Troubles so bad
As I exclusively revealed in my last blog, I am from Northern Ireland. Very often when meeting people for the first time (and usually after having to explain to them that I’m not Scottish), I am asked what I think about “you know, the whole Northern Ireland thing”. This is a very difficult question to answer. Indeed, this is definitely a more difficult question to answer than “what sort of music do you like?” or “what’s your favourite film?” which are both very, very difficult questions to answer. It is no coincidence, let me tell you, that the one line of poetry that every single person in Northern Ireland knows off by heart is “whatever you say, say nothing”, from local bard Seamus Heaney’s poem of the same name.
The Troubles (the official name of “the whole Northern Ireland thing”) was a deadly civil conflict that raged in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998, and which was the source of a prolonged terror campaign in England during the same period. It was a conflict made all the more deadly by its complexity, borne as it was of religious, political, social and historical divides, and its effects are still felt to this day through ongoing sectarian segregation and violence. In my opinion there is no such thing as a definitive account of The Troubles, and you’re certainly not going to get one here, as this is just a film blog, innit?
What I don’t mind telling you is that growing up in Northern Ireland through the 1980s, up to the Good Friday ceasefire agreement in 1998, and beyond, was a very confusing, and sometimes a very frightening experience. Even if you didn’t live in a major flashpoint like Derry or Belfast (and I didn’t) your daily life was still bound to be tainted by The Troubles, as it seeped into every corner of Northern Irish society. It would predictably make its way onto cinema screens, too, and films about The Troubles make up a peculiar subgenre in British (and to a lesser extent, American) cinema. The pitfalls risked by attempting to capture the essence of such a grave and bitter dispute in a single film are innumerable, and many that attempted to do so were misguided, misinformed and ill-intentioned enough to fall far and spectacularly. There are a handful of fine films on the subject, however, and seeking out the best ones can offer much insight into the situation.
When you come from a small country, you can’t help but be drawn to films set in that country (why else do you think all Welsh people have seen Twin Town), and as a result of this compulsion, I have seen every film about Northern Ireland I can get my hands on. Not all of them are about The Troubles (the “hilarious” The Most Fertile Man in Ireland, starring Kris Marshall from the BT ads, being one exception), but of the remaining 99.999% that are, I have selected eight noteworthy efforts. Some are excellent (and even great films in their own right!) and some are excrement. But all provide a snapshot of varying depth and clarity of a tragic time and turbulent place in modern history.
Odd Man Out (1947) – Not technically a film about The Troubles, being set in the 40s, but it’s about the troubles before The Troubles, so we’ll count it anyway. And if that seems quite vague, then it only serves to match this film. Future Third Man director Carol Reed helms this tale about the leader of a politico-criminal organisation that is blatantly meant to be the IRA (it is never referred to by name), who is critically wounded during a botched bank job, and left to find his way home through the dark, dangerous streets of post-war Belfast. Along the way he encounters all manner of holy flotsam and sinister jetsam as his journey turns into an ever more surreal odyssey and the net of the ruthless Ulster constabulary tightens.
Odd Man Out is a fine, if uneven, film, and although it can’t quite stand comparison to the sublime Third Man (which appeared two years later), it does at least share a dash of its magic. Reed creates an atmosphere as haunting and enshrouding for Belfast (including a beautiful studio recreation of the city’s famous Crown Bar) as he would do for Vienna in his later film, but while The Third Man is famously taut and compelling, here the story lacks the same punch. In fact there isn’t too much of a story, as the majority of the film concerns little other than lead actor James Mason staggering around in an ever worsening state of disarray.
Ah, James Mason. It is important when considering any film concerning Northern Ireland where the lead is not played by a native Irishman to carry out some accent authenticity assessment, and sadly James Mason is just too James Mason-y to carry it off (but that’s ok because he is wonderfully windy old James Mason, after all). Actual Irishmen Cyril Cusack and Wilfred “Steptoe” Brambell also appear, as does original Doctor Who William Hartnell, but the most electrifying appearance made in the entire film is by a rag-tag group of real street urchins, whose rough hewn Belfast accents sound startlingly raw in contrast to the rest of the cast.
Politically, Reed never truly nails his colours to the mast, although the film did attract a lot of negative criticism at the time for portraying a criminal, and an Irish revolutionary to boot, in a sympathetic light. Despite its failure to shed too much literal light on the situation at the time, it does effectively capture a creeping sense of dread, and Odd Man Out can still be highly recommended as a shadowy slice of British noir with a burning fever.
Hennessy (1975) – The Troubles were but seven years old when schlockmeisters extraordinaire American International Pictures (erstwhile home of Roger Corman) decided that what such a sensitive situation really needed was a storming action yarn made about it, and preferably one involving an explosive plot to blow up none other the Queen of England.
Rod Steiger stars as the Hennessy of the title, a Belfast demolitions expert and former IRA man (he obviously didn’t put that on his CV when he applied for the position), who plots revenge after his wife and daughter are killed by British soldiers during a riot. Heading off to the mainland, the film cranks up the tension effectively, as Hennessy draws closer to planting a great big bomb under his regal folly, and casts his net wide enough to include a few members of the House of Lords for good measure.
As hair-brained as Hennessy is (the film, not the character, although he is obviously a bit bonkers) it does serve up some not inconsiderable thrills, but ultimately ends up generating infinitely more heat than light. One aspect that does attract special interest, however, is the subplot involving Hennessy’s former IRA partners who actually set out to stop him from blowing up the monarch, anxious that his actions could lead to a greater influx of British soldiers into Belfast.
One of the great character actors, Steiger fares well on the accent front, although he did turn in some below par Southern patter as an Irish Indian (oh, yes) in Samuel Fuller’s superb western Run of the Arrow some years earlier. Journeyman Don Sharp delivers easily the best film of his career, and the nowadays scarcely seen Hennessy deserves more exposure than the same director’s overseen zombie biker B-movie bonanza Psychomania (come on, it’s not that funny). I suppose some people may say that such a lurid action-packed film about a maniacal terrorist would be a little too raw these days, but why now any more than then? And do I need to remind you that this was made with American money?
Cal (1984) – The first film about The Troubles to receive widespread attention, Cal would inform many later entries in the genre with a series of soon tiresome clichés. It concerns a Boyish Irish Freedom Fighter with a Conscience (named Cal, pronounced “Kyall” by the locals), pressurised into aiding “the cause” through violent crime (in this case the murder of an RUC policeman) despite the despairing disapproval of his downtrodden but decent “da”. Cal then embarks on a redemptive affair™ with his victim’s widow, who of course doesn’t yet know he was complicit in the killing of her husband. This is all set to some moody panpipe music, and the countryside looks all windswept and gorgeous.
As dumb and melodramatic as Cal can sometimes be (the film, not the character, although he is obviously a bit confused), it does touch on some relevant issues. Rather than being set exclusively in Belfast (like the vast majority of Troubles films), it takes place in a predominantly Protestant backwater town, where Cal and his family live sheepishly in the shadows of boorish Loyalist thugs and Orange Marches, credibly demonstrating that the battlefield extended far beyond the council estates of the capital. It also deserves a big round of applause for being the first of our films to be not only directed by an Irishman (Pat O’Connor, you wouldn’t have guessed he was Irish, would you) but also to feature an authentic Ulsterman in the lead role; step forward John Lynch, who was to become omnipresent in films about The Troubles, and later played both Bobby Sands and George Best just to prove how fucking Northern Irish he is. His bereaved lover, incidentally, is played by Helen Mirren, before she became the most famous woman in the world.
Cal used to be quite a well-known film, but is now rather forgotten, and does feel particularly dated (Mark Knopfler, on a high from Local Hero the year before, wanks all over the soundtrack). It’s far from a classic, but for anyone looking for a pleasing, if rather predictable, middlebrow drama of relative historical and political relevance (and aren’t we all?) you could do worse than give it a look.
A Prayer for the Dying (1987) – Hennessy is a bit stoopid, but it is kind of supposed to be. A Prayer for the Dying has no excuse. Almost everyone involved in the making of this film should have known better, from director Mike Hodges (who, admittedly, has spent the whole of his post Get Carter career spectacularly proving that he DOESN’T know any better) to a young Liam Neeson, making an early film appearance. I say almost everyone, as the lead is played by the Morrisons own brand Marlon Brando, Mickey Rourke, who would tastelessly and tactlessly donate his fee from a later film to the Provisional IRA. He does a good Northern Irish accent, mind.
Rourke plays a Boyish Irish Freedom Fighter with a Conscience (although it is a hard won conscience, manifesting only after he has blown up an entire busload of schoolchildren) who loses his heart for the killing that comes with the job, and makes his way to the mainland to get a hooky passport and flee. Outrageously camp crime boss Alan Bates refuses to grant Rourke his desired document until he does one last bit of killing for him, but concerned cockney priest Bob Hoskins is determined to lead our hero back onto the “strate an’ narrahh”. Little more than a ham-fisted potboiler, A Prayer for the Dying starts to lose it when Rourke begins a redemptive affair™ with Hoskins’ blind, organ-playing niece, and really, really starts to lose it when Father Bob disrobes to reveal himself as an ex-SAS man and begins busting heads accordingly. Any designs on it being an engaging, insightful thriller are long forgotten by the time the ludicrous finale rolls into view, with Rourke racing against time to rescue Hoskins and his love, both tied to a ticking time-bomb atop the parish tower.
A Prayer for the Dying is so dementedly absurd in places that it is almost funny. It’s hard to laugh, however, when bearing in mind that it was released in the same year of the Enniskillen bomb, a terrible tragedy that cost the lives of eleven Remembrance Sunday mourners. With the reality of the situation so grim, it doesn’t exactly lend itself comfortably to this sort of macho dross and A Prayer for the Dying ends up looking a silly, sorry mess
The Crying Game (1992) – If the aforementioned John Lynch is the Al Pacino of films about The Troubles, then Neil Jordan is the Scorsese and Stephen Rea the De Niro.
Jordan (one of the most criminally underrated directors of the last thirty years) made his debut film Angel in 1982. A haunting, existential piece, it was set against the backdrop of The Troubles, and carried ghostly echoes of the horrific Miami Showband murders, an infamous incident from the 1970s in which a touring pop group were executed by paramilitaries. That film marked the debut appearance of the charismatic Belfast-born Rea in a leading role, and ten years later the pair would regroup (having worked on the spellbinding horror-fantasy The Company of Wolves together in the interim) to tackle The Troubles once more, and in a similarly askew fashion.
In The Crying Game, Rea plays Fergus, a member of the IRA who abducts British soldier Jody (Forest Whitaker) and holds him hostage. During their time together, the two men guardedly bond, and Fergus promises Jody he will seek out and protect his beautiful girlfriend in London, if the soldier is to be executed. Come the day of the execution, Fergus allows Jody to run free, but watches in horror as he is knocked down and killed by a British army van. Fergus then makes a break from the IRA and begins living under an assumed identity in London, where he and Jody’s girlfriend begin a complex relationship, and where the past may yet come back to haunt him.
But that’s not all, The Crying Game boasts a twist of Wicker Man proportions, and although I’m sure everyone knows what that is by now, I have gotten into a nasty habit of revealing twists and endings, so I’m going to refrain from doing so here. What I will say, however, is that it is a twist that was so stunning in its verve and originality (and this was a time before almost every film came equipped with some kind of hackneyed twist element) that it carried The Crying Game to, first worldwide infamy, then just plain old famy, as it ended up being nominated for a raft of Oscars. It is also a twist that befits a film that so unflinchingly serves up such a heady stew of sex, longing, loyalty, hate, trust and death. Jordan presents The Troubles as a series of wearing and heart-wrenching inter-locking personal conflicts and this superb drama is bolstered by a full-deck of first class performances from Rea, Whitaker, Miranda Richardson, Ralph Brown, Jim Broadbent and Derek Jarman discovery Jaye Davidson, who excels in a role which I can’t elaborate on, but one which no less an authority than Stanley Kubrick said could never be successfully cast.
Jordan and Rea have made many more excellent films together, some immensely popular (Interview with the Vampire) others shamefully overlooked (The Butcher Boy. Please seek this out if you haven’t seen it, it is fucking amazing). Jordan would also direct Rea in the Irish Nationalist epic Michael Collins (popular) in 1996, and the two would collaborate on another perverse tale of The Troubles, Breakfast on Pluto (overlooked, perhaps deservedly) in 2005
Blown Away (1994) – Following that welcome detour into high quality filmmaking, we find ourselves firmly back on Hennessy territory. Throughout the 80s, and into the 90s, Hollywood began to recognise and shamelessly use The Troubles as a rich pool from which a new breed of credible movie villain could be sourced. The Rogue Irish Freedom Fighter began to make an appearance in a series of blockbusters, and was generally played by Sean Bean (Patriot Games, Ronin), cos he’s from Sheffield and that’s close enough. Appropriately enough, the Rogue Irish Freedom Fighter would often be the nemesis of the Morally Confused Irish-American Cop, and yawn inducing cat and mouse style antics would ensue with a generous side portion of begrudging mutual respect.
Blown Away is such an effort, but apparently one written by the sort of person who must have taken Hennessy to be a low-key realist drama. Our Rogue Irish Freedom Fighter is played here by Tommy Lee Jones (slumming it big time, as always), whose Irish accent is so laughable, so comically inept, so blarney-mongously bad that you swear he is just doing it for a laugh, or at least auditioning for a Lucky Charms advert. In fact it’s so bad it has just caused my Irish Accent-o-meter to go into meltdown. IRA explosives specialist TLJ has just escaped from the wonderfully named Castle Gleigh prison in Northern Ireland (sadly, it doesn’t exist), by blowing it up with a bomb made of blood, wool and bits of toilet (how very A-Team!), and has made his way to Boston, home to millions of theme pub frequenting Irish Americans. One of these lovely Irish Americans happens to be Jeff Bridges, who also happens to be the head of the surprisingly overworked Boston Bomb Squad. I mean, those guys are on the job all the time (when have you ever heard of a bomb in Boston?), so when TLJ arrives and starts blowing shit up left, right and centre, they’re putting in some serious additional hours.
Blown Away doesn’t register quite as highly as A Prayer for the Dying in the tasteless stakes as it never attempts to sentimentalise the actions of a mass murderer in quite the same way. It’s also one of the most fucking mental mainstream action films ever made, and is thus rather enjoyable. By the time it blusters to its conclusion, you’ll have even heard a worse attempt at an Irish accent than TLJ’s by Jeff Bridges’ real life “da” Lloyd Bridges, who plays Jeff Bridges fictional “da” in this film (any film that asks you to take the star of Airplane! and Hot Shots seriously is asking for trouble). The scene in which TLJ straps Lloyd Bridges to a funfair merry-go-round and blows him up whilst CRYING maniacally is surely the most surreal moment in action film history. There’s also a wonderful moment where someone introduces TLJ (that’s getting annoying, isn’t it?) to the music of U2 (he’s never heard of them, despite being Irish), and he decides he rather likes it. This has got to be the goofiest movie ever made about terrorism.
Tahp o’ de mornin’ to ye, Blown Away, ya big eejit ye.
The Devil’s Own (1997) – A year before peace was finally declared in Northern Ireland, another film concerning the activities of an IRA man in America appeared. Completely devoid of the warped sheen of Blown Away, however, The Devil’s Own really did appear to be attempting to sentimentalise and justify the actions of a mass murderer, and more so than A Prayer for the Dying, even. The film was duly taken up for this, creating a minor yet notable controversy, and has since been completely disowned by one of its stars.
Brad Pitt stars as Boyish Rogue Irish Freedom Fighter Frankie McGuire, who has no need of a conscience at all as he saw his “da” shot by “the British” as a child. After single-handedly slaughtering half the British army in a ludicrous gun battle in the Uilleann pipe sountracked, Aran sweater clad wonderland of Northern Ireland, McGuire hot foots it to New York where he adopts an assumed identity and moves into the spare room in the family home of Morally Confused Irish American Cop, Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford). The two soon begin a redemptive affair™… Only joking! O’Meara soon bonds with his lodger (although it is never actually explained exactly why he is staying with him. He’s a grown man, he could stay in a hotel) and becomes his surrogate downtrodden but decent “da” whilst that bloody pipe music keeps playing every time they talk about the “auld” country. When O’Meara eventually finds out that his young charge is actually a wanted terrorist who has come to America to buy an entire shipment of missiles (this is an American film, after all) to take back to Northern Ireland and blow folk up with, what do you think he does? Does he A) do his job and report this dangerous fellow to the authorities? Or does he B) sympathise with him completely and help him to evade capture from the villainous British security forces (who appear to be modelled on the Nazis from The Sound of Music), all the while justifying his actions by making dubious statements along the lines of “gee, if I’d seen my dad get shot by them British, I’d be in the IRA too!”? It’s B, by the way.
The Devil’s Own presents such a pig-ignorant, knuckleheaded, oversimplified view of the Northern Ireland situation that it is an angering experience to have to watch it. Even the Irish people whom it seeks to lament are presented in an intensely patronising fashion as simple, noble savages and redheaded maidens. It also seeks to present The Troubles as a morally straightforward battle between said savages and maidens and the callous, bullying British, and so in which case, it ultimately suggests that terrorism is a perfectly legitimate action! Coming out at a time when the peace process was finally beginning to grind into action, nobody welcomed The Devil’s Own with any enthusiasm at all, and it quickly became what it remains to this day, a relic from a time when certain factions in America believed it was acceptable to support certain terrorist organisations engaged in situations that they didn’t even bother to try and understand, simply because they had some tenuous ancestral connection. To his credit, Brad Pitt denounced the film upon its release, calling it deeply irresponsible. Although this smacks a little of him covering his famously coveted ass (why agree to do it in the first place? And don’t mention script changes), it was decent of him to take a stand against this sort of odious romanticised rubbish.
It would be impossible to imagine an American studio green-lighting a film like The Devil’s Own today. Ever since 9/11 the vast majority in the American media have been attempting to sell us the idea that terrorism began in 2001. They conveniently forget, however, that many British and Irish people lived under its dark shadow for decades. The Devil’s Own is a slap in the face to them all.
Incidentally, Brad Pitt’s accent is shit.
Resurrection Man (1998) – As we come to our last film, you may well be thinking, how come we’ve only had films about the IRA so far? Where are the films about the Protestant Loyalist terrorist groups? Well, needless to say, that kind of film is thin on the ground. For various reasons, perhaps, the Loyalist cause has never appealed to quite so many people (how many floppy fringed fops do you know who support Rangers as opposed to Celtic? Exactly), and groups on that side of the divide (UVF, UDA, UFF etc.) are normally restricted to bit part roles in Troubles films, if they get anything at all. Notably, infighting Loyalist gangsters were the focus of the barely seen 1995 drama Nothing Personal, and inept Loyalist terrorists were the butt of some juicy jokes in the 1998 film of Colin Bateman’s novel, Divorcing Jack. Other than that, it would appear that the British army make better baddies, and that the IRA makes better goodies and baddies.
Resurrection Man is not quite about a Loyalist terrorist group, rather it is a film based on the activities of an infamous gang of murderers affiliated with the UVF. The Shankhill Butchers lived in and operated out of the Loyalist stronghold area surrounding The Shankhill Road in Belfast. In the early 70s the gang, headed by UVF member Lenny Murphy, began abducting Catholic civilians off the streets at random, subjecting them to brutal and extreme forms of torture, before subsequently murdering them. The Butchers quickly gained fame and notoriety and, initially at least, their activities were encouraged by some Loyalist terrorist groups. It soon became apparent, however, that sheer bloodlust was their only motivation, and they began murdering Protestants as well as Catholics. When the eleven members of the gang were eventually tried for their deeds in 1979 they were convicted for a total of 19 murders between them, and the 42 life sentences handed out were the most ever in a single trial in British criminal history. Every single person in Northern Ireland knows the story of The Shankhill Butchers, and all but a miniscule minority of the most poisoned of mind are appalled and sickened to this day by their actions; truly the very epitome of evil.
This sort of subject matter is very difficult to make into a film, and even though it buys itself some valuable artistic license through only being “based on” The Shankhill Butchers, Resurrection Man still fails at the task in hand. The film is so concerned with flashy, fast paced editing and trying to capture an authentic 70s feel, that it gets distracted and starts to feel like it is grimly, gleefully and gratuitously relishing in the disturbing acts of violence on display. This is not helped at all by lead player Stuart Townsend’s performance as the would be Lenny Murphy character, which is the worst possible example of someone trying to do “sexy psycho”, and is neither sufficiently studied nor appropriate. Surprisingly, cuddly telly faves James Nesbitt and John Hannah fare better in supporting roles, but it’s not nearly enough to redeem this suspect mess of a film, which gets docked further points for not even being filmed in Belfast.
That’s not to say Resurrection Man couldn’t have been a worthwhile film, however. The events of the period are both harrowing and a continuing source of shame, but the point that sadistic violence will always flourish in places of political flux and civil unrest is definitely one worth investigating further.
So, there you have it. Eight films that are, at least in one way or another, about a tiny Western European country of 1.7m people. Not too many countries of that size can boast having quite so many films made about them, but then not too many countries of that size (at least not ones in Western Europe) have had to go through thirty years of turmoil to be so lamented. As it appears we have finally found our feet on the road to lasting peace (albeit with a considerable way yet to go) one wonders what the future will hold for films about The Troubles, and the early signs are very encouraging. With the dust of the dispute beginning to settle, filmmakers driven by their own personal experience of the struggle, as opposed to just salacious supposition, are getting deservedly warm responses to their inevitably very sad, yet sober and considered films about The Troubles’ defining events. Eponymous films concerning Omagh and Bloody Sunday have been released in recent years, and there are surely more to follow.
Of the films I left off my list, there are some worth comment. Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father is perhaps the most glaring omission, and is a fine, passionate film about the wrongful imprisonment of the Guildford four. 1996’s obscure mental sci-fi allegory The Eliminator (featuring a zombified St. Patrick!) is definitely the least glaring omission, and is long overdue a release on DVD, video, Betamax or something as it’s never been properly released!
Funnily enough, The Crying Game aside, I have left the two best films ever made about Northern Ireland off the list. The films are Elephant (1989) and Hidden Agenda (1990), and are directed by the two great socialist mavericks of British cinema, the sadly departed Alan Clarke and the irrepressible Ken Loach, respectively. Hidden Agenda is about police corruption and political conspiracy, whilst Elephant is about the senselessness of sectarian violence (Clarke’s earlier Contact, an eerie account of a nighttime border patrol, is also exceptional, but very hard to find). You don’t need me to prattle on about them, I simply urge you to see them both and understand Northern Ireland the better for it.