The Emerald Isle has offered a lot to the world (submarines, Samuel Beckett, decent stout, Clonakilty black pudding etc.) but if you were to look at Hollywood films over the years, it would seem that all we have been good for are things like potatoes, leprechauns, excessive drinking and terrorists. Begorrah and bejaysus, a soft day it is! The thing is that for a long time the Irish were happy to see themselves portrayed as such on the big screen because it meant that ‘we were being put on the map’ – making people aware of our existence if not our actual culture. Much of what was being presented literally came straight out of fairytales. Then it became cliché, and even though films from the 1950s and 60s with good-natured, whiskey-drinking larrikins seemed harmless and a bit of fun, recent examples that borrow from this faux past make the Irish into a joke that is beyond any necessary reason. The connection with the US has always been pretty strong given the centuries upon centuries of Irish emigration across the Atlantic Ocean. It is unsurprising that many people who have worked in Hollywood over the years have ancestry stemming back to the old country – the infamous John Ford for example, who was the most eminent Hollywood figurehead from the 1920s right into the 1960s, was born with the surname Feeney from Irish parents who grew up in Connemara and the Aran Islands. The treatment that Ireland has received in Hollywood films, and I will speak about Ford’s outlook below, is one that is varied and sometimes quite heart-warming. So no better place to start than looking at our better portrayals on the big screen…
For a serious and reverent treatment of the Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War in 1920s Ireland, one need not look farther than Ken Loach’s brilliant The Wind that Shakes the Barley from 2006. However, in the late 1950s an English director called Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days and Logan’s Run) was called upon by United Artists in Hollywood to make a Irish film on that very subject. The film was Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) and was strongly backed by its main star James Cagney, who was almost 60 at the time and had always wanted to do a film in the country where both his parents had descended from. Make no mistakes about it, Cagney was and still is a stone cold legend in Hollywood, noted for his comic ability and his threatening look. In Shake Hands with the Devil, he undertook a full-on Irish role – that of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader who pulsates with a passionate nationalism as well as a cold and calculated violence against anyone who stands in the way of a fully independent Ireland. It is a remarkable film for the time as it clearly denounces the blind and reckless violence that led on from the War of Independence (not unlike The Wind that Shakes the Barley). Cagney as the show-stopping Hollywood star does not shame himself with a bad Irish accent. In fact he convinces so much that you would be forgiven for thinking he was one of the lads all along. It is a highly recommended film and offers an early, Brando-esque performance from Richard Harris.
Fred Astaire, another Hollywood legend, also took to Ireland, or an Irish character that is, in his later years to find some newfound credibility on the big screen. The late 1950s and 60s were a troubled period for the dancer/actor as he had run out of complete favour with Hollywood and high society, and was only turning up in TV music specials to keep his star shining. Then Warner Bros signed a young geek called Francis Ford Coppola to make a whimsical stage musical called Finian’s Rainbow into a movie in 1967 and have Astaire at the helm. The role was slightly at odds with the man’s persona: an Irish rogue being pursued by a leprechaun en route to Fort Knox with a pot of gold! The film is incredibly clichéd and not one that I would recommend, but it is remarkable for two reasons: (1) Coppola directed this! And it was made just prior to his creation of arguably four of the greatest films of all time (The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part 2 and Apocalypse Now!; and (2) for having an aging and clearly withered Fred Astaire (he was only 68) salvage some credibility with a fairly admirable performance as a strange Irishman intent on finding his ‘rainbow’ in life. In short, Astaire captures the essence of the character without ever being too clichéd. He is very respecting to the accent and the whole ludicrous nature of the leprechaun nonsense.
A third Hollywood legend also found refuge with Ireland in his later career – Robert Mitchum, possibly more recognised from that period of Hollywood underlined by the Blacklist, i.e. the 1950s, starred in all of the best films from that time including Angel Face (1952) and Night of the Hunter (1955). He took on many varied roles throughout his career, and in 1960 he played an IRA recruit in the gritty United Artists picture called A Terrible Beauty (aka The Night Fighters), a drama that focused on the more contemporary issue of the conflict in Northern Ireland (i.e. ‘The Troubles’). His ability to embody a conflicted Irish soldier here is something that seemed to come naturally to him, despite the fact that he only had Scottish ancestry. He returned to Ireland ten years later in 1970 to undertake another Irishman role in David Lean’s flourishing but overlong Ryan’s Daughter. Here, Mitchum played a ponderous and quaint headmaster at a local school in Dingle, Co. Kerry (a very beautiful place indeed). You could say that his performance was the best thing about this epic movie (well, that and the magnificent west coast of Ireland scenery). Unfortunately, Mitchum did not receive much kudos at the time of the film’s release because people were too concerned in slating it as a colossal waste of money. But since then, it has now become obvious that his reflective and tender portrayal of a Kerryman can be regarded pretty highly.
Ryan O’Neal is perhaps not as large a legend in Hollywood as the others I have discussed, but he has been in his fair share of classics (Love Story, Paper Moon and The Driver). In Stanley Kubrick’s lavish Warner Bros production of Barry Lyndon (from W.M. Thackeray’s novel) from 1975, the actor gave a impressive performance as an 18th century Irish wanderer, who throughout his life finds himself in a range of settings and wars throughout Europe. Although looking shell-shocked at times, he embodies a character of frozen emotion and inner turmoil. More pertinently here, he also gives the Irish accent a sleight of hand – you await an outburst of ‘top of the morning to ya’ at any moment, and I mean that in a good way. In fairness though, the Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon character is substantially secondary to Kubrick’s outstanding direction. His is a film of optimum opulence and exquisite elegance, and although long, meandering and sometimes boring, it is a worthwhile indulgence for the viewer. You become utterly lost in the scenery and magnificence of detail arranged by Kubrick. The scenes shot in Ireland at the beginning are no exception.
In the 1990s, you see a maturing of Irish cinema, particularly with the likes of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan reaching their prominence as home-grown directors. The domestic film industry indeed profited from the opening up of the Arts to tax breaks by the Irish Government in the 1980s and the fruits of this can be seen in the many definitively ‘Irish’ films released at the time such as My Left Foot (1989), The Field (1990), The Commitments (1991), In the Name of the Father (1993) and Michael Collins (1996). Hollywood also took advantage of these breaks with two of the biggest blockbusters of the 1990s coming to the country and ‘pillaging’ it for location settings as well as many, many affordable extras. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), for one, was centered around that great heroic figure of Scotland – that man in blue paint shouting freedom – and it is a very powerful film. Historical nonsense, but a great film. Some of the prominent and bloody battle scenes were actually filmed in Ireland, with the Battle of Stirling sequence being shot around the open and lush grounds of the Curragh in Co. Kildare. Similarly, large parts of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) were also filmed in Ireland – the seismic D-Day Landing scenes being shot on Curracloe Strand in Co. Wexford on the southeast coast. With cascades of bullets ripping down upon the viewer for twenty minutes or so, it is one of the most assaulting experiences on the viewer in cinema history and when it is mixed in with the miserable Irish weather, you have something that will forever stay with you! It is an extraordinary scene and it was all filmed down in the so-called ‘Sunny South East’.
Now to the negative, and where better to start than with the accents. Oh lord, the accents! It isn’t just the American actors who balls it up, and I will discuss them below, but several British actors cannot quite manage it either – Sean Connery, for example memorably played an ‘Irish’ police officer in Brian de Palma’s Prohibition era-set masterpiece The Untouchables (1987). Within a few lines of attempting a terrible Irish accent, he just reverts back to his familiar Scottish slur for the rest of the film. He won an Oscar for that by the way too! Having said that, there have been many great examples of British actors hopping across the water to play Irish characters – John Hurt for example was brilliant and funny as the ‘Bird’ Flanagan in The Field, while Alan Rickman was a fantastic and very plausible Éamon de Valera (former Taoiseach and President of Ireland) in Michael Collins.
However, the same cannot be said of Hollywood A-Lister Julia Roberts, who took on the role of Kitty Kiernan, the fiancée of Collins in the same film. In fairness, Roberts was not terrible but her character’s development has drawn much criticism because of its historical inaccuracies. Director Neil Jordan seemingly utilises the Kiernan character as nothing more than a side in a love triangle between herself, Collins (the Irish revolutionary leader played by Liam Neeson) and Harry Boland (Collins’ political colleague and friend played by Aidan Quinn). Roberts’ accent, although given in good faith, is forced and certainly not one that could be found anywhere in Co. Longford (where Kiernan was from), and her rendition of ‘She moved through the Fair’ is nothing compared to Sinead O’Connor’s version (see what I did there?). But then again, O’Connor is a tremendous singer and Roberts is an actor, not a singer.
Another Hollywood A-Lister, Brad Pitt, has had his run-ins with the Irish accent on a couple of occasions. Like Cagney and Mitchum before him, Pitt took on the now clichéd role of an IRA terrorist on the run in the US in Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own (1997). However, unlike the legends before him, Pitt does not inspire or even convince in his portrayal of a contemporary terrorist (called Francis McGuire), who we are meant to illicit some sympathy for. There is no sympathy here for Pitt’s trite and arrogant performance and his slow, unbalanced Northern Irish accent is at odds with anything authentic. In this sanctimonious interview about how he prepared for the role, there is no escaping the bullshit – Brad, you were terrible in this and you know it! Luckily though, Pitt atoned for his sins a couple of years later in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) by playing ‘One Punch’ Mickey O’Neil – a plausible if slightly clichéd and racist version of an Irish traveller/bare knuckle boxer. If you like ‘dags’, you’ll like Brad Pitt here. His lines are hilarious and he is very convincing unlike in The Devil’s Own.
Kevin Spacey came to ‘Doobalin Town’ in the late 1990s to offer up a comical version of the notorious real life hoodlum Martin Cahill aka ‘The General’. The film was Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000 Thaddeus O’Sullivan) and was a pretty quick follow-up to the more serious portrait of Cahill in John Boorman’s The General (1998) which starred the magnificent Brendan Gleeson. Ordinary Decent Criminal didn’t have any magnificent performances – it was nothing but a quick sell at the popcorn stands, a discomforting attempt to have the rest of the world have a chuckle at the silly Irish and their inability to cope with a rascal of a thief. Of course the film was always going to be compared with Boorman’s award winning biopic, which focused more on factual detail rather than the sensationalised profile of a criminal figure. Spacey’s portrayal is a misfire and it was no surprise that the film was a flop in the US, where it never even managed a cinematic release. Of course Spacey is an incredible actor and an able-bodied person to take on many different roles – just look as his penchant for impersonations – but he should have left the ‘Oirishness’ well alone. It was simply beyond him!
It’s not just the American performances of Irish characters that sometimes prompt a negative reaction. It can be the direction of films too. John Ford commonly evoked ‘the old country’ in his many films, sometimes through his regular comical masculine characters played by either Victor McLaglen (who was British, pictured above) or Ward Bond (who was American). Ford came to Wales in the early 1940s to make one of his most poignant and genuine films about the tragedy of common human beings working in coal mines in How Green Was My Valley (1941). The film was to make a star of Irish actress Maureen O’Hara and prompt her to book a one-way ticket to Hollywood. The fiery redhead became one of the greatest and possibly most underrated actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age (she was constantly pushed into the shadow of a male lead). She is still regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest big screen treasures. Ford and O’Hara would join up again in 1950 with Rio Grande starring John Wayne in the lead, and shortly afterwards the three of them came to Ireland to shoot The Quiet Man.
Now, although the film deserves many of its merits – it won many Oscars and is on the American National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ – it too has many problems in its overtly romantic and sometimes insulting depictions of Ireland. Cinematographer Winton Hoch presented a lush version of the Irish countryside, filmed at Ashford Castle and Cong in Co. Mayo, and there is some Irish language spoken too, something very rare for a Hollywood production. But the treatment of O’Hara’s character (Mary Kate Danaher) is beyond deplorable – if John Wayne can break her down with semi-comic roughness, we are all meant to think it is fine? Ford appears to be saying that the woman, despite being fiery and headstrong, is no match for a strong man like Wayne’s Sean Thornton. Then you have Victor McLaglen (superb as a condemned Irishman in Ford’s The Informer in 1935) who gives an over-the-top performance as a bullying brute in ‘Red’ Danaher – you could not mess up a Mayo accent any worse if you tried. The rivalry between himself and Wayne are the central focus of the film and in many ways, it is cringe-worthy. We are led to believe that a boxing fight is the only reasonable outcome for settling their differences. Well, that’s the way it is done in rural Ireland anyway and it is all fun and games until someone loses an eye, eh! Of course all of this is meant to be funny but The Quiet Man is still regarded as the defining Irish film of all time. This is just wrong. It doesn’t define anything. It has put forth many persistent falsehoods about the country’s attitude and intelligence and we continue to have to put up with that.
A few years later, the wildly popular and burgeoning Walt Disney Pictures got on the Irish bandwagon in 1959 with Darby O’Gill and the Little People (directed by Robert Stevenson). The creation of the film was basically a result of a back and forth over a number of years between Disney and the Irish Folklore Commission. The film was based on a series of short fantasy stories from the early 1900s by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, stories which were a manifestation of tales concerning fairies from Irish mythology such as those recounted about the Tuatha Dé Danann (the tribes of Danu). Whereas these folktales are fascinating and somewhat enlightening to our understandings of beliefs and customs of ancient Irish people, the destination that Robert Stevenson, Disney and Hollywood arrive at is something quite different. Granted the film is one of the more funnier early Disney productions, but one cannot escape the lasting damage (some would say profitable income) that this extremely popular film inflicted upon the image of Ireland in the years after i.e. a land full of dancing, conniving, money-hungry leprechauns who constantly spoke in riddles and always had an ulterior motive. The stereotyping of the Irish in Hollywood is not unique of course. Some would argue that Italians, Mexicans or even Canadians have had a pretty raw deal over the years, and let’s not even start about racial or religious stereotypes. The Quiet Man and Darby O’Gill are not terrible films. They are full-bred entertainments from yesteryear and can be thoroughly enjoyed even to this day. But their place amongst the progressive greats of cinema is certainly not deserving.
The early 1990s was a sensitive time in Ireland given the increase in horrific bombings in the North and across the water, as well as the clamouring of politicians to find a peaceful solution to the years of unrest. Hollywood were more than happy to exploit the situation and provide the world with stereotypes to explain it all. What a great idea then it was for heavyweights Jeff Bridges (fresh from The Vanishing and Fearless) and Tommy Lee Jones (fresh from The Fugitive) to flex their acting muscles as former and current IRA terrorists in Blown Away (1994 Stephen Hopkins). Not that the plot even scarcely imagined the actual terror involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland, but to inscribe some form of hideous entertainment to the whole scenario was in incredible poor taste. Jones’ character, Ryan Gaerity, literally blows himself out of prison (somewhere in Belfast I presume) and then tracks down his former IRA colleague (Bridges) in Boston, who now works as a bomb defuser for the police force, apparently with the single intent to mess with his old friend’s head. It is a ludicrous plot and a ludicrous film, and there is a deeply troubling and erratic performance from Jones, which may well be necessitated to unhinge the viewer. But one wonders where the hell he found the inspiration for his character. It is truly offensive to witness and it would be better for everyone if he, and Bridges too for that matter, consign that film to the bin of history.
As bad as Blown Away is, perhaps it does not plunge to the same depths as Tom Cruise’s attempt at playing an Irishman in Ron Howard’s awful big budget mess Far and Away from 1992. The sprawling film begins somewhere in Ireland in the late 19th century and follows the lives of two emigrants (Cruise and his then wife Nicole Kidman) as they flee to America during the increased hostilities that eventually led to the Irish Land War. I would imagine that many people who witnessed Baz Luhrmann’s turd of a film Australia would draw parallels to this soppy attempt at an epic historical drama. Howard plays it out as a combo adventure and romance at the expense of anything authentic or sensitive to Irish history. Putting two non-Irish people in the lead roles was his biggest downfall, but you could argue that his own storyboarding is pretty dire too. Tom Cruise, would you believe, apparently has lineage going back to Co. Roscommon but where indeed did he manage to get that accent from because it ain’t from there, or anywhere else in Ireland. It appears to come straight out of the faux-Irishness of The Quiet Man. If Cruise is awful in this, Kidman does not offer any recompense – her accent appears to go for a Dublin twang but every now and then her Australian accent peters in and you wonder what exactly is she trying to do. The accents, the performances and the story all add up to something terrible (Enya’s on the soundtrack too!) – a blot on the filmscape of history, a shameful piece of thrash. I enthuse you never to watch it!
I could go on here and I had intended to write a paragraph or two about Hollywood-produced, Irish-based rom-coms of the last 25 or so years but I will spare the long whinge…suffice to say that films like The Matchmaker (1997), P.S. I Love You (2007) and Leap Year (2010), despite being ‘loved’ the world over, are nothing but putrefied rubbish and invoke tired clichés about Ireland and its people. The fact that Gerard Butler and Matthew Goode (both of whom are British) play the male Irish love interests, embellished with atrocious accents, in two of these films say a lot about what one should expect here. Even Minnie Driver and Chris O’Donnell’s performances in the romantic coming of Age drama Circle of Friends (1995 Pat O’Connor) manage to make a mockery of the Irish accent, but at least with that film there is a more tender and intelligent love story at its heart, and because it is directly based on a novel by Maeve Binchy, you get a more authentic and genuine picture of Ireland in the 1950s. The main quibbles here would be more about Minnie Driver generally not being a very good actor and Chris O’Donnell probably being one of the worst actors of all time (Harsh? Remember those two Batman films that people want to forget? Yeah, they were mostly his fault!)
Agus anois, stop mé anseo. If I was to recommend five films about a true Ireland, they would be (in no particular order): I Went Down (1997 Paddy Breathnach), The Dead (1988 John Huston), Poitín (1977 Bob Quinn), Hunger (2008 Steve McQueen) and Garage (2007 Lenny Abrahamson).