Ourselves Alone

by Kevin Brownlow

To make an accurate historical film is a virtual impossibility. How can you squeeze the tumultuous events that occured, for instance, between the Easter Rising and the Civil War into two hours and still make sense of them ? Michael Collins does an excellent job for all its historical hiccups. You may feel it doesn't go far enough - leaving out the Treaty negotiations, for instance. But you would appreciate the scale of its achievements if you could see the Collins-type films that preceded it.

Samuel Goldwyn was noted for his production values, so Beloved Enemy (1936) has some well staged set pieces - army and Black and Tan raids, an abortive arrest in a Dublin street market and a mass rally at which the Collins character gets shot. It was photographed by the great Greg Toland - he who shot Citizen Kane - and the art director was Richard Day, who had served in the British Army. Hollywood had no shortage of veterans, and the military scenes have a snap and an accuracy missing from the rest of the film. Richard Day may have achieved miracles of authenticity for Eric Von Stroheim, but this director, H.C. Potter, was a lot less demanding. His Dublin by day is altogether lighter and more elegant than the real place, while at night it takes on a Teutonic aspect, like the Dublin of John Ford's The Informer (1935), giving it a sinister atmosphere for the armoured car patrols. When characters travel in a limousine, we see back-projection plates actually shot in Dublin in the 1930's. For many of us today, it would be more fascinating to see these plates, properly projected, than to watch anything in the rest of the film.

This is not to denigrate it completely. The film is proficiently made, although there isn't a frame to compare with Michael Collins. Beloved Enemy is fatally undermined by Goldwyn's passion for glamour. There is no squalor, no poverty; the Irish are picturesque and even the street kids speak with middle class English accents. The Collins character - called Riordan - is played by Brian Aherne. Of Irish origin, Aherne was born in England to a family which embraced the religion of the Plymouth Brethren; his accent is as bizarre as his family's religion and he is handsome in that smooth, hygienic way that limits conviction. In his autobiography he barely refers to this film, and then only because David Niven has a small part. Merle Oberon, whose name was adapted from her own O'Brien, plays a character called Lady Helen Drummond, presumably inspired by Hazel, Lady Lavery; she behaves in a way that leaves one open-mouthed at the recklessness of the script (by John Balderston, who wrote Berkeley Square (1933), Rose Franken and William Brown Meloney). Oberon plays the daughter of Lord Athleigh. We see them first aboard ship as they sail towards the back-projected coast of Ireland. Lord Athleigh (Henry Stephenson) seems a liberal kind of chap, judging by the enlightened tone of some of his comments; "Can't deal with people until they have their civil rights". He rejects the army's offer of a ride in an armoured car and his limousine is thus a perfect target for an ambush. He and his daughter are about to be machine-gunned when a young man in a trenchcoat steps forward and the rebels hold their fire. "Ten thousand pounds on his head and he rides his bicycle into the middle of that", grumbles a rebel. We know the British army don't know what Riordan looks like, and when this young man boldly identifies himself - "Denis Riordan !" - it is accepted as a joke.

Lord Athleigh's opinion swiftly changes when he learns the facts about Riordan's campaign of terror; the situation is so appalling it makes him ill. Lady Helen, meanwhile, has been in the young man's company; blissfully unaware of who he is and growing steadily more attracted to him. When she learns his identity she immediately betrays him to her father and a massive operation is mounted to capture him. When she hears of its failure, Lady Helen is visibly relieved.

Riordan refuses to believe that Lady Helen is to blame, but his ADC O'Rourke ( Jerome Cowen), does his best to convince him. Riordan sends her a note. In one of the least believable scenes in any historical film, she sets off for his hideaway. This time she doesn't betray him - she just thinks its honourable to explain why she had done so the last time. But there's a man on her tail and soon Riordan and O'Rourke are scrambling over rooftops, dodging the bullets. Riordan swears to O'Rourke he will never see her again...

The remainder of this article can be found in Film West 28.