Film Review: Black 47
Review of ‘Black 47’ now showing at the MAC, Cannon Hill Park
Black 47 has been described as a ‘revenge western’. Essentially the film is an Irish Rambo reworked for the 1840’s, and whilst the historical setting, villains and back story are a welcome change from the mundane LA, New York and Gotham, it’s another superhero story for the 21st century.
The film Black 47 will please most progressive film goers and by all accounts it has been a huge commercial success in Ireland. Depicting the grim scenery of Ireland in the period of the famine, it’s an action film that has pulled in audiences keen on something a bit more authentic, the same folk who’ll soon be going to watch ‘Peterloo’. The Wildcard Distribution chief exec Patrick O’Neill upon seeing his returns from the opening weekend gushed,
“It’s very rewarding to see audiences from everywhere in Ireland turning out in such numbers to experience Black 47 on the big screen. The results for Black 47 are a fine example of what can be achieved…” Screen Ireland chief James Hickey said that that they “are absolutely delighted to see Irish audiences coming out to watch this film in cinemas right across Ireland.”[i]
Much has been made in the press that Black 47 is the first film to deal with the famine of the 1840’s, and this writer is certainly not qualified to challenge this assertion. What we may rightfully ask ourselves is whether the famine is anything more than a backdrop to a film which is essentially another action film, this time in the setting of the Irish famine.
The central character, a Connaught Ranger ‘Feeney’ returns home from fighting in the British Army in Afghanistan and India. Upon his arrival he finds his mother dead and evicted, his brother hanged and only his sister in law and their starving children survive holed up in a squat. Our hero is witness to the widespread misery of Irelands peasant population as he wanders the landscape in search of his old life. His motivation at the start of the film is quite clearly to pay a mere flying visit to his native land, as he relates to what is left of his family that he is off to live in America. Before his plans can be put into effect he is witness to the eviction of his surviving family from their squat, and coming down from his horse to protest finds himself brutalised and in jail. Brought before an officer in charge it’s a matter of minutes before our hero is up to his neck in blood and guts having, single handed, killed about a dozen police in their own station, shooting hacking and chopping the hapless RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) with his gun, fists and kukri. From this point on it’s a blood soaked horse ride through Irish scenery, Feeney takes out a rent collector by lopping off his head, hangs the local magistrate (just after he sentences a young man to transportation), gives a bit of rough treatment to a proselytising Protestant preacher who’s dishing out soup to Catholics willing to renounce the papacy, before he kills the land agent (Kulak in our parlance) responsible for the family evictions.
At this point in the film our hero is being tracked by an old army buddy (played by Hugo Weaving, a Hollywood actor of wide fame) and an ambitious but young army Captain (who is accompanied by his aide Private Hobson, of whom more in a moment) on instructions from the British army to nip such rebelliousness in the bud. Upon catching up to this one man war machine, a shoot out inevitably ensues and the army captain’s orderly bottles it at the decisive moment failing to kill our hero when he has the chance. Back on his horse it’s a short gallop for Feeney to the next bloody encounter which takes place at the home of Lord Kilmichael (played by Jim Broadbent). This time it’s the orderly causing a ruckus, being a mere private his sympathies are with the poor and angered by the sight of starving peasants at the gates of Kilmichaels country seat, he pulls his gun on the guards protecting the house and its grain stores. Sadly for our private, he is not made of the super-hero material and is unceremoniously blown to pieces by the police. The local landlord and nobleman Lord Kilmichael now ventures off on his way to Dublin to personally escort his horde of grain for export and sale, the political point being made by the Director that the country was full of food whilst the Irish were being left to starve. All this takes place under heavy police guard, but that will never be enough to stop Feeney, who kidnaps the Lord from the local alehouse, assisted at a critical juncture by his old army buddy Hannah.
As Hannah is brought out the next morning to be executed by firing squad for his actions, the firing squad itself is shot to pieces by Feeney and into the square bursts a man on horseback who himself is blown to pieces on the orders of our loathsome young army captain who mistakenly thinks its Feeney on the rampage. Imagine the look of shock when he discovers that the Irish Rambo has sent in Lord Kilmichael as fodder. Gun fights now ensue and everybody gets their just deserts including our hero who manages to escape (though fatally wounded) assisted by old army buddy Hannah. Just before keeling over to die, the hero offers his old mate his last words of advice “get yerself to America”. Only in modern day Ireland could an Irish hero be this type of patriot.
In an interview with the Director, Lance Daly, it was said that no film on the Great Famine had been made for the big screen previously, despite its significance to Irish history. Daly is reported by RTE to have said “Given the singular importance of the Great Famine in Irish history, and that it has never been seen on our cinema screens before, our cast and crew felt a huge responsibility to make a film that was not only historically accurate [but] emotionally true”
Quite how the great famine was depicted in this film is anybody’s guess. Miserable wretched peasants, starving and under the whip of British colonialism, yes this is depicted in passing. The motive force of the film however, is the sole hero, the super human super-soldier Mr Feeney, depicted by James Frecheville. This, once again, is a story about a super hero. The masses are wretched and helpless, only an Irish Rambo (himself bound for America) can wreak vengeance on the exploiting class and its lackey’s.
The reality of life is that vengeance is meted out on the exploiting class by way of collective action against the exploiters. Rebellion is undertaken by the masses and not by lone heroes. The prevalence of stories about lone heroes is a result of the influence of bourgeois thinking on the arts and the minds of the people. Great acts of daring and courage are undertaken by individuals of that there is no doubt. Such acts when properly directed form a part of the great struggle of exploited humanity aimed against the enemy. The question of the relationship between heroes and the people influenced the development of the Irish nationalist movement, as it did in a great many other social movements. In Russia the Bolsheviks fought tenaciously against the theory of the Narodniks and socialist-revolutionaries who both advocated that by individual acts of daring (or indeed individual terrorism) the masses could be mobilised. Such theories elevated the role of “heroes”. J V Stalin speaking in 1938 said that,
“The theory of “heroes” and the “crowd” is not a Bolshevik, but a social-revolutionary theory. The heroes make the people, transform them from a crowd into people, thus say the social-revolutionaries. The people make the heroes, thus reply the Bolsheviks”
So, is it worth a trip to the cinema?
Whilst on this particular trip to the cinema it was a joy to see landlords, judges, rent collectors and such like meet their sticky end, it feels as though this film was a wasted opportunity to tell the real tales of rebellion, or even to present the people, the masses as strong, courageous, dignified and rebellious, it instead chose to portray them as meek, wretched and in some instances treacherous. The film was also a chance to break with the super hero narrative so all pervasive in the 21st century. How pathetic that the century which likes to constantly remind itself that it abhors the ‘cult of personality’ of the 20th is incapable of anything but the most narrow individualism and hero fantasy.
It remains the case that the history of those days is most accurately recorded by the people themselves, in the songs and stories of Ireland and it is a sad sight that the cinema which has so much potential as an art form is incapable of telling these stories and passing on the judgement of the people who lived through those agonies. Lance Daly correctly reflects that his central character would have been considered by the starving people of Ireland to “have taken the Kings Shilling”. A song written by K.T. Buggy in the 1840’s titled “Saxon Shilling” deals with this very issue, the most famous rendition of which was given by an honorary son of Birmingham Luke Kelly, and is a fitting tribute to this modern Irish super hero:
THE SAXON SHILLING.
Hark! a martial sound is heard—
The march of soldiers, fifing, drumming;
Eyes are staring, hearts are stirr’d—
For bold recruits the brave are coming.
Ribands flaunting, feathers gay—
The sounds and sights are surely thrilling,
Dazzl’d village youths to-day
Will crowd to take the Saxon Shilling.
Ye, whose spirits will not bow
In peace to parish tyrants longer—
Ye, who wear the villain brow,
And ye who pine in hopeless hunger—
Fools, without the brave man’s faith—
All slaves and starvlings who are willing
To sell yourselves to shame and death—
Accept the fatal Saxon Shilling.
Ere you from your mountains go
To feel the scourge of foreign fever,
Swear to serve the faithless foe
That lures you from your land for ever!
Swear henceforth its tools to be—
To slaughter trained by ceaseless drilling—
Honour, home, and liberty,
Abandon’d for a Saxon Shilling.
Go—to find, ‘mid crime and toil,
The doom to which such guilt is hurried;
Go—to leave on Indian soil
Your bones to bleach, accurs’d, unburied!
Go—to crush the just and brave,
Whose wrongs with wrath the world are filling;
Go—to slay each brother slave,
Or spurn the blood-stained Saxon Shilling!
Irish hearts! why should you bleed,
To swell the tide of British glory—
Aiding despots in their need,
Who’ve changed our green so oft to gory?
None, save those who wish to see
The noblest killed, the meanest killing,
And true hearts severed from the free,
Will take again the Saxon Shilling!
Irish youths! reserve your strength
Until an hour of glorious duty,
When Freedom’s smile shall cheer at length
The land of bravery and beauty.
Bribes and threats, oh, heed no more—
Let nought but Justice make you willing
To leave your own dear Island shore,
For those who send the Saxon Shilling. [ii]
[ii] written by K. T. Buggy, 1840s The Spirit of the Nation: Ballads and Songs by the Writers of The Nation Dublin, James Duffy, 1845. p. 58 & Georges Denis Zimermann: Songs of Irish Rebellion (Irish political street ballads and rebel songs) 1780–1900