Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beloved Enemy - 1936

“Beloved Enemy” (1936) attempts to dramatize the events that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in the early 1920s, and at the same time, spin a “Romeo and Juliet” fairy tale of two star-crossed lovers who bring together two nations.

It’s easy to point out where this film fails. “The Troubles” as those times are called of Irish civil unrest against the British Empire, and then civil war amongst its own people, is captured in too simplistic a manner. Hollywood shunned complications, particularly in a 90-minute script.

Both the British characters and the Irish characters are represented in varying degrees of stereotype.

Most obviously, the lead character played Brian Aherne is meant to be a take-off on Michael Collins, the Irish leader who engaged in diplomacy with the British and won self-rule under dominion status for Ireland, except for the six counties in Ulster which opted for membership in the United Kingdom. Many of his countrymen felt Collins had betrayed them, and Collins was murdered by an Irish assassin.

In the movie, not only is Mr. Aherne successful at bringing peace and independence to Ireland, under so vague a set of terms we are not allowed to know them, but he survives an assassin’s bullet and he and Merle Oberon live happily ever after.

Oh, and Omar Kiam’s costumes for Merle Oberon are a bit off, too 1936 and not enough 1920.

All right, that’s off our chest. What is more telling about this film is what they somehow got right.

The movie, directed by H.C. Potter (thanks Caftan Woman), begins with one of those scrolling narratives in some script font that sets us up for what we’re about to see. In historical movies, it often seems like these narratives are really just disclaimers. That’s what this one sounds like. Part way into it, we are informed that the events we are about to see reflect “A time of horror and heroism, with men on both sides dying bravely for what they believed was right.”

It is a cleaned-up judgment that tells us nothing of the filthy side of The Troubles, with men on both sides committing soulless acts of revenge, of cruelty, of dirty political self-interest.

We are then told that what we are about to see is “not taken from the pages of history” because we are supposed to be reminded of Michael Collins, but not get close enough to the real story to either alienate the British film market or the quite large number of Irish American filmgoers -- but that the film is “legend inspired by fact.”

Nice and vague.

Fortunately, the sharp black and white cinematography of Gregg Tolland gives us some focus, a glimpse into a world without complete right and wrong. What this movie lacks in script is made up for in atmosphere. Set in Dublin, but filmed entirely on the back lot, we have the dark, wet streets, the soft flat caps of brooding men in trench coats, and the widows and orphans.

Brian Aherne is the ringleader of a political group whose paramilitary function is discussed, but we never see the violence. One scene shows his band about to stage a guerrilla attack on a British convoy, and he steps between the truck and the machine gun to save the Brits, to save his plan for diplomacy. It’s a nice scene, a bold move, but too tidy to really tell the truth. The truth, after all, is complicated, for where does freedom fighter end and terrorist begin? It’s a question that gets asked repeatedly in just about every culture.

That Hollywood even attempts to show this subject and this foreign culture is laudable. Here is one of the few films of that time I can think of about a foreign war or political strife where no American character is the center focus, nor American connection involved. All the characters, and most of the actors and actresses, are all either Irish or British. There is no intended American slant here. Except of course, for being made in Hollywood and carrying with that the usual Hollywood inability, or unwillingness, to authentically capture another culture. Whatever American slant here is organic, but not purposefully skewed to tell the story through an American viewpoint.

Brian Aherne is the rebel, Merle Oberon is the English Lady, daughter to the English Lord who is appointed to travel to Dublin, sort out the troublesome Irish and tidy up the Empire. Aherne and Oberon are beautiful people, and the camera loves them. They love each other, eventually. At first it is snarling and verbal swipes until they make the astonishing discovery that (Irish, English -- fill in the blank) people are people, too.

The film tries to keep us on an even, serious keel with the political strife at hand. We open with a British raid on the secret offices of the Irish resistance, and men are killed. We meet the widow and young son of one of them. The son, played by Ronald Sinclair, and his buddies paint “Up the Rebels” on the back of Miss Oberon’s official government car. He hurts himself running away and she takes care of him and brings him home.

It’s a scene meant to bring the enemies together through empathy, and it’s a tale that’s been told ever since Aesop wrote about Androcles and the Lion.

There’s a bit more here, though. The scene with the boys painting their graffiti to the consternation of the bumbling British soldier assigned to be Oberon’s driver is comic. They are like the Little Rascals, briefly. But we realize after a moment that these boys’ street games are really training for the young men they will one day be when vandalism turns to violence.

Aherne, friend of the boy’s widowed mother, played by Cathleen O’Brien, has been earlier chastised by her when he tries to comfort her on the death of her husband, “What do you know about love? You never let it come near you. You’re married to a cause.”

But he meets Miss Oberon when she brings the widow’s boy home (which is too nice looking, hardly the simple, and possibly impoverished-looking flat it should be), and his fidelity to the cause becomes compromised over his love for her.

We have the often repeated refrain of the old Irish folk song:

“She had a dark and a roving eye,
And her hair hung down in ringlets,
She was nice girl, a decent girl, but
One of the rakish kind.”

(Anybody remember Guy Mitchell’s recording, “The Roving Kind”, B-side to “My Heart Cries for You”? 1950, I think. Much jazzed up, of course. With Mitch Miller’s orchestra. Ah, well, that’s neither here nor there. Just rambling. Come to think of it, anybody remember Guy Mitchell?)

Here, it’s a slow chant, wafting from jaunting carts and upstairs maids, and greengrocers, like a secret code of unity. A comforting musical buffer against “the strangers.”

When Lady Oberon and her father, played by Henry Stephenson, who are the strangers, cross the Irish sea on a dreadnought, we hear instead the majestic strains of “Rule Britannia.” (I’m pretty sure neither Guy Mitchell nor Mitch Miller ever did an up tempo recording of that one.) Her lament, “One nation and one people divided by a strip of water,” is naïve in that the label of “one people” would be balked at by both sides.

However, her naiveté is also appropriate for her character as a representative of the British upper class, insulated and remote. Such foolish myopia denies the bitterness at the root of problems, and also is often taken for insult by people whose national pride is built up by collecting perceived insults against them. This, too, has happened in culture after culture. Condescending assumptions can ignite trouble as well as weapons do.

David Niven is along for the ride as her father’s military aide, and he represents the kind of nice young chap of her own class that she should marry. He’s not in the running for long, though, and it seems almost a cop-out for him to lose interest in her and find someone else, someone to whom we are never introduced. A romantic triangle would have been more interesting. However, he does have a very funny line that he delivers charmingly when he asks Merle how to handle his new girlfriend, who wants him to join her for breakfast:

“I’m not sure if she means me to drop in for breakfast or…be there for breakfast.” The censors were evidently charmed into leaving it in, or they weren’t listening.

Among Aherne’s gang is the old reliable Donald Crisp, who is distrustful of any diplomatic overtures by the British, and who is distrustful of Aherne now that he has a British girlfriend.

Jerome Cowan, who we last saw in “Cry Wolf” (1947), and who made a career of playing stuffy, uninteresting lawyers and businessmen, often in B-movies, has a good role in this, his first film. He is one of the rebel gang, Aherne’s right-hand man. His accent is credible, and his close-ups show the intensity of a hard, hungry, angry man of action.

In one scene, he and Aherne are escaping from a British raid, and they scurry along the rooftops, tumbling down the sharply pitched slate roofs in the darkness. They manage to hang onto a drain pipe to hide, and then after a very long time, pull themselves up, exhausted, to the rooftop when the British soldiers have left. Cowan, sensing Aherne’s loyalties and his good judgment are wavering, makes him promise to never see Merle Oberon again.

While the film misses the gritty authenticity of “The Informer” (1935), made the year before, it has scenes like these to illustrate the complexity of loyalty. Another attempt at honestly depicting the events of the day is to show many scenes of diplomatic negotiations. Aherne heads an Irish delegation to London under a flag of truce to discuss options for ending the violence. He and Henry Stephenson are seemingly the only ones who push for peace. All around them are their English and Irish colleagues who argue and will not compromise.

Negotiations do not make for exciting scenes, but they do honestly depict the real difficulty of the situation. People venting problems, people trying to solve problems through talk. Realism without the explosions.

We drift back into comfortable Hollywood fantasy, however, when peace is declared and truck after truck of British soldiers leaves Dublin, with Irish crowds cheering them and the end of The Troubles, jolly Tommies waving back. Wish fulfillment is one thing, but this is ridiculous.

However, we smack head-on into grisly realism again, when Merle gets wind of the plot to murder Aherne because he made a deal with the Brits for peace. Jerome Cowan, full of the unreasonable, ugly, and long-familiar rush of revenge, takes on the job of assassin. Loyalty for these rebels is really just a game of musical chairs.

When Merle barges in on the men making their murderous plans, to beg for Aherne’s life, there is a moment when they slowly rise to their feet, and one of them sneers, “I think we’ve heard enough from this alien.”

It is a tense moment when we see in their faces, and especially in Miss Oberon’s suddenly knowing expression, the possibility that they are about to assault her. So quickly do the charming Irishmen who sing silly songs and ride in jaunting carts turn to animals. Fortunately, the young Irish widow she earlier befriended, who brought her to this meeting, gets her out.

We see Aherne in his Irish military uniform, making a victory speech before a cheering crowd, and we see for the first time the Tricolor (yes, it’s a black and white movie). Ahearn ends his speech with a flourish, “Erin Go Bragh!” and Cowan pulls the trigger.

The Irish Free State was born in 1922, but this film is more a product of the pacifism of the 1930s between the two wars. Fairy tale, and historical events, and Hollywood. An uneasy mix at best, but considering the complex subject, “Beloved Enemy” is at least an introduction, not so much primer as a pop-up book, on The Troubles for outsiders like us in the American audience.

8 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

Sure. Listen to "best of" all the time. He was a cutie. (In answer to anybody remember Guy Mitchell?)

I'm surprised that William Wellman was connected with this romanticized tale. It seems out of character for the man who brought us "Wild Boys of the Road", "Heroes for Sale" and "The Ox-Bow Incident". I guess a working man has gotta do what a working man's gotta do.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

When I just read your comment I said to myself, "William Wellman???" I don't know where that came from -- the director of this movie was H.C. Potter. Sorry about that. I'm losing it. I'll go back and fix it. You're right, it's not a Wellman movie.

Where would I be without you, Caftan Woman?

As for Guy Mitchell, I'm pleased, but not surprised you of all people remember him. You seem to have one foot in my record collection.

Caftan Woman said...

Losing it? You? Nah! Your mind must have been leaping forward to some future blog on Wild Bill.

Don't get distracted by that "Sparrow in the Treetop".

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Scared of going home because it's too darned late...."

Jack Ibbetson said...

I'm personally not so into the old movies but I think your dedication to reviewing them is amazing. I cannot muster the amount of words you write about an old movie for at least three of my reviews on new movies. Well done

http://isawthisfilm.blogspot.com/

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Jack. Good luck with your blog.

panavia999 said...

Another nice post Ms. Lynch! I haven't seen this film since I was a teenager and saw it on the 2AM Movie. I was more willing to suspend disbelief in those days, but even then, I knew enough about The Troubles to know that the movie soft soaped the issue so much, the movie was kind of silly. Which is a shame because I really like the cast. Besides, "Odd Man Out" was already my favorite movie about the Irish trouble.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, my dear. Yes, the movie pulls its punches, but its got some pretty shots.