'We know precious little about Alexander Pearce,' admits writer and producer Nial Fulton, 'prior to his sentencing in Armagh in 1820. [Thereafter] he was sentenced to seven years transportation to the new penal colony of Australia for the theft of six pairs of shoes.'
The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce is based on a true story that fuses Australian and Irish history and highlights the appalling conditions, suffering and torture that existed in penal colonies at the time.
The film tells the story of 34year-old Fermanagh farm labourer Alexander Pearce. Convicted of theft and shipped to the Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) penal colony in Australia, he manages to escape his bonds before being driven to murder and cannibalism in the Australian outback.
Shot on location in Tasmania and Sydney in May 2008, and directed by Michael James Rowland, the film stars Northern Irish actors Ciaran McMenamin in the lead role and Adrian Dunbar as Father Phillip Conolly. The two actors share a birthplace with the Enniskillen-born Fulton.
'Pearce was a petty thief who refused to adhere to the penal system in which he found himself trapped,' Fulton explains.
'After a few other minor offences, he was sentenced to serve his time in a new prison of secondary punishment, the notorious Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour.
'The most isolated prison on the most isolated island in the world, Sarah Island had no bars or walls. The impenetrable rainforest and shark infested oceans that surrounded the island meant any potential escapee had no where to run.
'The prisoners also lived in fear of the natives, the aborigine's they rarely saw but had heard about - savage and quick to spear a white man without a second thought.’
In the film (as in life) Pearce plans an escape from the brutality with seven others, fleeing into the rainforest where they must learn to fend for themselves. The eight-man escape party is led by an English sailor named Robert Greenhill.
The men escape with some rations. Unbeknown to them, the bread they have was baked with ergot, a bacterium which accelerates the speed at which bread rots. Ergot is also a hallucinogen. The men become hypothermic. Starving and suffering mild hallucinations, they begin their sorry trek into the Australian bush.
Nine days later, having crossed some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable and driven to desperate measures, they kill and eat the first man, Alexander Dalton. Pearce is later discovered and returned to prison to complete his sentence.
‘Remarkably, at his trial Pearce confessed everything,' Fulton continues. 'Cannibalism, murder and betrayal. He declared that Greenhill was the mastermind behind the escape and the real murderer. Pearce claimed he only killed once and that was Greenhill. He also declared that no man could tell what he'd do when driven by hunger.’
The authorities don’t believe Pearce, thinking his is an elaborate cover story for the other escaped convicts still at large. Pearce escapes again with a younger man, Cox, who he soon murders and eats on discovering that young man cannot swim. When the authorities catch up with him for the final time, Pearce is found guilty of murder and cannibalism and sentenced to death.
An Irish priest, also from Monaghan, listens to his confession three days before he is due to be executed, at which point the film begins. The idea for the film came from a priest who handed Fulton a manuscript in Monaghan when he was filming a commercial. The original transcripts of the confession still exist and Fulton was able to refer to these when writing the script.
‘I think people will come to the film expecting to be horrified by cannibalism and will find they are horrified at a system which drove men to such barbarity. Van Diemen's Land was a place designed to break men, to process them and to rebuild them as new model Christian citizens.
'The real horror for me was always the notion that these men were sent to Sarah Island for minor offences such as thieving and drunkenness. Flogging was a routine punishment and Pearce would have suffered terribly at the hands of the floggers.
'The whips they used on Sarah Island had tin shards twisted into them to maximise the damage inflicted on a man's back. Everything about this place was designed to destroy a man. There was no hope at all. And when there is little or no hope, men are driven to extremes.
'Putting a human face to a person who for so long was perceived as a 'monster' will help us realise that history is an incredibly powerful weapon. What the vast majority of people know about the Pearce story is what the British authorities wrote about the man in 1824. Few knew what the men on Sarah Island suffered and what horrors they faced.
'I have never thought of Alexander Pearce as a monster. What he did was terrible but what he endured was in my mind more horrific. I hope people will be shocked by the film but not in the way they thought they might be.’
Fulton also hopes that the film might mark a new dawn for home grown Northern Irish television drama.
'It feels like we've dusted off the first of many forgotten episodes in Irish/Australian history. In addition to Adrian and Ciaran, Paul Stewart, a very talented art director from Belfast came over to Tasmania to work on the film. Having that highly experienced Northern Irish core on the production was fantastic and the Australian crew loved working with all the Northern Irish fellas.
'It's fair to say a lot of people, both in Northern Ireland in Australia, thought we wouldn't pull this off on a low budget. But the script attracted the cream of Australian acting, a legendary cinematographer, one of the most talented directors around, and of course Adrian and Ciaran, both of whom I cannot thank enough. Not only did they deliver in spades on camera but they got stuck in behind the scenes.
'My next project will be much bigger and more ambitious and if I can get the money moving, then you'll be seeing more Northern Irish cast and crew packing the factor 30 and mozzie nets!'
The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce is set to air on BBC NI and RTE later this year.