Inspired By: The Fight Scene from THE QUIET MAN (1952) vs THEY LIVE (1988)
This article will begin with a story, an amusing one at that. I was sitting in my house on a Saturday night, not an uncommon activity for an anti-human recluse such as myself. This was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and my wife wanted me to watch something that was at least related to Ireland or Irish in nature. Of course, I wanted to watch Leprechaun (and I did on St. Patty’s Day itself), but she had the idea to watch 1952’s The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. I don’t recall watching it previously, and honestly I was game for anything, so we settled in and watched it. As it was nearing its conclusion, the movie decided to end on an unusual note. An epic fight broke out between John Wayne’s character Sean Thornton and Victor McLaglen’s Will Danaher. When the movie ended, I proclaimed to myself (and my other half) “That fight scene felt like the Roddy Piper-Keith David brawl from They Live”. My wife scoffed at the idea. I thought something was there. I was convinced that no one ever thought to make this connection, let alone come out into the open with a proclamation about it. I honestly didn’t recall every reading anything or hearing anyone mention any link between the two.
The next day, I was ready to start the layout of what I was going to write for my article, but something was telling me to just do a search online, just to make sure no one had thrown the idea out there. I was still sure I was going to be the first one to make this leap of faith link. However, as most writers experience at some point or another, I was late to the party. I uncovered articles stating that John Carpenter HIMSELF had already confessed, on the special edition Blu-ray no less, the notion of being inspired by The Quiet Man for his epic fight scene in They Live. Roddy Piper also eluded to this at a screening of the movie at the New Beverly Cinema in California a few years back. I was not making history. I was just repeating it. Alas, I still feel like I didn’t see any real examinations of these two scenes that compared and contrasted how The Quiet Man inspired They Live. I decided to push on anyways. Let us take a look at these two classic films, and their infamous fight sequences, and see how a John Wayne dramedy inspired the insane craziness of a John Carpenter smackdown in the middle of a sci-fi movie.
1952’s The Quiet Man, from celebrated director John Ford, told the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), an American deciding to retire from his old life, or perhaps running away from, to live a simple and exiled existence in the cozy Irish town of Inisfree, where his mother was born. There, he ends up meeting hard-headed Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). They ended up falling in love and getting married, all to the chagrin of Mary’s bullish brother Will (Victor McLaglen). You see, Sean ended up sneaking in unexpectedly and purchasing his old family cottage, something Will has had his eyes set on for the longest time. The movie is a quaint and relaxing little film, displaying a side of John Wayne that simply people had not come to expect, the dramatic love interest character who had an aversion to confrontation and fighting. Except for one scene. Sean has a secret throughout the movie, which we ended up learning is (SPOILER) that he was a famous boxer back in America, and he decided to retire due to accidentally killing a man in the ring. This plays into the plot, as Mary’s brother is not approving of the marriage, and refuses to give Mary her dowry that she is due from the family upon marriage. Sean doesn’t care about the money and doesn’t want to engage in fisticuffs over it either. When Mary tries to leave, this sets off Sean, as he drags her back all the way to her brother, and decides to get the dowry from Will, one way or another. This leads to the massive brawl that ensues at the end of the movie. It moves from one location to another across the entire village and concludes at Sean’s cottage, as they both sit down for dinner as Mary cooks in the background, seemingly becoming best buds.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have 1988’s They Live from the master of horror himself, John Carpenter. The story here revolves around how aliens have taken over all across the Earth, and have established themselves with supreme wealth and power. On the other end, the human race has either been degraded to poverty and depression, or sold their souls to these extra-terrestrial beings for money and security in exchange for loyalty and obedience. The aliens have devised a way to disguise their actual presence to the entire world, hiding in plain sight to continue with their nefarious plans. A group of resistance fighters, dedicated to exposing these aliens for who they are, have created special sunglasses that can allow people to see how the real world really looks, with aliens and subliminal messaging melded into everyday life, lifting the vail so to speak. Two men who are down and out, Nada (Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David), are now humanity’s last hope to bring the fight to the aliens and make their last strike at the heart of the conspiracy. This movie is a cult classic in every sense of the word, from some amazing dialogue (“I’ve come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of gum”) to a ludicrous plot that is made believable due to the biting social commentary (that is still relevant today) and genuinely smart writing. The sequence that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, instantly recalls when this movie is mentioned, is the epic fight scene between Nada and Frank. All poor Roddy Piper wants to do is show Keith David’s Frank what is visible when you glance through these special sunglasses, but Frank, an honest man trying to make a living for his family back home, wants nothing to do with this lunatic nomad who he just recently met. This leads to an insane amount of bodily harm and all-around machismo oozing across the screen. It’s simply a classic in every sense of the word and was even immortalized with a homage battle between Timmy and Jimmy on the popular animated show South Park.
Now, let’s get down to it. How the hell would one make a connection between a 50’s John Wayne Irish dramedy and an 80’s cult sci-fi classic featuring a known WWF wrestler and the voice of Spawn from the HBO animated series? These fights aren’t exactly the same in how they unfold, but they share traits that allow people to see glimmers of them being intrinsically linked. The main connection would be the actual length of the scenes, and the idea of false endings and restarts that occur often within their running time. The Quiet Man’s fight was quite long, especially for the time it came out, and seemed to go on for far longer than it needed. These men generally stuck to fists for their beating tools, but they were utilized in many ways, sending each other flying into water, other people and even doors. They Live’s fight scene ended up also using fists as its major weapon of choice, but since we had a bonafide wrestler in here, some suplexes, body slams, and foreign objects were utilized to spice up and add more pain and blood to the proceedings.
The fight between Sean and Will in The Quiet Man seems to end at least three separate times throughout its entire running time. It seems to end almost before it really started, after Will throws the dowry money into the furnace after finally standing up to Will and laying him out, only for it to push on and roll into town. A second time Sean lays out Will into a lake next to a small hill with a tree. As Will slowly rises up from the water, and Sean even lends him a helping hand to lift up to the hill, Will then proceeds to sock Sean once more, continuing the fight into two. A third time, they end up stopping completely and going into the local pub. They enjoy a brew together, then Will decides to throw his beer on Sean, which then reignites the fight and he sends Will flying through the pub door. The scene then finally comes to an end at Sean’s house as mentioned earlier, with them sitting down for a home cooked meal and appear that all is now right within their world.
Carpenter has stated that when he hired Piper, he had him watch one movie in preparation for his role, and that was The Quiet Man. He wanted to do an homage to that legendary fight scene, and even one-up that with sheer brutality, and most of all, the actual length of the engagement. The madness of the fight between Nada and Frank in They Live takes this idea of false conclusions and surprise restarts to the ninth degree. Multiple instances throughout, as one of the men is laid out from a punch, kick, etc., the fight seems to be over, for it only to start again with a punch or kick being thrown by the individual who was just on the floor. I honestly lost count of how many times the scene appeared to be over, only for it to start up again with even more vigor and bloodshed. Some of these false endings would carry on for 10-20 seconds, really trying to have the viewer’s energy come down, only for it to re-spike when a 4x4 came into the picture or a garbage can was utilized. You literally feel every single blow that is thrown in this scene, which is thanks to some impressive fight choreography between Piper and David, and some slick sound editing to make each blow feel all too real. By the end, when Piper’s Nada finally is able to force the sunglasses and show Frank what the world really looks like, both men have enough swollen blotches and blood stains across their faces and bodies to last them a lifetime. You really can’t appreciate how visceral this scene is without seeing it, so even if you have no interest in this movie, you must at least check out this sequence. It’s quite a marvel.
What’s my overall point with this article? Outside of just comparing two fight scenes in two different movies, it shows that you can find inspiration from the most unlikely source. John Carpenter, directing a sci-fi action movie with a famous wrestler in the starring role, wanted to create a monumental fight scene, and found the inspiration for this sequence in a 50’s John Wayne set in the Irish countryside. This truly displays the notion of, whether you are a filmmaker or just someone who loves to write about films, always be open to new experiences to expand your horizon and general knowledge of motion pictures. You never know what might have inspired that classic horror scene (or action, sci-fi, etc.) you have known and loved for years…it could be from a most unusual location.