Thursday, March 17, 2011
Beloved Enemy - 1936
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.