Take the Frank Loesser song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” These days a lot of people consider the song date-rapey, skeevy, off-putting, especially the line about what’s in the drink; but for a long while it seemed like a couple’s preamble to foreplay. Context, the delivery, and the performance of the song may be key. Yeah, I can easily see the negative side of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but one of my first memories of the song was seeing it performed playfully, flitariously, on Saturday Night Live by Sigourney Weaver and David Johansen in his Buster Poindexter persona. (If only he’d done it in New York Dolls drag.) Watching that performance, it was a mutual seduction from two willing parties rather than an act of coercion.
This all gets to something I’ve noticed which may be linked to the culture war or the new ways we think of personal taste. There’s a tendency today to like only the things than align with your beliefs. That goes for your politics, your views on sex, your views on religion, and so on; and this applies to the movies you watch, the books you read, the comedians you like, the food you eat, the music you listen to, and the clothes you wear. It extends even beyond the work and can involve the beliefs and actions of the people who make the work — think Chris Brown and Roman Polanski. So many people want a neatness to what they like, as if our taste were simply an extension of our deeply held beliefs. And there’s nothing wrong with that since that’s part of the nature of taste.
But taste is a funny thing. I write that because I think we all can think of works we enjoyed that include things we find personally objectionable. There’s the undeniable historical/aesthetic value of Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, for example, and while both of which are important, that importance as artifacts is at odds with the despicable ideas those works communicate. The joys of films like A Day at the Races with The Marx Brothers or Swing Time with Fred Astaire are almost undermined by scenes featuring the actors in black face. Almost. Maybe I’m just trying to redact those offensive bits and concentrate on everything else. And yet this only goes so far. In the case of torture and actionable intelligence, I can give the show 24 a pass, though I suspect the water to be muddier, and maybe uglier, with Zero Dark Thirty, which I’ll finally see this weekend. (Fictionalized accounts of torture and ticking-clock scenarios are held to different standards than purportedly accurate retellings of true events. And Chris Brown and Roman Polanski are still awful douchebags… but have you seen Repulsion lately? Wow.)
And with The Quiet Man, yes, it’s sexist, and yes, there are uncomfortable moments that border on abuse, but I still really enjoyed it. Because it’s charming in an odd way. It’s a view of the way gender roles and masculinity worked a couple decades ago, and these are fixed things — as much an expression of an idea as an artifact depicting the idea. And I’ll be damned if a priest obsessed with catching a giant fish isn’t funny in a quaint, folksy sort of way. That’s maybe one of those odd holes in my taste that I’ve noticed as I get older. I can be charmed while being a little appalled, so long as I’m not too appalled. The Quiet Man, for all the affronts it may pose to a progressive city liberal educated in the humanities, is charming in its own peculiar way. They don’t make them like this anymore, and I doubt anyone would try. And just because I can laugh in shock and disbelief as Maureen O’Hara is treated like a rag doll, it’s just a quirk of taste and not an extension of belief.
So maybe if I wanted to be ideologically consistent in everything I do, I shouldn’t like The Quiet Man. But taste isn’t so neat and clean and easy. I’d rather just enjoy what I enjoy and then come to terms with it ideologically after the fact. There’s an odd fun to figuring out what’s going on in the things I like that don’t align with the way I see the world. Some people like it easy when it comes to things they like, and, admittedly, there is a certain comfort in knowing that the stuff you like is a perfect expression of your values. But taste is a messy thing, and maybe in this situation, like Sean and Mary Kate, I like it rough instead.