Maureen O’Hara was John Wayne’s most frequent screen lady. They appeared in five films together, three of which were directed by John Ford: Rio Grande,” The Quiet Man,” and The Wings of Eagles.” The chemistry between them worked so well that they were paired in two other films, McLintock!” and Big Jake.”
O’Hara was the kind of actress Ford liked, beautiful, sensuous, but also strong and fiery, thus able to stand up to Wayne’s heroes. Ford described her as a “man’s woman.” There was a special rapport between Wayne and O’Hara because they were similar: both could be earthy but also elegant and refined, when needed.
At the center of each of their five films is a conflict between Wayne’s commitment to his career and his marital or familial responsibilities. In most films, O’Hara has to accept her place in his world and to put his interests before her own. But her heroines are not completely submissive and, despite conflict and resolution to his advantage, Wayne has to accommodate, too.
Lieutenant Colonel Kirby York in Rio Grande” is a man who puts duty before love. During the Civil War, he followed orders to set his wife’s plantation on fire, for which she has never forgiven him. After a separation of fifteen years, they meet when she comes to his camp to reclaim their son Jeff, who becomes the battleground between them. She resents Wayne’ pride and stubbornness, though, at least to some degree, she possesses the same traits.
Their conflict is summed up, when she drinks to “My only rival: the U.S. Cavalry.” At the end, however, she understands Wayne’s commitment to his career and accepts their son’s choice of a similar, military way of life.
In The Quiet Man,” Wayne’s ex-prizefighter returns to Ireland to settle down. The conflict between him and O’Hara is over her dowry, which she insists on recovering from her brother–but the whole issue seems unimportant to him. “In characteristic American fashion,” the critic Molly Haskell has interpreted their conflict, “he feels his masculinity and ability to provide for her impugned, until she finally makes him understand that it is not the money, but what it stands for: the dowry and furniture are her identity, her independence.” The furniture is part of her personality, “like a maiden name,” and the money enables her not to be completely “absorbed” by him.
Indeed, when she finally recovers the money, she throws it into a furnace.
O’Hara resents the demands made on her husband, Frank “Spig” Wead, in The Wings of Eagles.” Unable to cope with his frequent transfers, in line with his duty, she hopes he will be thrown out of the Navy. But it doesn’t happen and they separate. Wayne becomes so estranged from his two daughters that when he comes to visit them they don’t recognize him. Reconciliation between them is achieved, but it is short-lived, she refuses to submerge herself into his career. The motives for her behavior are not very clearly described, though there are suggestions that she might have taken to drink and neglected her children. Of all their mutual films, in this one their relationship is the weakest because O’Hara’s role is much less developed than Wayne’s–the focus of the narrative.
In McLintock!” O’Hara leaves Wayne, suspecting he has been unfaithful to her. They meet when she comes to ask him for a divorce and custody of their daughter,
a college student in the East. At the film’s climax, he chases O’Hara through town, then takes her over his knees and spanks her. But instead of resisting, she throws herself into his arms!
In Big Jake,” their last film together, O’Hara also leaves Wayne, insisting she has no husband. She suspects, as in McLintock!” that Wayne has shown too much interest in other women. However, reconciliation is managed, when she realizes he is the only man capable of getting back their kidnapped grandson.
In all their films, Wayne displays great emotional attachment when he first sees O’Hara, always complimenting her and behaving like a gentlemanin accordance with his bourgeois ethics. In Rio Grande,” he compliments her for being “a fine figure of a woman,” and it is clear that he is still passionately in love with her. And in Big Jake,” when Wayne meets O’Hara at the train station, he tells her, “you’re as young and as lovely as ever.” He further demonstrates that he remembers to the month and the day the length of their separation!