The last two nominees left in 1952 are the ones everyone remembers, and are very similar thematically: each has some things to say about what it means to be a “real man”. To that end, they star the two realest men the early 1950s had to offer: John Wayne (playing John Wayne) and Gary Cooper (playing Gary Cooper). While they are both enjoyable and entertaining, for different reasons, I just can’t bring myself to share the widespread admiration these movies continue to inspire in people.
The Quiet Man was a movie I’d been looking forward to for some time, though maybe because I didn’t know very much about it. On paper, it looks great: directed by John Ford, it tells the story of an American boxer, Sean Thornton, who, after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring, retires and moves to his childhood village in Ireland, where he hopes to be the titular quiet man. John Wayne stars, in what appeared–again, on paper–to be an against-type character, a soft-spoken, nonviolent individual who has forsworn machismo despite moving to the country that invented it. Add to the mix Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald, always good for a lark, and I was intrigued and excited to see what kind of mature, thoughtful insights of manliness and tradition the film had to offer.
Turns out, not a whole heck of a lot. If you don’t have 130 minutes to invest in the movie, the narrative can be boiled down to: “violence doesn’t solve anything haha jk it solves everything.”
Nope, nothing wrong here.
95% of the film sees Thornton lose the respect of literally everyone in Ireland, for refusing to engage in fisticuffs with the local idiot, Will Danaher, played by John Ford’s go-to local idiot, Victor McLaglen. The conflict arises when Thornton buys his family cottage, which Danaher had set his blurry sights on, and then escalates when he falls in love with and marries Danaher’s sister, Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). Out of spite, Danaher withholds MK’s dowry, which to her represents her independence but means nothing to Thornton. As such, still haunted by his past, he quietly allows himself to be ridiculed and thought a coward rather than fight Danaher for the money.
That is, until she threatens to leave him. Then, finally getting over his sissiness and “being a man,” he pulls her off a train and literally drags her across five miles of rolling Irish hills while being cheered on (and encouraged to beat her) by everyone he encounters. Upon meeting Danaher, he obtains the dowry (which Mary K. promptly burns, proving something), then promptly gets into the very brawl that, not twelve hours earlier, he’d sworn would awaken his PTSD, which immediately solves all his problems and makes he and Danaher BFFs.
Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but not one of my friendships has ever begun with drunken ass-kicking.
So, in one fell swoop, the film abandons all the lessons and character development of the first two hours in favor of a ten-minute slapstick sequence and a denouement straight out of a screwball comedy. And it reminds us that violence is not only hilarious but is also the only way to win and keep the respect of your friends, family, and spouse.
Is the film a comedy or a drama? I think it depends on knowing the ending. If you don’t know how it turns out, then it definitely feels like a drama, watching Thornton struggle against his own demons but keeping them hidden from everyone, including his wife. The quiet man, we are led to believe, keeps a low profile and doesn’t rise to the bait of loud, blustering brawlers like Danaher. Thornton even confesses that whenever he fought in the ring, he felt real anger, enough to kill a man–and now, he never wants to feel that way again. Is, in fact, afraid of what will happen if he loses control. Better to be thought a coward than risk ending another life over something so insignificant as money or even pride.
“On second thought, fuck it.”
But if you know that ridiculous fight is coming, then the whole film becomes hilarious, as we watch Thornton foolishly believe that violence isn’t the answer even though it’s obvious to everyone that it is. All the moments where he appears to take the mature, high road are actually just set-ups for the story’s (literal) punchline. You watch the other people laugh at him, all the while chuckling and thinking, “Just you wait, he’ll show you that he’s got what it takes to be respected and admired. He only needs to get over himself and listen to the truth the world is telling him.” Then he triumphs and, like all who settle their differences by punching them in the face, becomes the true quiet man, because it’s very hard to speak when your jaw is wired shut.
Being in the former group, I was not happy to see two hours of my life, and of investment in what I thought was a fairly progressive story for 1952, so glibly swept aside. Not that the “serious” portion of the film was all that progressive, mind you. Even before the aforementioned dragging that leaves Mary Kate bruised, bloodied, and without a shred of dignity or agency, Thornton forces himself on her twice, but since it’s all in the name of taming the shrew it’s portrayed as perfectly alright.
Despite what the film wants you to think, this is not a dance scene.
So yes, maybe The Quiet Man is entertaining, and maybe it is a comedy (of that, I am still not convinced), but its conflating of machismo with manliness, violence with tradition, and assault with courtship just didn’t do it for me. On the plus side, it’s well-acted (for the most part) and the filmmakers’ clear love of Ireland comes through in every exterior shot. It’s worth a watch, but not an Oscar…though it did earn John Ford his unprecedented fourth Best Director award. But to me, the film most deserving of the top awards this year was…
Upon rewatching High Noon for this blog, having seen it many, many years ago, I was expecting greatness (as I remembered it as being very, very good), but at the same time, I was apprehensive, knowing what I now know about the kind of movies Gary Cooper makes when he isn’t playing Lou Gehrig. My apprehension was well-founded, and now as I sit down to write this, I’m realizing that High Noon is, and probably ever will be, a very confusing movie for me.
At least as confusing as Pigs and Battleships, but for different reasons.
On the one hand, it’s one of the best-made films I’ve ever seen…the pacing, the photography, and the direction are all masterful, and though the score can, at times, be over-the-top and distracting, overall it does its job admirably as the tension builds. Clocking in at a mere 85 minutes, unfolding in real time, there is not a single ounce of fat on this movie: every line of dialogue, every action, and every shot of the advancing clock feels just right, and not a foot of film is wasted. Had it won–which, despite all my reservations about it, it definitely should have–it would have been the shortest Best Picture of all time (the current recordholder is Annie Hall , coming in at a bloated 93 minutes).
But on the other hand, the film is almost insultingly manipulative and transparent, ensuring that the audience is firmly on the side of the hero without him having to do much of anything to earn it. Said hero is, of course, Gary Cooper, grimacing his way through the film as Will “One-Marshal-To-Rule-Them-All” Kane, the only decent human being in a town full of cowards, rogues, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells.
As a story, it’s full of promise, the very definition of high-concept: Will Kane, the just-married marshal of a backwater town, is retiring, but upon hearing that his old nemesis, an outlaw named Frank Miller whom he had sent to jail, has been released and is arriving in less than an hour to reunite with his gang and wreck havoc upon the town once more, Kane decides to stay and confront them. His new wife immediately threatens to leave him, and as he tries to rally support from the townsfolk, he quickly finds they all range from cringing vermin hiding in their homes and taverns, to Miller sympathizers actively hoping he (Kane) gets gunned down. And yet, he feels it’s his duty to stay and fight Miller, even if it means doing so alone.
“The Babe wouldn’t run.”
Like I said, the story starts promising, but once I realized that everyone besides Kane is meant to be hated, once I started hoping Kane took his stand alone, since he was the only one with the stones to do so anyway, I got a sneaking suspicion that Kane would be the villain in any movie with three-dimensional supporting characters. It’s easy to forget, in the fervor of watching Gary Cooper stand up for Truth and Justice, that he’s technically not the marshal anymore…he had officially retired that morning. What he is, is a man without any legal authority, demanding the townsfolk form a posse against a group of outlaws who have a personal vendetta against him, not the town.
He even manages to make a hypocrite of himself for claiming to be there to defend the town, not himself, and to be an instrument of the law, not vigilantism. For most of the film, Miller’s three buddies are calmly waiting for him at the train station, and when one citizen asks Kane why he does not simply arrest them, he replies that there is no law against sitting around. Fair enough, spoken like a true lawman…but the very first thing he does when, united with Miller at last, the outlaws stroll into the deserted streets is sneak around and shoot one of them in the back, initiating the climactic gunfight. I’m not sure what ordinance he was enforcing there.
“Nobody jaywalks in my town.”
Said climactic gunfight, by the way, for all the buildup, lasts less than five minutes and, like the rest of the film, is disappointingly one-sided. Even as the film jump-cuts and raises the tension unbearably as the noon train approaches and Kane writes out his will, I don’t think anyone watching High Noon even once thinks that the outlaws stand any chance of victory. That about sums up the whole movie: Will Kane is always right and always will be right, and will do the noble thing even if everyone around him refuses to help.
In the end, he defeats the outlaws, with a little help from his wife, and the film concludes with the justly-famous shot of Kane surveying the ungrateful townsfolk with contempt before throwing his tin star in the dirt and riding out of town. It’s an iconic moment that has become the signature of films about people rejecting The System in pursuit of justice, and was famously copied by Clint Eastwood at the end of Dirty Harry (1971).
I understand that the story is meant to be an allegory for blacklisting, that standing up not just for yourself, but the people around you, is a noble act to which everyone should aspire. But High Noon goes to ridiculous extremes to make its point, and in the end I found it hard to see through the dangerous idea that, in times of crisis, we should bestow the roles of judge, jury, and executioner on one person. Which works out great here, and in all such situations where the people are actors reciting words written for them advancing towards a satisfyingly complete story arc, but seldom goes so well in the real world.
Also, the fact that High Noon‘s producer, Stanley Kramer, and star Gary Cooper were both staunch anti-Communists who sat back and allowed the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, to be run out of Hollywood for refusing to name names to the HUAC doesn’t help me see it as an exercise in standing up for what’s right.
“Listen, Gary, I’m starting to think you guys are missing the point of this thing…”
Still, none of these problems detracts from what I said at the outset, that High Noon is one of the best-made films I have ever seen. Few other films can match it for its slow ratcheting of tension, its hopeless atmosphere, its simultaneously triumphant and bleak climax, and the way Fred Zinnemann managed to make a shot of desolate train tracks so goddamned heart-pounding. For all of these reasons, High Noon was the clear choice for Best Picture…though I’d rather have seen Best Actor go to Marlon Brando for Viva Zapata!.
Is it me, or does he look a hell of a lot like Gene Kelly with that mustache?
But in the end, the Academy gave the top prize of 1952 to a circus ad, and for the next sixty-three years, no Best Picture won as few Oscars as this one did. The Bad and the Beautiful won the most Oscars of the evening, the second and, to date, last time a film not nominated for Best Picture was the year’s most awarded. On to 1953, which, unlike this year, features a slate of nominees still well-regarded today, including Audrey Hepburn’s film debut. Onward!