Every year our family watches the 1952 classic movie The Quiet Man as a way to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day. This film, because of its Ireland location, is more and more associated with this national holiday. The story, set in the 1920’s, stars John Wayne as retired American boxer Sean Thornton who returns to the village of Inisfree, Ireland, where he was born, in the hopes of finding peace and quiet but in the process finds love. The beautiful and equally talented Maureen O’Hara plays the female lead as Mary Kate Danaher. The feisty Danaher, quickly falls in love with the affable Thornton and easily proves his equal, giving as good as she gets.
The Quiet Man is a ‘fish out of water’ story as Wayne’s Thornton must not only integrate himself into the odd but endearing community of Inisfree, but along the way learn their old Irish customs and how they do life together. To say that this is one of my all-time favorite films is an understatement. From the rich characters to the enduring love story to the lush Irish scenery that only Director John Ford could deliver (he won an Oscar for his work), The Quiet Man, winning 2 Academy Awards and being nominated for eight total, continues to stand the test of time some 60+ years later.
But this year, when we sat down to watch, I was struck by something I had not really considered in the past many viewings. From the beginning to the very end, The Quiet Man not only demonstrates a reverence and respect for the Christian Church and her clergy, but in many ways offers subtle lessons on the role that the Church must play in the life of any community. Here are four lessons that The Quiet Man teaches us about the Christian Church.
1. The Church is central to everyday life and not just on Sunday
Almost from the opening credits, we see the importance that the Church plays in the comings and goings of those who live in the village of Inisfree. Father Peter Lonegan (played by the understated Ward Bond) is not only introduced the moment that Sean Thornton arrives, but also serves as the narrator of the film throughout its entirety. What better way to demonstrate the role of The Church ‘between the Sunday’s’ than to offer Father Lonegan as the voice through which the story is told?
But he isn’t the only one. Although the village of Inisfree is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the Protestant voice is equally loud. The Reverend Mr. Playfield and his wife Elizabeth are portrayed as a gracious couple who come along side the outsider American just a few days after he gets settled. Being the sports enthusiast that he is, Rev. Playfield serves as confidant to the boxer Sean and also as a marriage counselor when Sean’s marriage hits a rocky patch.
In fact, with most of the scenes in The Quiet Man we see the Church, represented through Father Lonegan and Reverend Mr. Playfield, as overwhelmingly present in the life of this small community. The lesson is simple: Life together in the community of Inisfree just would not exist apart from the Christian Church. The rhythms of day to night and night to day are seen around and through what happens with the Church. From the weekly mass where Sean is rebuked for playing ‘patty-fingers’ in the holy water, to the Celtic crosses that dot the Irish countryside, to the church bells playing off in the distance that signal it is time for church, The Quiet Man portrays a tight-knit community that is steeped in church activity. Church is not an ‘add-on’ for the people of Inisfree; it is integral from the womb to the tomb (we are even treated to a somewhat humorous ‘death scene’ where once again the Church is ever present).
2. The Church must always deal with tyrants
There are some who take exception with The Quiet Man’s portrayal of Christianity because we see Father Lonegan along with The Reverend Mr. Playfield and his wife Elizabeth, conspiring to trick (i.e. lie) to Will Danaher so that he’ll allow his sister, Mary Kate, to marry Sean. I disagree. I immediately saw their deception in the same vein as a number of examples that we find in Scripture. For instance, in the book of Exodus, we read that Pharaoh demanded that all male Hebrew babies be killed and we are told that the Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh in order to save the infants (Ex. 1:17). Later on in the book of Joshua we are told about Rahab the prostitute who risked her own life by lying and hiding God’s covenant people from the King of Jericho (Joshua 2). Over in I Samuel 16:2 we read about the prophet Samuel who feared the power of tyrant King Saul, and it was God Himself who told Samuel to lie to Saul and was the one who provided the prophet with a deceptive strategy.
We see God’s people, when faced with tyrants, resorting to deception and lying, and they are blessed because of it. In this movie, we see the same thing. Wil Danaher (played by Victor McLaglen who earned an Oscar nomination for his part) is a tyrant that won’t allow his sister to marry the American and for no other reason than his sinful spite for Sean. But through the clever deception of Father Lonegan and Rev. Playfield, the tyrant is overcome and Sean and Mary Kate are allowed to wed (Spoiler alert: Only because of the clergys’ deception does Wil Danaher himself get restored to the community and find love in the end as well.). This leads to the third lesson found within The Quiet Man.
3. Marriages work best within The Church
One of the sweetest (and funniest) scenes is when Sean and Mary Kate have a ‘set-to’ over finances resulting in their not speaking to one another. Mary Kate seeks out Father Lonegan, while Sean counsels with Rev. Playfield. What I loved most about this scene was not only seeing both husband and wife immediately seeking out the church for answers, but also the counsel that both clergy offered to each spouse.
When Mary Kate went to Father Lonegan he did not try to ‘fix’ Sean. Instead he rebuked Mary Kate for her sinful insolence to her husband. When Sean went to Rev. Playfield, the good pastor explained why the Irish ‘marriage dowry’ customs were good (i.e. Mary Kate was right to be angry) and that Sean should honor his wife and try and see it from her perspective. In the end we not only see husband and wife growing in their understanding of one another, but also in their love for one another. This is something that happened only within the context of the Church. Oh that couples today would seek out pastoral counsel just as quickly. Oh that pastors would be as wise and longsuffering with their parishioners as Father Lonegan and Rev. Playfield.
4. The Church Must Work Together
As a member of the fraternity of pastors, I’m always touched in the way The Quiet Man portrays the care and concern that the Roman Catholic Lonegan has for the Protestant Playfield, and vice-versa. We see this notably in the film a couple of ways. The first is when the two clergy, representing the Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians conspire together against Wil Danaher’s sinful behavior (as mentioned above). It serves as a beautiful example of Catholics and Protestants working together to defeat tyranny for the good of marriage and the health of their community.
But in the end we also see The Church working across denominational boundaries when Father Lonegan rallies the entire community of Inisfree to the aid of Rev. Playfield. The Protestant population of Inisfree is very small (we are told in the movie that only 2 or 3 people show up for Protestant services). The rest of Inisfree are members of Father Lonegan’s Roman Catholic Parish. With Rev. Playfield’s Bishop coming to visit, there is concern that Rev. Playfield and his wife will be re-assigned to another part of Ireland. Father Lonegan goes to work instructing his large Catholic parish to come along side Rev. Playfield, ‘Good man that he is,’ and to ‘cheer like good Protestants.’ When the Bishop comes through the town, he is obviously very impressed with the ‘Protestant’ love that the citizens have for their dear Rev. Playfield and the implication is that no pastoral changes will be necessary. It is one of the most beautiful scenes of simple ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants that arguably has ever appeared on film.
I’m confident that on my next viewing of The Quiet Man I’ll see something else that I failed to see previously or mention in this post. But perhaps even better than my pointing out something new, is your taking time to watch The Quiet Man yourself; I can’t think of a better film portraying The Christian Church than this one. I think when you watch it you’ll agree and when you do, you’ll ‘Cheer like good Protestants!’ (and Catholics!). Happy St. Patrick’s Day!