AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
IDYLL AND IDEOLOGY IN IRISH CINEMA
by Harlan Kennedy
for the Irish!" The cry has echoed across the land for 800 years, and
for most of this century it has reechoed on the cinema screen. But just whom, in the country's ceaseless struggle for political
and spiritual selfhood, does Ireland
belong to? And which Ireland
are we talking about? North/South? Present/past? Real/mythical?
Ask the average moviegoer to
free-associate about Ireland
and the tape of memory/archetype would yield a semi-coherent printout:
leprechauns, terrorists, Maureen O'Hara, mackerel skies, shamrocks, Darby O'Gill, John Ford, Black and Tans, curly-smoked thatched
cottages. This Ireland
is not so much a country as some auctioneer's dream from the Great
Iconographic Unconscious – a pixillated,
trouble-wracked land not only politically and culturally but also in its
artistic identity. It remains so, despite the fact that honest-to-God Irish
filmmakers have begun to be heard from in recent times, and the schematic has
been enlarged to encompass Stephen Rea, Gabriel Byrne, Brenda
Fricker, the Commitments and the Snapper, and
various tortured/exultant faces of Daniel Day-Lewis.
a land at all, in the sense of a self-determining country and culture, or is
it a product of everyone else's perceptions? And if "Ireland"
is misty, what can we make out when we attempt to sight Irish cinema? Neil (The
Crying Game) Jordan, Jim (My Left Foot, The Field, In the Name of the Father) Sheridan,
Pat (Cal, Fools of Fortune) O'Connor ...and who else? Hollywood has
embraced the foregoing artists, even waved an Oscar
or six at their most successful, breakout films. But on the whole Irish
cinema remains, with heartbreaking economic inevitability, a cottage
industry, its heroes and heroines unsung.
Yet movies about Ireland
– wherever and by whomever made – are one of cinema's
richest seams. It secretes the emerald-green romanticism of The Quiet Man and
Ryan's Daughter, the agitprop expressionism of The Informer and
Odd Man Out, the dying-fall beauties of John Huston's The Dead. "Irish
cinema" accommodates the almost Irish (Sean O'Feeney
that was), the distantly Irish (Ron Howard), the fancifully Irish (Huston),
the propagandistically Irish (Ken Loach), and all those filmmakers who have
wrestled from outside Ireland
with the dozen different Irelands
of movie tradition.
The wildly capricious resonance
for the Irish" has its roots in political history. Centuries of resented
British occupation ended notionally in 1921 with a partition treaty dividing Eire
from Ulster. Ireland's
Protestant-dominated North-Eastern corner then bowed alone to the British
Parliament while largely Catholic Eire (four-fifths of
the landmass) sat back to enjoy self-government and renounce further
territorial claims. Or so went the theory. In point of fact, Eire's less
enchanted citizens, the Irish Republic Army, continued and continue to hack
at Britain's remaining handhold on the island; Britain maintains 20,000
troops in Ulster; that province's own heavies, the Ulster Defence Regiment (legal) and Ulster Freedom Fighters
(illegal), try to match the IRA in violence; bombings, shootings, torchings
make the international news.
Is this a political feud or a
religious one? A fight about territory and temporal advantage, or a playoff
between the ancestral sanctity of Catholicism – ah! the keening music of
eternity in the voices of Monsignor Cecil Kellaway
and Father Barry Fitzgerald – and the ancestral opportunism of British
Protestantism, born out of Henry VIII's short
marital attention span?
No one can be surprised, then,
if each subgenre of cinema about Ireland
has its own built-in weather system of paradoxes. Romantic movies from The
Quiet Man to Far and Away hint at a never-never Golden Age, a time
of simple pastoral integrity, Church-blessed community spirit, heroic faith
in the Irish Struggle. Yet these films' views of "Irishness"
– in the picturebook villages and faery folklore, in the gnarled quaintness of characters
played by Fitzgerald/John
Mills/Cyril Cusack – can seem no less patronizing
and oppressive than the collar-and-lead colonialism long exercised by
Britain. Stepan O'Fetchit,
At the other extreme,
modern-dress movies like Tony Luraschi's The Outsider, Mike Hodges' A Prayer for the Dying, and Ken Loach's Hidden
Agenda purport to present a real, contemporary Ireland
while effectively reducing it to a traffic snarl-up of faceless ideologues
wielding guns, balaclavas, and gritty one-liners.
Colonialism is not just a
matter of alien army-boots stomping across the natives' frontyards.
There is annexation by art and thought, foreign rule by the presumption of
other people's fiction and faction. The best Irish film of modern times,
Neil Jordan's The Crying Game,
found something to say about the country by leaving it in the second reel. Jordan
took his Irish hero (Stephen Rea) to London,
where both the crudely magnified "certainties" of the Irish
Struggle and the garishly incongruous romanticism of the Irish landscape (IRA
hideout as Celtic Sherwood Forest) dissolved and
re-formed in a caustic city of nondenominational discontent and psychosexual
film suggests that Ireland
became a two-headed myth so strong – a land twinning picturebook
atavism with newsreel shockwaves – that only by fleeing both can one survive
to look back anew. Even then, success isn't assured, or disengaged
objectivity guaranteed. The two-headed beast – seductive anima Miranda Richardson,
brute animus Adrian Dunbar – pursues the hero all the way to Spitalfields for a grisly showdown. In the same way, the
Irish struggle spills over from Belfast
into mainland British lives, putting a bomb under all our comfortable
prejudices and arm’s-length perspectives.
however adversarial they seem, the Ireland
of the Gibraltar killings, of the Enniskillen
massacre, of Hidden Agenda is
profoundly, if perversely, symbiotic with the Ireland
of John Ford and Ron Howard. If idyll and ideology are opposites, they are
magnetic, coexistent ones. Ford himself knew this intuitively. The Quiet Man and The Informer are flipsides of the same record. The Informer ('35) has an antihero,
Victor McLaglen's Gypo
Nolan, whose dismissal from the IRA leads, through a combination of
socio-economic desperation and dimwittedness, to his informing on a best
friend wanted for political murder. Set in 1921 before partition, the movie
creates a metaphor for political turmoil out of the fog rolling through
Ford's studio-wrought Dublin; the
clear-aired rural Ireland
of The Quiet Man is present by its
absence. The Informer's tortured negatives
– no color, no sky, no love story, no pastoral images, no
family life – could be used to print all the positives found in the later
The Quiet Man ('52), in turn,
is an idyll defined and made piquant by the opposites that threaten it. The
"Troubles" crowd sardonically round the film's edges. We're told
that the odd chap in jodhpurs, beret, and Hitler Youth-style getup belongs to
the IRA; John Wayne's elfin pal Barry Fitzgerald serenades a "nice soft
night" by saying, "I think I'll go and join me friends and talk a
little treason"; and Victor McLaglen's
land-hungry squire clearly suggests a member of the Anglo-Irish
"Ascendancy" (McLaglen himself was
English-born) eternally at odds with the natives.
Though The Quiet Man also has the standard stage-Irish trimmings –
thatched cottages, tippling locals, feisty red-haired heroine (Maureen
O'Hara) – Ford is not uncritical of them. Part of his film's argument is that
this "Oirish" vision derives from an
outsider American's viewpoint – not just the title character's
but, by implication, Ford's own as director. "Only an American would
have thought of emerald green!" coos the Protestant vicar's wife
sarcastically on sighting Wayne's
newly painted woodwork. And when O'Hara comes upon Wayne
planting flowers, she spoofs his impractical romanticism: "Roses? Fine
farmer you are. Not a cabbage or a potato ....
A darker, more confrontational
tradition in outlanders' Irish cinema spun off from Ford's selfconsciously Expressionist The Informer: Carol Reed's Odd
Man Out ('47), Basil Dearden's The Gentle Gunman ('52, with John Mills as
a tormented IRA defector), and Tay Garnett's A Terrible Beauty, aka
The Night Fighters ('60, with
Robert Mitchum as ditto). This subgenre pays lip
service to the angular verismo of newsreel
"truth" while creating a cinema arguably more artificial than the
slow-rolling pastoralism of Quiet Man or Ryan's
Daughter, or even of remoter costume pieces like Barry Lyndon and Far and
Odd Man Out, which in cinema about Ireland
has become a classic almost as impregnable as The Informer, focuses still further the conundrums of myth vs.
reality. We could ask what is the difference between an American (Ford in The Quiet Man) coming to rural Ireland
to turn the country into a bucolic pipe-dream, and an Englishman (Carol Reed
in Odd Man Out) coming to Belfast
to turn it into a Doomsday film noir? Both impose predesigned visions on a country. The difference is that
Reed presents his vision as reality – with an Expressionist skew for extra
emotional "truth" – while Ford has an alter ego hero through whom
he admits that foreigners bring
their own colored lenses, their own sentimental lies, to the unfamiliar land.
Ryan's Daughter ('70) may be the
cinema's richest summation of this confused traffic. The project began with a
politically programmatic screenplay by Robert Bolt, a story about an English
army officer (Christopher Jones) romancing an Irish girl (Sarah Miles, Mrs.
Bolt) married to a gentle schoolmaster (Robert Mitchum).
In this Hibernian Romeo and Juliet, the Capulets and Montagues
become the Brits and the Irish, and the romance is overshadowed by a
thunderous plot about arms shipments and pre-Easter Rising discontent. At the
same time, Bolt's village priest (Trevor Howard) is a battered spiritual
referee, God's aging whistleblower in a Catholic community where every human
action can have an equal and unpredictable divine reaction.
But the perverse élan of the
Lean-Bolt partnership lies in the extent to which the parties pull in
different directions. Once behind the camera, Lean swamps both politics and
religion with epic pastoralism. Who now remembers
anything about Anglo-Irish historical tensions or church-and-people
ruminations? In memory's eye the film is three hours of fervent Celtic skies,
foaming seascapes, lyric ribbons of sand, Brueghelesque
villages, and vernal woodlands burgeoning with sperm and spring.
Ryan's Daughter also
marks a turning point in the history of movies about Ireland.
Before it, a sort of frontier existed between the Political Movie (The
Informer, Odd Man Out, et al.) and the Bucolic Movie (The Quiet Man,
Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Young Cassidy, Finian's Rainbow...). After it, as if prompted by its
loony enactment of every operatic excess Irish film fiction could aspire to,
the best "Irish" movies were those in which pastoral and political
motifs were sophisticatedly intertwined, and Ireland
became a place in which the ominous is at one with the idyllic.
"Terrible beauty" now describes Ireland's
uniqueness as a battle zone. Hills and hedgerows, dunes and seashores,
sun-lanced forests are the camouflage of everyday terror. And in Barry
Lyndon ('75), Stanley Kubrick's seemingly Toubles-free
Thackeray epic, an allegory of modern political anguish is embedded in an
early 19th century road movie.
best modern movies about Ireland
all approach their subject obliquely, emblematically. In Jordan's
Danny Boy, '82), the tale of a nightclub musician (Stephen Rea) hunting
the killer of the band's manager zigzags across an Ireland
alive with nondenominational menace as well as with the labelled
agitators of the Conflict. In the same director's The Miracle ('91), two
youngsters act out a divided love story that plays riffs on motherland/motherhood
(beguiling "older woman" Beverly D'Angelo
eventually revealed as the boy's long-lost ma) and on Ireland as a place of
muscular vagabond folklore (the girl takes up with a circus strongman). And Gillies MacKinnon's The Playboys ('92) is a Hardyesque comedy-romance in which Irish village girl
Robin Wright must choose between the lithe, imaginative values of a folkloric
Ould Ireland (traveling player Aidan Quinn) and
the bullnecked authority of the oppressive Anglo-Irish status quo (Albert
Finney, Irish-accented but trailing clouds of orotund theatric Britishness).
While fable edges out lecture
in today's best movies about Ireland,
the worst are unmasked by their determined clinging to the old adversarial
pattern: dark-toned docu(melo)drama steeped in political
Sturm and Drang vs. escapist essays in timeless pastoralism.
Into the first basket we can drop Loach's Hidden
Agenda ('90), whose agitprop crudities reduce Ireland
to a standoff between tweedy Brits plotting in smoke-filled rooms and virile Micks singing treason in smoke-filled pubs. Into the
other basket goes Peter Chelsom's Hear My Song
('91), wherein Ireland is a land of un-Troubled comic opera quaintness
chockablock with funny old castles, funny old cows, and funny old tenor
Even Neil Jordan did his bit
for Funny Old Ireland
with High Spirits ('88). A busload of Americans
descend on Lord Peter O'Toole and his open-for-visitors haunted
castle, bringing stereotyped Yankee crassness to Irish bibulous guile. The
movie reeks of let's-find-an-international-market-for-this-Celtic-twaddle,
not least in the wholesale importing of U. S.
stars Beverly D'Angelo, Daryl Hannah, and the
ineffable Steve Guttenberg. But
then this casting trend has become epidemic. See Forest Whitaker in The Crying
Game, Wright and Quinn in The Playboys, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Fools of Fortune (at least she's
Mrs. Pat O'Connor), Tom Berenger in The Field, Mickey
Rourke and his Method Irish
accent in A Prayer for the Dying, Brad Dourif
and Frances McDormand in Hidden Agenda. It's
partly a bid to turn "Ireland
for the Irish" into "Ireland
for the world" to amplify the land's boxoffice
of American stars hints at something else, too: that "Irish-American"
is a more natural kinship than 'Anglo-American'; and that Ireland
is a cultural-spiritual halfway house between the U.K.
and the U.S.
The American seeking his roots in the Emerald Isle has become a leitmotif
going on a cliché, both in real life (R. Reagan revisiting the soil that had nurtured a future star, president,
and blarney expert) and in the movies. Irish American "homecomings"
provide the narrative kernel of a dozen Irish films. That same kernel, transplanted
to Hollywood, grew into the most
famous pop epic in history.
Gone With the Wind is
about an Irish family in the American South, one whose daughters may have
caught the Southern accent but whose father (Thomas Mitchell) preserves a peisick Hibernian brogue. This family enacts a four-hour
Irish mystery play incorporating every ancestral trope of Irish fiction, from
the possession and dispossession of land, to the sentimental power of
homecoming, to the terror of famine, to the melodramatic passion of Scarlett's relationship to the earth and what it brings
forth. If "Irish cinema" ever had to select its own logo, it would
surely be the image of Scarlett clutching that
turnip as the roiling Celtic sunset rhymes with the roiling furrows of the
the O'Haras of Tara, "Irish-American" has
other lustrous points of intersection with Hollywood cinema: Orson Welles' Wandering Irishman ("Me name's Moichael O'Hara") in The Lady from Shanghai; Clark
Gable failing to be Irish – or box-office – in Parnell; Spencer Tracy
failing not to be Irish in every film he ever made; James Cagney
showing a touch of the blarney is helpful when you take over organized, or
disorganized, crime in America cinema; and John Huston crowning his late
career with the only movie ever to do fit honor to James Joyce, The Dead.
The common "Irishness" in these farflung
ex-Pats, real or fanciful, is a kind of expansive or explosive primitivism.
It can be an old man seeing through wistful veils of elegy into the primal
energy of creation and disintegration (Huston/ Joyce). It can be a family
fighting for survival with fists and native wit (GWTW, Raoul Walsh's Gentleman Jim). Or
it can be the pugnacity of men like Cagney and
Tracy, wearing the rolled-up sleeves and rolled-down frowns of a race born on
the wrong side of the Irish Sea.
Indeed, "Irish" as a
movie flavor could be defined as anything that is not English. The classic
Englishman in world cinema is a product of (over)breeding: a paradigm of
repressed virtue (from Ronald Colman to Dirk Bogarde), or of suave, perfidious vice (from Basil Rathbone to Alan Rickman). The Irishman is broader in
voice and gesture, more tousled and spontaneous in thought and manners,
deeper in his tap roots to precivilization, closer
in touch with the mystical-poetic-atavistic. Even Catholicism, with its
2,000-year-old Bible-blessed pedigree, speaks loud for ancestral integrity,
far louder than a Church of England born 1,500 years later in a blaze of
These might seem clichés of
national description if Irish filmmakers themselves – at least, those who
have won exposure abroad – did not endorse them. Jim Sheridan's My Left
Foot ('89) and The Field ('91) present their Irish heroes
virtually as elemental forces. Daniel Day-Lewis' Christy Brown is an artist
at once cursed and blessed by living in a primitive, pre-articulate state.
The sign language of painting or the body language of gesture and tantrums
substitute for the (debased?) vocabulary of literate speech. And Richard
Harris' Lear-like village elder in The Field is a force of nature
growling out runic prophecies under a cloud of white hair.
These national differences are
not merely cosmetic. They underwrite the very conflict between Ireland
This is not just a feud between Catholics and Protestants or colonials and
colonizers. It's a faceoff between a land priding
itself on a tradition of large and passionate communion with man and nature –
Ireland as the world's Bard, its emblem the harp, its artists such cosmic
minstrels of the gab as Shaw, Yeats, and Joyce – and a land that nurtures the
narrower, more opportunist "virtues" of political expediency,
imperial control, cultural satrapy.
and Ireland, one could argue, even "lie"
differently. The first Irish film to enter history's hall of fame was Robert
Flaherty's Man of Aran ('34). For years this
epic documentary about fisherfolk, its images hewn
from rock and wave, was presumed to be the Real Thing. Later we learned that
the Irish-extracted but Michigan-born Flaherty, to perfect his essay in
primitivism, had coaxed the islanders back into long-forgotten practices, or
into practices they had never practiced in the first place.
It was a lie – but what a lie!
It was a lie for romantic hyperbole: "If it was never like this, it
should have been." Irish lies are smiling. English lies are pondered,
poker-faced, strategic. For Man of Aran, or "Life on the Rock," read Death
on the Rock, or "Men of Gibraltar: "
Here screen culture, if it did not create the lie, famously arbitrated over
it. Death on the Rock ('88) was a Granada
TV documentary exploring the killing by British soldiers of three supposedly
armed IRA terrorist suspects in Gibraltar in March
1988. The Irish victims, severally shot at point-blank range in broad
daylight, were suspected of having planted a car bomb planned to explode
during a military parade. That they carried no weapons and that no bomb was
actually found (other than miles away and days later in a garage in Malaga,
Spain) left British
politicians flanneling to excuse what looked like
an outright act of state terrorism. (It also looked like confirmation that Britain
had a shoot-to-kill policy, as rumored, vis-à-vis Northern
Ireland.) Death on the Rock was
promptly banned, then – in the face of outcry – unbanned.
The British government, wrongfooted, tried to
regain balance by ordering an inquiry into the show's dodgy methods and
faulty conclusions (so alleged). But the published inquiry vindicated the program
and, by doing so, effectively damned the Gibraltar
Before and after Death on
the Rock, other TV programs on Ireland
– fiction and nonfiction – have caused the British government to rush for the
OFF switch on telly screens. The policy of secrecy
tells us not just about the English way of lying but about the whole drift of
Anglo-Irish politics and the way it is directed from Parliament at Westminster.
And not just in regard to Anglo-Irish politics, but Anglo-Irish cinema.
Secrecy creates, by craft or convenient chance, a climate in which movies
attempting to confront the "troubles head-on, like Loach's
Hidden Agenda, butt into a brick wall of unyielding silence. And that
collision can make the movie, not the government, look ridiculous.
Hidden Agenda is an irresistible force
outwitted by an immovable object. Loach's portrait
of a labyrinthine Ireland
in which every British coverup covers up another coverup ended up as an exercise in investigative
hysteria. The movie, had its running time been hours or days,
might have bored a convincing hole through the layers of conspiracy. Instead
it spent 90 minutes and ended with a broken drill and a pile of paranoid
Even at the more populist,
pin-brained end of modern cinema – Patriot Games ('92) – the gag on
effective debate ripples across the world to encourage the growth of batty stereotypes
as representing the truth about a nation's struggles and ideals. Sean Bean's
IRA villain is a psycho from Shamrockland;
clapped-out British Royalty, the last best hope for Western democracy (!);
and the hero, an Americanized Irishman – Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan – for whom
the Atlantic is 3,000 miles separating civilization (U.S.A.) from anarchy
Perhaps the picture – this
picture, every picture, the "whole' picture – will be put right by Kevin
Costner's mooted movie about IRA founder Michael Collins. Then again, perhaps
the picture will just be modishly reversed. Collins was an advocate of
violent resistance who, like the Gibraltar victims 70
years later, ended with a British bullet in the back of his head. But if
Costner's track record is anything to go by (who else could turn Jim Garrison
into Gary Cooper?), Michael Collins may end up as a plain man's warrior-saint
munching on a Reader's Digest version
of Anglo-Irish politics.
The obliquity of fable still
seems the most telling and penetrating mode of discourse in modern Irish
cinema. This is "Tying" as poetry, and poetry is art's best,
guerrilla answer to the prose majeure
of last-ditch colonial politics being played out by Britain
in Ireland. The
Crying Game – we begin
and end with it – proposes a cinema about Ireland that rhymes a nation's
Troubles with the troubles of all of us; that diffuses state politics into
sexual and emotional politics; that explores identity and frontier not just
in the map of nations but in the human psyche; that plants metaphors like
landmines; and that discovers that Everything is Not What It Seems.
The only modern cinema that can
do justice to Ireland is one that acknowledges the tragedies of its past and
the agonies of its present while insisting that humanity can coexist with
history, myth with reality, poetry with prose. And that the fluidity of
personal destiny can be both example and weapon against the obdurate
imperatives of political destiny.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1994 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.