Somebody balked when I described How Green was My Valley as the story of an Irish family (apparently they’re Welsh?) and so even though Odd Man Out seems to clearly feature a cast of Irish actors, and to depict some facsimile of the Iris Republican Army (IRA), I Googled its production to double check the nationality and found that it’s a “British” film. Then, confronting with a sigh the fact that I don’t know if Ireland is part of the UK, I found that southern Ireland is not, that it’s apparently just considered part of Europe, while the north of Ireland is in fact British.
Then I tried reading about the IRA, which comes up quite a bit in one of my favorite movies (Duck, You Sucker!) and which I figured was a kind of rebel group (it’s actually what I figured the R stood for) but I didn’t know who they were fighting or what they were all about. Now I’ve got at least a vague idea.
So once upon a time, early 20th century, Ireland is divided into North and South. The north belongs to the British. This is like 1919. Overseen by a guy named Michael Collins, the IRA used violent guerilla tactics (terrorism, killing cops and soldiers) to force the British to negotiate a unification of the two Irelands. A couple years later negotiations took place, and concessions were made on both sides, but the IRA seems to’ve been split roughly 50/50 in that some of its members agreed with the treaty and some of em didn’t. This division of the IRA resulted in the Irish Civil War a few years later.
I’m super fucking intimidated by tryna understand historical conflicts like this, especially when they’re going on in a different country/culture from my own, and I felt like such a moron to be scouring the “What’s the IRA” page on Britannica Kids, resorting to an elementary encyclopedia because I’m too dumb to understand even the simplest explanations on historical sites. And then, reading this Britannica Kids shit at my desk, I start sweating, flustered, because after the first paragraph in each section of the fucking Britannica Kids’ history of the IRA, it starts telling me I’ve gotta sign up for a free trial in order to get more info. What the fuck? So if there’s some kid doing research for what I can only imagine is the horrifyingly intimidating fourth grade assignment where they’ve gotta learn about the fucking IRA you’re gonna make em throw down some personal info in order to have access? You’re gonna put some fucking red tape in front of them? I get it, the encyclopedia business isn’t what it used to be and you’ve gotta build a clientele somehow, even if it just means throwing out emails now and then so that your name’s a constant presence in their life, but shit, what an obnoxious tactic. (Or maybe I’m just salty about finding myself on that site in the first place.)
It’s good that I took the leap and read four articles, cuz I did learn something from the effort, but just, ugh, I got super bent outta shape by having to confront how little I know about the topic — and it isn’t even just that I don’t know these historical characters, or the names and layouts of regions and shit like that; it’s that I don’t even understand these words. “County” vs “province” and “dominion”, the dividing of the IRA into “official” and “provisionary” wings, the difference between Catholic and Protestant. Even if the words themselves aren’t super disorienting, and you can get at least an idea of what they mean, it’s clear that they’ve got nuanced technical definitions here, very loaded distinctions, that make a huge difference in understanding what’s what and how things started and why.
But is this self-sabotage? Like am I allowing myself to get super flustered so that I can use that stress as an escape hatch to avoid work? Cuz I would totally do that in high school and middle. I’d claim anxiety and use that as justification to put my pen down and walk away from my homework for six hours, arguing the primacy of my mental health over my grade.
I’m closing in now on my thirties, though, I can’t be copping out on shit. The whole reason I embarked on this Project was for the purpose of becoming a more rounded person, of pushing myself, learning shit that is hard-earned and esoteric and difficult — and, by extension, enriching.
But then here I am, I’m confronted with the difficult thing I need to learn, and I end up finding some clever way of shirking it.
I’m doing it right now!
I started this essay off with a totally vague and too-brief breakdown of a sprawling and infinitely complex military conflict, something with oceanic socio-political and religious undercurrents, but I really only gave enough information to confirm that I moseyed around on Google and read a thing or two — and then I quickly used those raggedy half-facts as a springboard for digressing into something personal, something that appeared to still be perfectly on topic but was actually way easier for me to manage.
But, anyway, fuck it.
The movie is good. I like it a lot. it’s directed by a guy named Carol Reed, who goes on to have a major international hit with The Third Man a couple years after this, starring Joseph cotten and, in a small role that becomes the most iconic of the film, Orson Welles as the eponymous Third Man, Harry Lime.
Starts with the main character, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), working with other IRA members (though the outfit isn’t referred to by that name) to plan a bank heist. He’s recently escaped from prison (was it a couple months?) and hasn’t set foot outside since finding sanctuary among them. So his colleagues are saying he shouldn’t take part in the heist cuz the outside world might overwhelm him, he’s outta practice, oughta just hang back and be the brains…
But Johnny insists.
And so off they go to the bank with their long coats and their guns. Sure enough, Johnny ends up getting shot and killing a guard and, struggling to join his partners int he getaway car, they end up having to leave him behind. he runs off and hides in a little…the word cave comes to mind, but it’s not that, it’s just a little cell-like structure made of bricks in what I think was a park somewhere. Ahdunno why my memory is such shit about this. maybe I’m fried from tryna understand what the fucking IRA was all about.
Anyway: what ensues is a kind of odyssey picture wherein Johnny, bleeding out and growing weaker, first walks and then shuffles through the town after sunset. Cops want him on murder and everywhere he goes he ends up courting danger, just by showing his face, but there seems to always be a nervous sympathetic guy in the area who puts him up: they hide him or give him a ride someplace or offer counsel.
Everybody gives him whiskey.
But yeah: I mentioned yesterday, talking about Monsieur Verdoux, how I should have known, right away, that the movie would end with Chaplin’s character getting either killed or put away for life. His character is a murderer (albeit a well-intentioned one) and, this being the ’40s, censors were still totally unwilling to let the bad guy get away with his crimes. They’d loosened a bit from the days of Scarface — you can make your anti-hero more complex at this point, even sympathetic. Maybe even build him up so that the audience is rooting for him to succeed.
And since this is a European film I was wondering if Reed would be allowed to let McQueen off the hook for his crimes (cuz on top of the murder there’s the robbery and also the escape from prison and his political infractions, etc). But no. The hammer seems to have to drop on him too.
But, despite that one pesky adherence to protocol, Reed’s work here does feel pretty subversive. McQueen is kind of a prick, and obviously he’s a terrorist to boot, but there’s something compelling about his agonized shambles, his monosyllables, his slurring, the anguish on James Mason’s face (Editor’s Note from the Future: A long conversation with Pavel will eventually help me to realize I only like James Mason when he’s playing a character in a vulnerable moment — but then I like him a lot.) Reed shoots the stony streets of Ireland as a big shadowy underbelly where it seems everybody knows some trick, has some illicit connection. Nobody’s all that keen on the police. It’s colorful.
And I think that, had I seen this when I was about 24, and still super in love with the idea of bar hopping and crawling through the Gables late at night when the only people walking around are servers and bar tenders, fresh off their shift, moseying around the latenight bars, it might have become one of my favorite movies.
As for now, I kinda just like it a lot.
* quietly raises hand * If I may – one of my best friends is Irish herself, and I would be remiss if I did not contextualize/re-direct a bit.
“So once upon a time, early 20th century, Ireland is divided into North and South. The north belongs to the British. This is like 1919. Overseen by a guy named Michael Collins, the IRA used violent guerilla tactics (terrorism, killing cops and soldiers) to force the British to negotiate a unification of the two Irelands. A couple years later negotiations took place, and concessions were made on both sides, but the IRA seems to’ve been split roughly 50/50 in that some of its members agreed with the treaty and some of em didn’t. This division of the IRA resulted in the Irish Civil War a few years later.”
Going back a bit further – Ireland actually wasn’t a country prior TO 1919. At least, not the way we think of it. England took it over in the time of the Tudors and Queen Elizabeth (the first one), and it was considered to be part of England from then up to the early 20th Century. And as is the case with colonized countries everywhere, the English settlers/colonizers could often be jerks, and the Irish finally declared independence in 1916. They of course had to fight for it, much like the US did in the 1700’s.
England had been clobbered by World War I at this point, so they wanted a quick end to the war with Ireland anyway. The problem was that there was a huge concentration of English Loyalists in the north of Ireland; because of a long history of colonizing/settlement tactics, that’s where a lot of the initial English colonizers settled, and culturally and politically the majority there considered themselves English instead of Irish. So they were heavily pressuring England not to leave them as the minority in a suddenly-Irish nation. So England finally proposed to the Provisional irish government reps that “okay, how about if we keep Ulster English and the rest can be for all y’all?” Some of the Irish wanted to agree, on the principle of “hey, this is a start we can expand upon later,” and others were thinking “screw that, we want all or nothing, Ulster is on this land mass and should also be ours too.” In the end, the “something is better than nothing” team won out, the “all or nothing” team accused them of being sellouts and that’s basically what kicked off the Civil War in the 1920s. I believe Michael Collins was on the “something is better than nothing” side, and another big Irish hero, Eamonn de Valera, was on the all-or-nothing side.
Also – the “IRA” they had in the 1920s is NOT the same as the one that was causing the ruckus in the 1970s and 80s. The latter borrowed the name from the former in a bid for legitimacy, but most people in the Republic of Ireland (“the south”) thought they were jerks. They were regarded as a terrorist organization by the Irish government; you probably had people who were all for them, but most people in the Republic had the attitude that “yeah, we’d like a united Ireland, but don’t want to get it THAT way.”
And no worries about having to look this up. This is another country’s history, after all, and a lot of what the US knows about Irish history has been colored by sentiment and people with an agenda (a loooooot of the modern IRA funding came from Irish-Americans who didn’t really get what was happening), and the only reason I know all of this is because of my friend. (And the very-strongly-worded letter she wrote me when I innocently asked her something about the IRA once….)
Incidentally: the biopic about Michael Collins, with Liam Neeson as Collins and Alan Rickman as de Valera, got fair-to-positive marks for historical accuracy from my friend and her family, but they all thought that Julia Roberts was miscast as Collins’ girlfriend. And – the U2 concert film RATTLE AND HUM has a moment in it when Bono rants during a concert about an IRA bombing he’d heard about earlier that day; that rant kinda sums up what a lot of the people in the Republic thought of the IRA at the time.
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You should watch the movie Michael Collins.