Ireland in the Movies

ODD MAN OUT (1947)

The following is a guest post by writer Gareth Higgins:

Many of us have had the experience of seeing a news story covering events of which we have first hand knowledge, and saying, Huh? That doesn’t sound like what I know. It’s even more pronounced in fiction – Italian American organizations protested The Godfather (1972), weekend sailors I know blanched when they saw Robert Redford fail to carry out apparently basic seafaring tasks in All is Lost (2013), and don’t get my Baptist pastor husband started on the portrayal of Southern clergy in the movies.

Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, I grew up telling people that “it’s not like that.” In the early years of the violent conflict we call “the Troubles,” folk from elsewhere would often talk to me as if I was from Beirut. Nearly 4,000 people killed, 43,000 physically injured, countless others traumatized, an entire culture pitted against itself. But there was much more to our lives than the violence. Belfast’s not like that, I would say, seeking to dispel myths about balaclava-wearing men on every street corner, car bombs in every driveway, monstrous Brits oppressing impoverished-yet-romantic Celts. I suppose people from Beirut were probably having similar conversations about how the movies made their city look. And of course, when I finally got to visit the Middle East, I discovered it was full of people just as good, just as ordinary, just as magnificent, and just as capable of stereotyping, harming, or helping each other as we were.

I had to rise above the clichéd and divisive portrayals of my homeland – the ones that nurtured superficial accounts of who was “right” and who was “wrong,” and the ones that merely exploited our tragedy for cheap thrills, offering no nurture at all. Of course there were thoughtful portrayals of what was unfolding – but these tended to be “single-issue” stories like In the Name of the Father (1993), The Crying Game (1992), or Bloody Sunday (2002). No filmmaker has yet had the imagination or the resources to attempt telling the larger story of why the Troubles happened, the suffering caused to people from all sides, and how the wounds are being faced or a community might be repaired.

So when FilmStruck posted a series of movies addressing the history of the IRA, I took notice. Seeing the natural beauty, cultural diversity and still-open wounds of my home yet again squeezed into a container marked “terrorist or freedom fighter?” was disheartening, especially coming from folk whose work I had valued and trusted. I’m tired of seeing Ireland and Northern Ireland represented primarily as a location for conflict. FilmStruck and the Criterion Collection embody some of what’s best about cinema – presenting a huge variety of extraordinary work across genres and cultures. It’s a measure of their integrity that when I contacted FilmStruck to let them know that I was troubled by the decision to host a series recalling the history of a movement whose supporters killed almost 2,000 people, while lacking the support of the vast majority of the Irish population, they didn’t respond by brushing me off. Instead, in a welcome act of openness to dialogue, they invited me to write this article expressing my concerns and hopes. Kudos to FilmStruck – I’m grateful for the opportunity. In short, I want to see more balance alongside a movie history of the IRA, more stories showing different perspectives on the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. The IRA were one part of that conflict, whose members and supporters claimed they were fighting to overthrow oppression; but whose tactics never achieved substantial public support.

My friend, the Scottish architect Colin Fraser Wishart, teaches that the purpose of his craft is to help us live better. The same is true for all art, movies included. At its best, cinema gives us a window into the truth about what it is to be human – revealing our failures, inspiring us to something better. The principle works across genres – a raucous comedy like Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Tootsie (1982) can offer as much wisdom as an existential exploration like Stalker (1979) or Dekalog (1989), a quiet drama like Smoke (1995) or Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) can be equaled in insight into the human condition by a huge spectacle like The Abyss (1989) or, for that matter, The Human Condition (1959, 1960, 1961).

FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN (2009)

Among the titles in FilmStruck’s “A Movie History of the IRA” theme are three gems that, I think, approach this frontier of helping us live better: Five Minutes of Heaven (2009) invites us to consider the role of something like a truth and reconciliation process in moving beyond retribution for violence; now that The Crying Game (1992) is a quarter century old we can transcend the distraction of its famous twist, and appreciate Neil Jordan’s attempt at humanizing people who are led to take up violence for justice, while facing the sorrow caused in their wake; and Carol Reed’s exquisite masterpiece Odd Man Out (1947), one of the best films to invite an audience to identify with the “inner antagonist.” When I first saw Odd Man Out, I wrote,

It’s not afraid of the idea that our enemies are at some level responding to the projections of evil that we put on them. It’s about a fugitive Irish rebel desperately trying to get back to a safe house in Belfast’s crowded and mysterious streets. Growing up on the very streets of that wounded and healing city, I heard Odd Man Out talked about, though perhaps never quite engaged with. But oh my goodness it is something special. Perhaps because it doesn’t easily take sides – James Mason’s Johnny is with the IRA, but is also questioning the use of violence against people; the police are authoritarian but never seen as anything more than just doing their jobs; everyone is keeping some kind of secret.There’s a menagerie of northern [sic] Irish – and simply human – character here: sympathetic, passionate, loving, angry, deceitful, self-sacrificing, thuggish, creative, wounded, poetic, dreaming of how to get out of a nightmare. Odd Man Out is a visually magnificent, dramatically thunderous film. It won’t please everyone, because it allows for the fact that everyone has their reasons. In this way it understands that bad guys and good guys are two sides of a coin. It doesn’t want to kill bad guys; in fact it suggests that taking some time to understand them might help us avoid repeating the cycle of violence.

That’s what I yearn for in films about my home, where blood has been spilt to keep the story of one side or the other alive.

I want understanding, or at least the attempt at understanding.

And I want audiences to see Irish movies about something other than our fighting. I want folk to know about Pavee Lackeen: The Traveller Girl (2005), a quietly observed tale of traveller people in Dublin challenged by the system. I want them to see the great Brendan Gleeson’s huge embodiments of the best of what it means to be Irish – hospitable, brave, not suffering fools gladly, nor taking ourselves too seriously – in Calvary (2014) and The Guard (2011). I want people to take another look at John Houston’s The Dead (1987) and Jim Sheridan’s The Field (1990), in which the mythic touches history, and the poetry and the drama of Irishness is on full display. Most of all, I want people to know about Good Vibrations (2012), a film about Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s that is more interested in the people who did something other than take up weapons against their neighbors. The closest the Northern Irish film industry has come to producing a full blown biopic about one of our own, Good Vibrations is about the man who brought punk to our puritan streets. At a time when the shadow side of religion and politics was keeping people apart, through ideology or physical threat, Terri Hooley made music the center of community. We need stories that help us transcend simplistic narratives about good guys and bad guys, that take violence seriously enough to lament it, that look at life through the eyes of the other. Good Vibrations is a film just like that. It’s wise enough, and funny enough, and righteous enough to have its protagonist saying that while “London has the haircuts, New York has the trousers, Belfast has the reason!”

Gareth Higgins is an Irish writer, founder of www.moviesandmeaning.com and www.theporchmagazine.com, and on Twitter at @garethhigginsbe.

5 Responses Ireland in the Movies
Posted By Doug : June 11, 2017 11:05 am

“and don’t get my Baptist pastor husband started on the portrayal of Southern clergy in the movies.”
Gareth? Christian? Bueller? I’m easily confused.
Just a rom com, but “The Matchmaker” from 1997 starring Janeane Garofalo does have a touristy, popular view of rural Ireland. Not in a league with “The Quiet Man”, but it does have wonderful scenery and
a fun plot.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : June 11, 2017 11:09 am

Yes… and I’ve learned not to go to war movies with an actual combat veteran. (1) He will grumble during the entire movie, complaining about what the movie got wrong. (2) Just in case I have any doubts (and I never do) he will (after the movie) insist on telling me how it REALLY was. (3) And then, if I happen to spend the night, he’ll have screaming nightmares.

This same man did admit that George C. Scott’s performance in “Patton” nailed the personality of the real man. “that’s EXACTLY what he was like…” (yes, I was dating a WWI veteran.)

I wonder what other war movies “got it right”?

Posted By George : June 11, 2017 4:00 pm

I live in the South, and still meet Northern transplants who move here expecting everyone to be barefoot, toothless, guzzling moonshine from a jug, married to their cousin or sister, and flying a Confederate flag over their house. They’re shocked to meet people who can read and write and have never attended a Klan rally.

Posted By kingrat : June 11, 2017 4:44 pm

George, ain’t it the truth.

What a great post by Gareth Higgins. Christian, thank you for bringing it to our attention.

Posted By George : June 11, 2017 6:57 pm

“I wonder what other war movies “got it right”?”

My uncle was on a submarine in WWII and said DESTINATION TOKYO was very realistic.

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