Born in Philadelphia, Mark Connellycompleted a masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received a Ph.D in English. His books include The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom, Orwell and Gissing, Deadly Closets: The Fiction of Charles Jackson, and several college textbooks. He currently teaches literature and film in Milwaukee, where he is the Vice-President of the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin.
His latest book is The IRA on Film and Television.
You can visit his website at www.theiraonfilmandtelevision.com.
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Depoliticizing the Troubles
The two classic films about the Irish Republican Army – John Ford’s The Informer (RKO, 1935) and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (Two Cities Films, 1947) – do not actually name the IRA and only casually touch on the underlying conflict. Based on politically-driven novels, the film scripts were carefully vetted to avoid controversy and achieve universal appeal. In essence, both movies are dark crime thrillers that follow the last hours of an impaired and isolated hero hunted down in the cold wet streets of a city at night. Ford’s Gypo, wanted for betraying a murderer to the police, goes on a drunken romp throughDublin that could just as easily occur in Prohibition-eraChicago. Reed’s Johnny, wounded during a robbery, endures an anguished journey through the alleys ofBelfast that visually presages Harry Lime’s shadowy flight through the sewers ofVienna in his 1949 film The Third Man.
John Ford, whose cousin was an IRA leader, was determined to bring Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel to the screen. With a limited budget that excluded major stars, large sets, or location shooting, Ford decided to focus on the “look” and “feel” of a more intimate film. Great attention was paid to lighting, camera angles, and double exposures. Ford labored on the script with Dudley Nichols, dictating scenes, correcting drafts, and continually hectoring Nichols for his lack of understanding of the Irish.
The final script, the fog, low camera angles, and Max Steiner’s haunting score worked to make The Informer a memorable film. For all its drama and attention to detail, however, The Informer provides audiences with no understanding of the Irish Troubles or the goal of the unnamed organization. The group has more in common with a criminal mob. Gypo is gunned down in the streets not unlike a character in an American gangster film. British censors, who then controlled film distribution in much of the English-speaking world, insisted on cutting political references, so that even the word “Ireland” was repeatedly deleted.
Odd Man Out
Taking place in postwar Belfast, Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out is far more depoliticized. The protagonist Johnny McQueen is more mob boss than revolutionary. He gives no speeches to crowds. He issues no proclamations. He never confronts or even identifies the opposition. Nowhere does he inspire his followers with a vision of what their activities will achieve or articulate the injustices he seeks to remedy. He is simply the leader of a gang planning a robbery, suggesting that the “illegal” organization is criminal rather than political. The man he kills is not a government official or uniformed representative of an oppressive regime or occupying army, but a civilian employee of a linen mill. The crime that puts the entire film in motion could just as easily happened in Newarkor Naples. Johnny is chased not by soldiers but policemen, wanted not as a rebel threatening to overthrow a regime but a common felon.
In a 1947 interview, Carol Reed defended his decision to steer the film away from politics, stating, “What counts is the story value and characterization . . . . I believe that a director has no right to inflict his amateur politics and opinions on an audience.”
Reed gave his audience a deeply metaphorical tale, laden with symbolism, and full of thought-provoking debates on a range of subjects. But the actions of the unnamed organization and the conflict that created it remain unexplored.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has for decades pursued the goal of unifying its homeland into a single sovereign nation, ending British rule in Northern Ireland. On film, the IRA has appeared in mainstream motion pictures such asThe Quiet Man, action films like Blown Away, political dramas, dark comedies, and even a spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dynamite. The IRA has been explored by major directors from three countries, including John Ford (The Informer), John Frankenheimer (Ronin), Carol Reed (Odd Man Out), David Lean (Ryan’s Daughter), Neil Jordan (Michael Collins), and Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father). IRA characters have been portrayed by international stars, such as Victor McLaglen, James Cagney, Anthony Hopkins, James Mason, Richard Gere, and Brad Pitt. Films about the Irish Republican Army range from realistic docudramas like Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, shot with handheld cameras and natural lighting to create the sensation of watching 1972 newsreel footage, to Joseph Merhi’s action farce Riot in which a British superhero battles IRA bikers in the streets of Los Angeles during a race riot.
Whether portrayed as a heroic patriot, ruthless terrorist, or troubled anti-hero, the Irish rebel has emerged as a universally recognized cinematic archetype. Over eighty motion pictures include IRA references, and IRA characters have appeared in iconic American television series such asHawaii Five-O, Columbo, and Law and Order.
This illustrated history analyzes film depictions of the IRA from the 1916 Easter Rising to the peace process of the 1990s. Topics include America’s role in creating both the IRA and its cinematic image, the organization’s brief association with the Nazis, the changing depiction of women in IRA films, and critical reception of IRA films in Ireland, Britain, and the United States.