‘The Quiet Man’ at 70: How an Irish classic almost didn’t make it to screen

By Thomas Myler

It is not uncommon in these times to have movies shot on location in Ireland. Going back over half a century there was probably the best remembered of them all “The Quiet Man” which had its Irish premiere 70 years ago – June 5th 1952 to be exact.

Filmed mainly in Cong, Co. Mayo, it was directed by Irish-American John Ford, whose folk came from the Galway area. The lead roles were played by Dubliner Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, whose great-grandfather was born near Randalstown in Co. Antrim.

It was the official selection for the 1952 Venice Film Festival and over the years it has become a perennial favourite with Irish fans around the globe. Indeed, how the movie came to be made is a story in itself.

It started in 1933 when Ford came across a short story in the US magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, by Kerry novelist Maurice Walsh. It told the tale of an Irish-born, American-raised boxer who returns to Ireland with the idea of buying his parents’ little cottage and retiring into a quiet life, perhaps marrying if he finds the right girl.

The problem is that a local farmer, known as the village bully, wants the land because it rests next to the home of a widow he plans to marry.

Ford was smitten with the story and promptly bought the film rights for a reputed $10. With his busy career blossoming, he spent the next 15 years on and off developing the story into a screenplay to get it financed. When he eventually sold the idea to Republic studios, he received $2,500. The film would eventually take in $3,800,000 in the US alone.

The problem at the outset, however, was that no studio would touch the project even though Ford had an agreement with Wayne and O’Hara, two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, plus options from other well-known actors, to star in the movie.

Harry Cohn of Columbia said the movie wouldn’t earn a nickel and Darry Zanuck of 20th Century Fox dismissed it as “a silly little Irish story that would be laughed off the screen.” Other studios had more or less the same view. It was a no-go idea.

Maureen gave me the inside story of the problems of getting the movie into production when I had the opportunity of interviewing her at her home in Glengarriff, Co. Cork in 2004. “It all goes back to 1944 when I was making a picture with Paul Henreid at RKO Studios in Hollywood called The Spanish Main,” she recalled.

“You may remember Henreid as the freedom fighter in Casablanca. John Ford came to the studio to see me. Now Ford always had the reputation of wearing old clothes. His wife would buy him pants but he’d promptly burn a hole in them with his cigars.

“Anyhow, he arrived at the studio gates and the young policeman wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t know who Ford was, despite the director’s protests. Ford was absolutely furious and he went back home, called the studio and complained.”

“It was my job to phone him back, try to calm his down and promise that if he came back the next day, the studio would put down the red carpet for him, all the way to the set. I think the red-carpet treatment appealed to him, so he came back the next day and they really did roll out the red carpet for him. What he wanted was to get RKO to agree to make The Quiet Man and to get a handshake agreement with me to star in the movie.”

“He said he had a similar agreement with John Wayne, Victor McLaglen and the Abbey actor Barry Fitzgerald. I agreed too. After all, you would never say no to the great John Ford because he would never make a movie that wasn’t great. As it happened RKO turned it down, as did many of the other big studios. Eventually in desperation, Wayne took the idea to Herb Yates, the boss at Republic Studios where he had made many of his early westerns.

“But even then, there was a catch. Studio boss Herbert J Yates was willing to finance the film but only if Ford made him another movie first, a western. The film Ford made for Yates over the summer of 1950 was Rio Grande, a western. It is now regarded as a classic but back then it was just a means to an end.”

“Yates said he wanted us to do Rio Grande so as he could make money on what he was going to lose on The Quiet Man,” remembered O’Hara with a laugh. “Of course, he ended up making money on both movies. Rio Grande had lots of action as would be expected in a John Wayne-John Ford film, with the US Cavalry and Red Indians, or should I say Native-Americans, and all that. We duly made it and Yates came up with the money for our film. Everybody was happy.”

But even as the shooting for The Quiet Man got under way, there were problems. Cong had no electricity so the production crew had to bring in their own generators. The weather was on their side, however, and it stayed for the full shoot.

“I have read numerous times that the weather was awful, and we all know that Ireland gets lots of rain, even in summertime,” recalled Maureen, “but to say it rained while we were there is simply not true. It rained only once. I was there so I ought to know. It was a happy shoot.”

Wayne, too, always had fond memories of the time he spent in Ireland making the movie. “Working with Maureen O’Hara and those great Irish actors was a real thrill – and that lush Irish countryside,” he remembered in later years.

The movie ends with a shot of Wayne and O’Hara outside their little cottage. With a grin, she whispers something in his ear. The shocked look that drifted across Wayne’s face wasn’t faked. “Pappy told Maureen what to say to me, and believe me, coming from the lips of a lady, it was shocking,” he said.

What was it she said? “That, my friend, is a trade secret,” said Wayne when asked by an interviewer. “Pappy swore both of us to secrecy.” Maureen would say much the same when asked by Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show. “Now I would never break a promise to the great John Ford, would I?” she smiled.

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