Ourselves Alone (1936: Brian Desmond Hurst): ‘Purely Sinn Fein propoganda’?
The first blog post in this series examined one of the classics of 20th century cinema, Rome Open City (1945). This time, from the Lejeune archive, we will be featuring a much less well-known movie, but one with an equally fascinating history. C.A Lejeune, you may recall, was the Observer’s film critic from the 1930s through to when she retired in 1960. Her archive is a treasure trove of draft handwritten reviews, published material and publicity leaflets such as the one above. This caught my eye because of the tag-line at the top, ‘Spell binding impassioned drama of young hearts in rebellion- smashing its way through the lives of men and women fighting for freedom and ideals’. The name of the film, Ourselves Alone is also an English translation of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican political party fighting to unite Ireland. Was this, I wondered, an early pro-Republican film, lost to history?
The film is set in the South of Ireland during the Irish War of Independence. It tells the story of two policemen, one Irish, one English, who are involved in hunting down a charismatic IRA leader after he has organised the escape of two of its members. Both men then get romantically involved with the leader’s sister. The film’s director, Brian Desmond Hurst, was born in Belfast in 1895 and brought up as a Protestant. After fighting in the First World War, he ended up in Hollywood as assistant to director John Ford. In 1932, he returned to England to work, presumably to take advantage in the growth of film productions triggered by the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which legally required exhibitors to show a percentage of British films. This led to what was known as the ‘Quota Quickies’, films made to satisfy the requirements of the Act.
Hurst set up his own production company, Clifton Hurst productions, and secured backing from film star Gracie Fields for his second film, Riders to the Sea (1935), based on the 1904 play by J.M Synge. This bought him to the attention of the producers of Ourselves Alone who were unhappy with how the film was progressing and eventually invited him to take over its direction. Hurst enlisted the Irish playwright Dennis Johnston to work on the screenplay, an adaptation of a play, The Trouble, by Dudley Sturrock and Noel Scott. After finishing the film, Hurst worked mostly in England but did return to Ireland to direct the wartime documentary A Letter from Ulster (1942), about GIs stationed in Belfast.
Examination of the publicity booklet in the Lejeune archive would perhaps suggest a pro-British bias to the film as it details how one of the original play’s authors (Sturrock) served as a British army officer in the Irish rebellion and acted as the film’s technical advisor. Similarly, John Loder, who stars in the film, was actually present at the surrender of the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, Pádraig Pearse, because his father, W. H. M Lowe, was a high ranking general in the British army. Loder went on to have a long acting career, one of his wives being the Hollywood actress and inventor, Hedy Lamarr.
In fact, the film was actually banned in Northern Ireland before its release, with the Unionist MP William Grant, speaking in the Northern Ireland House of Commons on 25th November 1936, calling it ‘purely Sinn Fein propaganda’. John Hill has researched the circumstances surrounding the ban and discovered that the film was passed for viewing by the Belfast Corporation, the local government body responsible for vetting films, but the Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs Dawson Bates over-ruled them, and in response to Grant’s allegations, banned the film in Northern Ireland two days after his speech. The film remained available in the Republic and on the mainland of Britain.
Lejeune’s review of the film on 19 July 1936 is actually dated before the ban on the film in Northern Ireland was enforced. The review of the film is tucked away into a longer piece which gives an account of how she had intended to write about elephants at Denham studios for the latest Sabu film and then was so taken by the performance of a certain Humphrey Bogart (in one of his earliest appearances) in The Petrified Forest (1936: Mayo), that she changed her focus to write about this film. However, she writes that
The film also makes an appearance in Lejeune’s best films of 1936 column, published on 27 December 1936, along with The Petrified Forest, although Frank Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town gets the ultimate accolade of Best Film of the year. The film was released in the US as Rivers of Unrest, perhaps to avoid the association of the title with Sinn Fein.
A new print of the film was released in April 2016 and reviewed positively by Trevor Johnston in Sight and Sound. Although he complains about the clipped English accents, he applauds the film as ‘an impressive and very welcome revival’ calling it ‘a key historical title in British cinema’s treatment of the Anglo-Irish conflict’ (2016). Indeed it does seem as if Hurst’s primary concern was to foreground the human cost of the war on both sides of the conflict, and that therefore the film is open to interpretation, depending perhaps on the context in which it is viewed. This appears to be concurrent with the rest of Hurst’s oeuvre. Brian McIlroy has written eloquently about this forgotten figure’s career in the 1930s and 1940s, arguing that his work often draws attention to social problems without providing easy answers and goes against the prevailing ‘consensus cinema’ that Jeffrey Richards describes in his book Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society 1930-1939. It is perhaps fitting then, that an exhibition about his long and distinguished career has just recently opened at the Ulster Museum.
Hill, John. “‘Purely Sinn Fein Propaganda’: The Banning of Ourselves Alone (1936).” Historical journal of film, radio, and television 20.3 (2000): 317–333. Web.
Johnston, Trevor. Ourselves Alone. Vol. 26. London: Tower Publishing Services, 2016. Print.
McIlroy, Brian. “British Filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s: The Example of Brian Desmond Hurst.” Film criticism 16.1/2 (1991): 67–83. Print.
Richards, Jeffrey. Age of the Dream Palace : Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009. Print.
Next up: A groundbreaking 1938 Russian drama “Professor Mamlock,” and antifascist cinema in the 1930s.