The IRA and the Movies, by Alexander Miller
Even though the various paramilitary groups that constitute what we refer to as “The IRA” have been a presence in Northern Ireland since the late nineteenth century, they became an internationally known subject through multiple feature films. By 1993 two internationally acclaimed films, whose narratives focused on the Troubles Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. These weren’t the first films that featured the struggles that plagued Northern Ireland but, due to their commercially viable execution, they reached a wider audience than films of the subject had before.
Master American director John Ford, known mostly for his Westerns, directed the 1935 film The Informer. The film is, for its time, a gritty and telling exploration of betrayal regarding the titular character who sells out a fellow IRA comrade to the hated British. Time has taken some edge from this film, but this study or morality taking place over the 1922 rebellion is still quite potent. Another important title following The Informer twelve years later is Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out.
Led by the enigmatic James Mason, Odd Man Out unfolds over the course of one night following a protagonist who’s injured after a botched robbery. Psychological noir would best describe these earlier titles featuring the IRA, these components would be later be serviced by with historical realism and social commentary.
Pragmatic British director Basil Deardon, known for tackling social issues with hitting films like Victim (an early film to expose topics such as homophobia), explored issues of morality in 1952 with The Gentle Gunman.
Prolific director David Lean’s later film Ryan’s Daughter explores the growing hostilities between the IRA and the British government but it has also been criticized for trivializing the accomplishments after the Easter Uprising; a pivotal moment in the Irish history.
Sergio Leone followed his Dollars trilogy with the strangely overlooked Duck, You Sucker!. Duck, You Sucker! Aka A Fistful of Dynamite (to capitalize from Leone’s Dollars trilogy) is an epic whose story pairs an IRA fugitive (James Coburn) with a Mexican bandit (Rod Steiger) who befriends Coburn once he learns Coburn is an explosives expert. Steiger unwittingly becomes involved with the Mexican revolution when an attempted bank heist turns out to be a secret political prison. Misadvertised as a buddy Western, Duck, you Sucker! is peculiar and perhaps the only film that is a fully realized western with a connection to the IRA.
After this period in cinema, the troubles in Northern Ireland escalated following sectarian rioting and Unionist government raids, resulting in a strengthened resolve by Irish separatists while British paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), intended to combat IRA factions, began to form. Mercurial tensions exploded however on January 30th, 1972, where unarmed Irish demonstrators were shot by British soldiers causing 14 fatalities, this massacre would be immortalized as Bloody Sunday. From the 1970’s on, the IRA, and the paramilitary groups on both sides of the fighting would evolve into something more vivid, dangerous and real.
One of the most intriguing films from the late seventies is John Mackenzie’s superlative gangster film The Long Good Friday. The film initially bears the signs of an archetypal gangster story when a crime boss, Harry Shand (Bob Hoskins), has his empire shaken by bombings and assassinations. Things take an unexpected turn when we learn it’s not a rival crime syndicate but the IRA dismantling Shand’s empire. We see a common trope in the gangster genre turned on its head. In this genre, we frequently see a new generation or a new breed of criminal who ignore “the code” or ethics of a bygone era. The IRA, however, an unstoppable force who aren’t bound by custom, nor are they allured by fame and fortune is a new breed to contend with. The torch isn’t passed but snuffed out and replaced by something more dangerous. The Long Good Friday presents the changing of an era by destabilizing one of the most solid foundations, the expectations of its viewers concerning a familiar genre. Prior to The Long Good Friday the troubles were escalating to a degree that they were introduced into our cinematic vernacular, and in the years passing it was imperative that we turn our cameras to the Troubles as they went from a secondary societal issue to a primary one, like that in Mackenzie’s film.
The subject of the IRA also took form in television (in addition to events broadcast on network news) in 1982 with the three-part series Harry’s Game. Aka Belfast Assassin, whose titular character (coincidentally played by a cast member of The Long Good Friday, Derek Thompson) starts the film by assassinating a British Cabinet minister. Afterwards, a cat and mouse chase ensues when former Irishman Harry Brown is sent undercover to ferret out the gunman. Harry’s Game plays out with credibility with a strong message of self-defeatism that is a common thread in subsequent movies. A voice over narration accompanies the episodes that comes off as both ethereal and poignant, beginning with the assassin recalling instructions following the opening assassination and later a reading from a daughter of a real life victim of an IRA slaying; it’s abrupt and candid and it imparts a heightened sense of aesthetic purpose to the series.
However, British television would encounter the sovereign authority of neo-realism Alan Clarke. Alan Clarke turned convention inside out with his distinctive brand of expressive alienation through dissonant cinematic technique. One of his more famous teleplays (Clarke worked mostly for the BBC), Contact is a technically unadorned tale of a British border patrol in South Armagh as they skirmish with an unseen enemy with an almost adolescent response to their adversaries, incompetent in defeating them and incessant with their discharging of ammunition. Shot with long lenses and minimal dialogue, (to an effectively obscuring degree), Clarke’s masterful technique calls attention to the presence of everyday violence by its stylistic delusion marauding technique and style into an emulsion of hallucinatory realism.
This pattern would repeat itself with his next teleplay, Elephant. Clarke’s short feature is controversial in both its daring departure from the narrative structure and curt incorporation of graphic violence. Elephant is a forty-minute feature illustrating a series of assassinations by unnamed assailants, on unknown targets with no formal structure. The settings were all shot in Belfast, using painfully ordinary and banal locations comprised of gas stations, parking lots, and residential homes reinforce the familiarity of the violence. The viewer follows the murderers in long Steadicam shots. After the executions, the camera lingers on the nameless bodies of the recently slain individuals. Clarke makes the viewer an accessory to the murders carried out by learning to live with the titular elephant in the room that the violence in North Ireland has become. People have learned to live with the elephant in the room, and by doing that, or by our inaction we have, or by Clarke’s intonation turned us into participants in the brutality. And yes, this predates Gus Van Sant’s movie of the same name and style.
By the 1990’s the Troubles were a regular subject in the world news; ergo it was only a matter of time before they were in major Hollywood pictures. Patriot Games was a continuation of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan film series starring Harrison Ford as the Jack Ryan character. An IRA assassination attempt bungled by Ryan’s involvement results in the death of one of the assailants whose brother Sean (Sean Bean) after arrest swears revenge on Ryan. Receiving mostly positive critical acclaim, Patriot Games is a well-made, well-acted thriller that, unfortunately, reduces the presence of the IRA to a one-dimensional baddie as Sean Bean’s character devolves into the clichéd “vengeful terrorist” trope.
The IRA hadn’t a suitable or accurate representation for American audiences until Neil Jordan’s breakthrough film The Crying Game became a worldwide success. Revising Frank O’Connor’s short story Guests of the Nation and Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage director Neil Jordan utilized fictional narrative in order to tell an allegorical account regarding the political and social climate concerning gender, sexuality, and violence. Jordan maturely depicts the IRA as an unstoppable and militant force, and with the benefit of hindsight, a brave exploration of transgender identity.
While Neil Jordan captivated audiences with a fictional story constructed around the IRA, Jim Sheridan earned international acclaim in 1993 with a film based on real events, In the Name of the Father. Though narrative liberties were taken by the director, In the Name of the Father was a decisively effective film anchored with the potent content based on Gerry Conlon’s autobiography, Proven Innocent: The Story of Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four. Conlon and the other members of the Guildford Four were sentenced to life in prison, while his family members and friends’ families (The real MacGuire Seven) were also incarcerated under trumped up charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As opposed to looking at characters directly affiliated with the IRA, the characters in this film are the victims of circumstance as the resulting fallout leaves them with fascistic government tactics. The actions of Ireland’s paramilitary groups result in alarmist administrative tactics; the result, a time and place where being innocent is a crime.
Unfortunately, in the mold of Patriot Games, Blown Away would host another IRA baddie this time played by the otherwise charismatic Tommy Lee Jones. Jones’ weak accent and cartoonish performance puncture the hull of an already sinking ship. Like in Patriot Games, Jones’ character abandon’s his political motivations in favor of a personal vendetta against another “standup American” who has foiled yet another terrorist plot. Identifying all IRA actions as “terrorist” is in concert with Margaret Thatcher’s profiling of IRA activities.
Neil Jordan quickly resurfaced, directing the passionate and competent biography of Michael Collins, Michael Collins. starting with The Easter Rising and his ascension to a revolutionary figure and his eventual assassination. Jordan admits to some fictionalization about some elements in the movie, and the breakdown of the real life IRA ceasefire resulted in the studios pressuring Jordan to play up the romance between Collins and Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts) in order to dilute the factual potency. Although some elements are softened for release, and in comparison to some of the more contemporary realism Michael Collins might seem a little soft-pedaled, however, it is still a proficient dramatization of Ireland’s idolized freedom fighter.
Hollywood’s poorly formed tradition of piggybacking on the popular themes of other films continues after Patriot Games and Blown Away in 1997 with The Devil’s Own and The Jackal. The otherwise comparable director Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own is a flat-footed cat and mouse thriller, while The Jackal, a remake of Fred Zinnemann’s classic film The Day of the Jackal, was a pale, lazily fabricated reflection of the original.
Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis would reteam for their third collaboration with The Boxer the same year as The Jackal and The Devil’s Own; it may be the least of their three films together (following My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father). However, it places much higher than the other clunkers featuring the IRA that year.
Lewis, as recently released prisoner, former boxer and IRA volunteer Danny Flynn returns to Belfast to find escalating violence between the British and Irish as well as splits within the IRA. Complicating things further, Flynn rekindles an old romance with his former lover (Emily Watson) whose loyalty to her husband is protected by an IRA code of fidelity. Not as compelling as their previous film together, The Boxer is still a well-made and mature melodrama regarding the Troubles.
The IRA would continue to be a presence in films from both Hollywood and Europe like John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, a film boasting superior action sequences with little else to claim as interesting. As traditional melodramatic storytelling technique became banal in the new millennium, directors such as Paul Greengrass devised that realism was the only way to give credence to historical accuracy. Consistent since his first feature film made for television, Bloody Sunday (not to be confused with John Schlesinger’s 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday) Paul Greengrass’ staunch documentary recreation of the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972 would prove to be a sobering account that transcends verite cinema.
Neil Jordan would return to somewhat familiar ground with his 2003 film Breakfast on Pluto; its protagonist, Kitten, a transgender woman living in London in the 1970’s whose experiences include finding love, searching for her mother, all the while becoming intertwined with the IRA and escalating political turmoil. An episodic coming of age fable replete with animated talking birds, Liam Neeson, a spirited performance from Cillian Murphy and the ever dependable presence of Jordan regular Stephen Rea, Breakfast on Pluto is enjoyable if familiar material from Jordan, itss light hearted approach doesn’t soft-pedal the gravitas of its political content and that’s what makes it enjoyable, if not the most memorable.
Kenneth Loach is a long-standing champion of tackling societal concerns through filmmaking, establishing his tone with socially conscious BBC films at the start of his career. His politically charged motion pictures (following controversial BBC teleplays such as Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction) maintained his defiant sensibilities in his 1990 film Hidden Agenda. A civil rights lawyer whose questionable death results in a densely layered conspiracy thriller that is cunning and intelligent. His anti-colonial political standing is at the heart of his work, Loach surpassed other filmmakers (including himself) in 2004 with a movie I would personally consider to be the most comprehensive and powerful film about the Troubles, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Kenneth Loach deftly maneuvers grating realism into a favorable narrative structure; The Wind that Shakes the Barley is historically faithful fiction in its best form. Consistent with his body of work, his characters ideology (stemming from his own) dictates his characters motivations as a means of survival, not a choice. The Wind that Shakes the Barley isn’t sensationalized or rendered for cinematic convenience. The Troubles are, for many a reality, not to be soft-pedaled, diluted or aggrandized with speeches, jokes, exploding squibs or any other filmic reduction. In Loach’s world existence is only viable if there’s freedom, and freedom is worth fighting, and even dying for.
After Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley came Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger, a breakthrough debut feature and a superlative film chronicling the (events leading to) the Bobby Sands Hunger Strike. Hunger is equal parts harsh art and artfully harsh augmenting, intensifying the significance of its massively influential subject. Starting with the with the “dirty strike” where prisoners were denied rights as political prisoners, thus refusing to wear the garb of criminals as they were imprisoned for militant activity, not criminal. Michael Fassbender is at the top of his game as Bobby Sands; he’s quite strong and never deviates from his resolve. McQueen avoids every proverbial cliché along the way and his collaboration with Fassbender has proven to be incredibly fruitful. McQueen’s direction is quiet in a way that says “actions speak louder than words” and throughout the segments without words the actions speak for themselves. Like many films on the subject Hunger has some great performances, and in the same class as Daniel Day-Lewis, Cillian Murphy, James Mason, Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Michael Fassbender is intense and perfect as Bobby Sands. Hunger is uncompromising, intense and a sobering depiction of the Sands hunger strike.
Another showcasing of actors is the face-off between James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven. After killing a Catholic target by a young volunteer (Neeson), Ulster Volunteer Force Thirty is scheduled to reconcile with his victim’s younger brother (Nesbitt) on live television thirty years after the incident. Though the film might not show light on anything new, but it is an excellent vehicle for its leading players. A very direct and competently written film works well and looks at the Troubles from a more humanist point of view. Not to mention it’s gun wielding lead is an English volunteer not Irish, films about the Troubles are quick to latch on to the IRA but it’s important to remember that there’s violence on both sides of the fight, and the Irish isn’t the only ones sporting ski masks and killing people on the streets of Belfast and London.
Shadow Dancer might be in the same league as The Wind that Shakes the Barley as far as superior modern titles, due to resolute direction by James Marsh and acting by Clive Owen, Aiden Gillen, Gillian Andersen, Domhnall Gleeson and its lead Andrea Riseborough. Shadow Dancer exists in its own world with a fictional storyline that is taut, intelligent and relatively straightforward. Simple isn’t reductive; Shadow Dancer takes a unique turn by looking at the fight with British occupation from a woman’s point of view. Lead by a strong performance by Riseborough, whose character is forced with the threat of losing her child if she doesn’t turn informant on her family who are active in the Irish struggle.
Most recently, the film ‘71 turned out to be a welcome surprise entry in this year’s releases. Doomed to repeat myself with a thread of adjectives ‘71 is a tightly wound regiment of thrills following a British soldier who is dispatched to Belfast in (you guessed it!) 1971. During a small uprising British soldiers are sent to quell the disturbance, pelted with rocks the unable to suppress the growing unrest the soldiers flee leaving behind new recruit Gary Hook, who becomes an instant IRA target. A fugitive from the IRA unarmed, and in an unknown land Hook’s chances for survival aren’t too bright. The first feature film by director Yann Demange deals out adrenaline and suspense with political gravitas, showing the errors of both sides of this fight. We sympathize with Hook; he’s our protagonist, and he’s part of a fight he has little stake in, the British don’t look great, and without demonizing them as terrorists the combative IRA ruthless, but their motives are just as questionable as the British armies. Yemange’s ‘71 plays itself as a mature action thriller inspired by historical events. Unlike preceding historical films in that mold that stumble into glorification or gross bias (Braveheart, The Last Samurai, The Patriot) ‘71 evades clumsiness and achieves something many films of this ilk do not.
The latest, and not the last film, revolving around the IRA, ‘71 is an entry in the recent, stronger films about this troubling (and ongoing) problem in Europe. Films are frequently reflections of the times in which they are made. Cinema keeps evolving through the decades, and as we see historical trends in cinema come and go (war films, biopics, hauntings, etc.) however, the Troubles in North Ireland have been a hotbed of activity for over a century between the Provisional Irish paramilitaries, and British occupying forces. The Troubles in North Ireland have been filmed time and again; some treat the subject in a more respectful manner than others, some exploit it, to put it simply some filmmakers do it better than others. Making films about the Troubles won’t bring an end to the urban/guerrilla warfare that continues to claim lives but these films have reached expansive audiences making casual viewers and informed ones alike turning a deaf ear to an internationally concerning issue.