We learn this in the first few minutes of the movie as Sean tells Michaleen Oge Flynn, a little man with a big job, that they knew each other when Sean was a child. After a few more introductions of the tall stranger, we learn through Father Lonergan that Sean’s grandfather died in a penal colony in Australia, his father was a good man who apparently died in a bad accident, and Sean’s mother died in America when he was twelve. Later, when he talks to the patron of the town -- an old gentleman with a long, white beard -- we find out that he knew the grandfather, and that he was a good man.
Quite a past, but we’re not through yet.
We see Sean in the church, a pensive look on his face, as if he’s reflecting on his past. Afterward, he meets a fiery redhead, Mary Kate Danaher played by O’Hara, and becomes enamored with her. Ah, romance, but that’s not what this article is about. Strange coming from me, but true.
Sean visits the Widow Tillane to buy the land that is now in her possession. He tells her when he was a kid living in a shack near the slag heaps, his mother told him about Innisfree and their home. We get that life was probably rough for the little Irish immigrant and his widowed mother. He further tells her, “When I quit the r…, when I decided to come here…” What was he about to say? What did he quit?
Questions! The author’s best friend. Yes, Sean has a past, but the writer is very careful not to tell everything in the first scene. Watch how Sean’s back story is skillfully woven in.
As we get to know Sean, it becomes very clear that he wants to live in peace, but Squire Will Danaher, Mary Kate’s brother, is a scrapper and angry that Sean has bought the land he’s been wanting. In the pub, Will challenges Sean, who tells him, “I’m not going to fight you, Danaher.” The other men in the pub stop Will from punching him and make the two shake hands. It becomes a power war, however, both men crushing the other’s palm, showing their strength. They’re an even match. Will storms out and two members of the currently nonviolent IRA tag Sean as a “quiet, peace-loving man.”
But is he?
He meets the Reverend and Mrs. Playfair. Upon hearing the name Thornton, the vicar appears to recognize him, but can’t place him. “Thornton. Has a familiar ring to it… Ring to it.”
When Sean calls on Mary Kate to ask her brother permission to court her, Will refuses to allow it. Sean has been civil, but through his Yankee ignorance, insults the ritual. Will yells at him to get out of the house by the time he counts to three. Sean, with a dangerously quiet voice, tells him, “If you say three, mister, you’ll never hear the man count ten.”
Ah, is it becoming clearer, now?
Through this sprinkling of dialogue, Sean’s past unrolls like the fog over an emerald meadow. Piece by piece, bit by bit, a theme begins to emerge.
Let’s continue. The priest, the vicar, and his wife, plot to trick Will into giving his blessing for the courting. They tell him the Widow Tillane is interested in him, but wouldn’t think of marrying him with another woman in the house.
It works, and Michaleen chaperones Sean and Mary Kate in his carriage on their first outing together. The couple gets out to walk in front of the carriage, and as they talk, he compliments her bonnet. This reminds her of a few days prior, when he had left her bonnet sitting on the post during a race. This race on horses, I’m thinkin’, was a fun way for couples to get together. A twist on the decorated box lunch in American culture. Mary Kate’s temper flares and she rears back her hand to slap him. Micheleen stops her with a cluck of the tongue. “Is this a courtin’ or a donney brook? Have the good manners not to hit the man until he’s your husband -- and he can hit ya back.” She apologizes and informs Sean that she has a fearful temper. “We Danahers are a fighting people.”
So far, our clues are “ring,” “hear the man count ten,” and “fighting.”
During the wedding reception, Will announces his intentions concerning the Widow Tillane. She embarrasses him by rebuffing him in public. He blows up as a result saying he’d agreed to the marriage under false pretenses. Sean steps into his tirade and Will punches him, knocking him flat. We hear a bell. As Sean lay unconscious, we get inside his head. He’s in a boxing ring, and punches the opposing fighter who goes down hard. The man dies. And now we know why Sean has fled back to his roots, the peaceful Ireland his mother had painted for him. As he comes to, he jumps up as if still in the ring, but Rev. Playfair stops him saying, “Steady, Trooper. Steady.” The vicar knows that Sean is Trooper Thornton, a boxer with a painful past.
From here, we follow Sean’s motives in light of this revelation. His past has dictated his actions thus far, and continues to do so.
The couple move into the cottage, but Mary Kate doesn’t have her furniture that’s been promised to her. Her brother is withholding it in an act of spite. She wants her things about her in her new home, and she wants her fortune, money she’s inherited plus some she’s earned for herself. Sean, in typical male fashion, doesn’t understand this. Can’t he provide for her? They spend their wedding night in separate rooms.
The next day, he presents his gift to her, a small, one horse carriage, and they ride to town. While there, she sees her brother who is in a good mood because he’s just sold some sheep. She demands Sean go get her money while her brother still has it in his pockets. Sean refuses and she calls him a coward. Obviously, she hasn’t been paying attention to the clues. Sean gets out of the carriage, and Mary Kate swings the small whip as if she’s going to hit him. But she takes off instead, leaving him in town with only his feet to get him home.
Sean finds Will in the pub and wants to talk in private. Pig-headed Will refuses, then sneers. “You’re among friends. They’ve done your fighting once, maybe they’ll fight for you again.
Sean says, still controlling his anger, “I’m not asking anyone to do my fighting for me.”
“Oh,” Will continues to taunt him. “So you’re willing to do your own are ya?” He challenges Sean to ask for the dowry, and if he does, he’ll be chewing his teeth for a week. “I’ll fight you with one of my fists in my pocket.”
Sean slaps his hand away and walks out while Will mocks him. “The Fighting Thornton!”
The last thing we see in this scene is Micheleen, sitting on a stoop, thoroughly disappointed in Sean.
Sean retreats to the vicar’s house. He needs to talk to someone who knows about his past. Sean tells him that the man he killed in the ring was a good man with a family. But Sean went into that ring to pound him into the mat -- to murder him. All for a purse, a piece of the gate, and lousy money. The vicar nods. “And now money is behind your troubles with Danaher.” The vicar shares that he knows a little about boxing. He shows Sean a picture of himself, skinny with boxing gloves on. He was the lightweight champion once. Sean now has a broad grin on his face, as if knowing that he has something in common with such a peaceful man has taken the burden of guilt off of his shoulders. The vicar offers him a drink, but then thinks better of it. “You’ll be in training again, of course.”
So now we know all about Sean’s past, and it’s taken three-quarters of the movie to learn it. It’s important as we go into the final act why Sean was afraid to fight Will. Not only did he fear killing him, but the circumstance is similar to why he fled America. Money is the root.
Mary Kate has left Sean, telling Micheleen that she can’t stay with a man she’s ashamed of. This is the final straw. Sean finds her at the train station (where she, by the way, totally believes he’ll come after her and is disappointed when he’s not there right away.) He drags her out of the train and ushers her home, half dragging, half pushing. The entire town follow them, knowing that the long hoped for fight between Sean and Will is about to happen.
Sean finds Will working in his field and pushes Mary Kate to the ground in front of him. He asks for the money. Will refuses. Sean says, “You can take your sister back. Your custom, not mine. No fortune, no marriage.” Will finally comes to his senses and flings the money at Sean. He picks it up, and Mary Kate runs to a large furnace where the men were working, opens the door and allows Sean to toss the money into the incinerator.
This completes her character arc. The money was the only thing driving her, and now, she realizes that her husband means more to her than the money ever did.
The two start to stroll away, but Will isn’t finished yet. He swings at Sean, who ducks and lands a fist into Will’s stomach. Mary Kate looks at her husband with pride and says she’s going home, and she’ll have supper ready for him. Then she walks into the crowd, head held high.
Will attacks Sean again. And now, it’s on! The two men begin to pummel each other, sparking an all out brawl with the surrounding townspeople. Micheleen stops it by shooting his starter pistol into the air. “This is a private fight. The Marquis of Queensbury rules will apply.” All agree civilly, and the two men continue to beat each other to a pulp.
Delightful symbolic scenes follow while the two are fighting. The police, who should break up the fight, have called their commissioner to get advice. He tells them to put money on Danaher. Father Lanergan’s protégé comes to him while he’s fishing, fighting the big one that always gets away. The younger man tells him there’s a big fight in town. Father Lanergan tells him he must stop it, it’s his duty. But when the priest finds out it’s Sean and Will who are fighting, he throws down his pole and the two watch from around a rock wall. Meanwhile, the vicar and his boss, who has arrived to see if the vicar’s congregation is big enough to keep him on there, watch the fight through binoculars.
Sean and Will battle their differences and become best drinking buddies. Sean has conquered his past.
In a final symbolic scene, the vicar (Protestant) drives his boss through town and the Catholics cheer, pretending to be protestants so he won’t lose his job there. In the typical Irish village, Catholics far outweigh Protestants.
A word about the symbolism. The running theme of this piece is “fighting.“ The writer used the following to get that point across, thus deepening Sean Thornton’s angst against it.
- The IRA, not exactly known for its peace talks.
- Catholics and Protestants, not only getting along, but helping each other in need.
- The Vicar’s name, Playfair. I didn’t get that until I looked over my notes. Cool.
- A scene where bickering friends at the train station start rolling their sleeves, but it’s done so civilly, it’s comical.
- Father Lonergan fighting the fish. If you watch the movie, there are a couple of scenes where he is obsessed with this fish. When the younger priest goes to him about the fight, he says he's in a fight himself, with the fish.
- Marquis of Queesbury rules (a civilized way to fight.)
And now we all know how to weave in back story. We create questions, leaving clues in the dialogue and in symbolism. Now, stop playin’ patty fingers and get to it!