5 August 2013 Edition
The IRA at the movies
The IRA has appeared in more than 80 movies, giving it a greater screen presence than any of the other anti-colonialist liberation movements across the world
The IRA on Film and Television. By Mark Connelly. McFarland & Company, North Carolina, USA. Price £46.95
Reviewed by Roy Greenslade
THIS is a strange book because its central ambition – to analyse the underlying meanings and messages of the films it features – is compromised by the need to explain the complex context that has informed all the plots.
Clearly the author, Mark Connelly, felt this necessary because he was writing in the United States for an American audience. For those of us who know the history so well, and have also lived through so much of it, these passages not only get in the way but are sometimes overly simplistic.
More significantly still, they inhibit the detailed deconstructions of the movies, far too many of which lacked genuine insights.
In spite of all that, I found the book a compelling read because the simple idea behind it – to acknowledge and record the remarkable number of films and TV series made about the IRA (in its various manifestations) – makes it a terrific work of reference.
It is a fact that the IRA has appeared in more than 80 movies, giving it a greater screen presence than any of the other anti-colonialist liberation movements across the world. Similarly, the portrayal of its members is unique. ‘The IRA man’ is almost as recognisable a film character as the American cowboy.
“Whether portrayed as a heroic patriot, ruthless terrorist, corrupt gangster, or troubled outcast, the Irish rebel has emerged as a universally recognised cinematic archetype.”
Therefore, the stated aim of his “history versus Hollywood” analysis is to show how and why the IRA and its Volunteers have been subject to such varying depictions.
In so doing he explores the work of major directors such as John Ford, David Lean, Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan and John Frankenheimer, who have cast so many stars (including Victor McLagen, James Cagney, Anthony Hopkins, James Mason and Brad Pitt) in IRA roles.
Among the major films he highlights are Ford’s The Informer, Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, Jordan’s The Crying Game, Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father and Frankenheimer’s Ronin. I need to declare an interest here because my step-daughter, Natascha McElhone, who starred alongside Robert de Niro in Ronin, is pictured in the book (though it omits to mention she played Brad Pitt’s ultimately treacherous girlfriend in The Devil’s Own).
Ronin is interesting because, like other films that Connelly mentions, it contains two elements that tend, irritatingly, to recur in violent thrillers. First, the innuendo that the IRA (even if not mentioned by name) is a sinister gangland organisation with global tentacles; second, the IRA anti-hero is a rogue breakaway operative (implying two other characteristics – criminality and psychopathy).
Connelly teases out these misrepresentations at several points but fails to make enough of them. In company with anti-republican British press coverage, these movie myths have tended to reinforce a wholly negative, and inaccurate, view of the IRA.
One of the best chapters analyses films that have linked the IRA to the Nazis, such as I See a Dark Stranger and The Eagle Has Landed. Arguably the worst of the genre was The Gentle Gunman, in which an IRA Volunteer is seen planting a bomb on a London tube station during the 1940-41 German blitz.
In more recent times, as Connelly rightly states, a string of US-made films have featured “the IRA conducting highly improbable operations in the United States” (think Patriot Games, Blown Away and The Outsider).
Just as significant has been the way in which the IRA has been tainted in mainstream movie plots that have little or nothing to do with the struggle.
They have also occurred in muted, but memorable, fashion in films such as The Quiet Man. And the IRA turns up as a dark, Mafia-like presence in a whole raft of films, including The Long Good Friday (set in London), John Boorman’s The General and, even more improbably, A Fistful of Dynamite (set in Mexico).
Connelly’s agenda or, just possibly, his lack of knowledge is revealed in his conclusion.
He appears to be upset by the filmic portrayal of the IRA “battling police and soldiers in war-torn streets patrolled by armoured vehicles and barricaded with sandbagged checkpoints, creating a Battle of Algiers illusion”. Does he really think it wasn’t like that?
But he also touches on a topic I have raised in the past. In few films, if any, do unionists appear. There has been no exploration by film-makers of the history of a planted people or the reality of working-class life among people who proclaim themselves to be loyalists.
The mythologising of republicanism is, to an extent, paralleled by the marginalisation of unionism. Then again, as this book reminds us, we should always remind ourselves that films should never be confused with facts.
Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism at City University London and writes a daily blog on the media at the Guardian newspaper.