Before watching the movie:
John Wayne is remembered as playing cowboys or other heroes of the American West. So it always surprises me to learn that some of his most praised movies cast him as something else. Here, he’s an Irishman who spent some time as a boxer in America, but has come home to court a wife.
The main conflict appears to be that his lover’s brother doesn’t approve of the match, and the argument gets physical. Boy is that a mistake to let an argument come to blows with a professional boxer. I really hope that conflict is exaggerated by the synopsis I’m seeing and it’s mostly just courtship in the Irish countryside. I’m also curious to see if Wayne bothers with an Irish accent.
After watching the movie:
Sean Thornton, American son of Irish immigrants, quits boxing and moves to the Irish town of Inisfree to buy back his parents’ old farm from the wealthy Widow Tillane, outbidding the neighboring landowner Will Danaher. Though Sean is immediately taken with the beauty of Red’s sister Mary Kate and soon wins her interest, Will refuses to consent to their courtship out of spite for losing the land purchase. Friends in the town conspire to convince Will that the Widow Tillane is interested in marrying him so long as he can marry off Mary Kate out of his house, and he allows Sean and Mary Kate to court in the proper traditional way (which they have none of). Learning of the deception only at the wedding reception through public humiliation, Will retaliates by refusing to give his sister her Bride’s Fortune and heirlooms. While as an American, Sean isn’t too fussed about some money and furniture, Mary Kate is devastated to be denied her rightful possessions, and declares that without them, she won’t be Sean’s wife, only his legal spouse and housekeeper. Will will only understand fisticuffs, but Sean can’t see how the money could be important enough for him to get back in the fight after what he hung up his gloves for.
It’s not too shocking that Will would have authority over his sister’s courtship, marriage, and dowry, and it wouldn’t surprise me excessively that once married, that authority would transfer to Sean. A culture of paternalism isn’t fair or right today, but it was the culture of the time. All of the women shown in relationships want to be in those relationships, they just don’t have the primary say in the matter.
But what is deeply uncomfortable is how roughly Sean sometimes asserts his authority. When Mary Kate declares she won’t be a wife without her dowry, she locks Sean out of the cottage, and he responds by breaking open the door, declaring there won’t be any bolts or locks between him and his wife, forcing a kiss upon her, and throwing her on the bed with enough force to break it. And then leaving, because… well, IMDB doesn’t say it’s rated “Approved”, so I guess it didn’t need to pass Code, but there’s still a limit to what a respectable film would include. It still feels like a scene of marital rape. And the next day they halfway make up. Later, Sean drags Mary Kate five miles through the countryside surrounded by cheering townsfolk, and the culmination of the sequence sees their estrangement gladly ended. These values completely ruin the movie for me.
As a character who moved to America very young, Wayne has no need of an affected accent. It might have been better if there was a soft Irish influence on his speech as he would have heard it at home growing up, but having his own distinctive voice helps him stand out as the American in Ireland. Just about every other actor is actually Irish and has an appropriate accent (at least to my ear). All of the outdoor scenes were shot on location in Ireland, though there could have been more of them (and at least one shot looked like it was filmed against a rear-projected backdrop). It’s explicitly in independent Ireland, somewhere the Catholic priest and Protestant reverend can have an entertaining friendship, which allows a nice glimpse at both sides of the Irish religion coin. There’s even a scene where Mary Kate and Father Lonergan have a small exchange in Irish, though the gist of what they said can be understood from context.
This is a much-loved movie, but I don’t feel it’s aged well. There’s too much confusion of what feels now like abuse with desirable masculine qualities. I would love to watch a love story in rural Ireland where the hero has to overcome past trauma to knock some sense into his wife’s brother. That’s not the movie I saw.