“This is going to be harrowing”, I said to myself as I set out to see Black 47, the newly released film about the Irish Famine. In the event it was much less harrowing than I expected. Indeed parts of it were almost fun. But this is hardly to the film’s credit.
Of course it is very good that there is now a film about the famine — amazingly for the first time ever.
The film also makes, or at least flags up, a number of important political points: the link between the British Empire’s treatment of the Irish and its conduct in Afghanistan and the like; the racist attitude of the British establishment towards the Irish and its belief that the famine was simply the result of their fecklessness and bad character; the callous export of food by British landowners amid mass starvation; the repression of the Irish language; the all round extreme brutality of British rule in Ireland.
All this is very welcome. However, there is a major problem. As is pointed out in its publicity material Black 47 is an “action film”. It is essentially a Western revenge movie set against the famine as a backdrop; more or less The Outlaw Josey Wales in Connemara.
Consequently the plot is structured around a single hero — the strong, silent Martin Feeney, a former Connaught Ranger (an Irish regiment in the British Army) who has returned from service in Afghanistan to a famine-stricken homeland.
Feeney discovers that his mother has died of starvation rather than “take the soup” — soup was offered by Protestant missionaries in return for conversion — and his brother has been hanged.
He then witnesses an eviction in which his nephew is killed, he is arrested himself and his sister-in-law and her daughter are left to die of exposure in their destroyed cottage. At this point Feeney escapes from his confinement and embarks on a classic trail of revenge, hunting down those he holds responsible for the death of his family.
There is also a sub-plot in that the authorities send British army veteran Hannah, who is in jail for strangling a Young Ireland prisoner while under interrogation, to assist the arrogant young officer, Pope, in tracking down Feeney. But Hannah had served with Feeney in Afghanistan where the latter had saved his life.
Much critical discussion of the film has focussed on how well or badly all this is done: the quality of the direction (not great), the action (middling) and the acting (so-so), but this is not the key point. More important is the fact that the very structure of the film, so familiar in Hollywood, is ill-suited to dealing with real history and turns that history into a mere background to “the action”. Above all it deprives the Irish people of any agency in this historic process — they simply stand around helpless at the road sides. Of course famine does reduce many people to helplessness, but we do not even see depicted this process of reduction and this is one reason why the film is not very harrowing — not as harrowing a film about the worst year of the famine should be.
Politically speaking the film ends with offering a choice — futile individual revenge or escape to America. That these are the only choices on offer encapsulates the basic artistic and political weakness of the film.