The Trouble With the Troubles

Jared Longlands on the Hollywood films that got it so, so wrong

Hollywood’s attitude to the thorny issue of the Troubles can quite easily be summarised by an oft-told story involving hardman Mickey Rourke, who spent time in Belfast in the 1980s researching for his role in the film adaptation of Jack Higgins’ novel, A Prayer for the Dying.

According to Mike Hodges, the director this film and other, better, films like Get Carter and Croupier, Rourke insisted 'in the interests of seeking reality for his role [that he] wanted an IRA tattoo on his arm. We suggested he have a harmless transfer but Mickey insisted on the real thing. Sadly it went septic, presaging the fate of the film.'

The story continues. Whilst out on the streets of Belfast some time later, Rourke decided that he was too hot and removed his shirt. Unfortunately for him, at the time he was on the Shankill Road. A guide, presumably concerned, advised Rourke to put his shirt on, lest he offend the residents with his new tattoo. Rourke’s priceless reply was, allegedly, 'Why? These people are Irish too, aren’t they?'

All too often, the myriad complexities of a conflict so long in the making are effortlessly elided over by Hollywood, to be used as a threadbare backdrop for a big star to show off his muscles. Here are four of the most egregious examples of cinematic crimes against Northern Ireland – sadly, there are a wealth of other films out there that deserve inclusion.

First on our list is the aforementioned A Prayer for the Dying.

Can an accent alone ruin a film? According to director Mike Hodges, leading man Mickey Rourke tried his best to master the Belfast brogue, but by god it’s not good.

The brief moment in the above trailer wherein Rourke, speaking with Liam Neeson (whose accent is alright, funnily enough), claims to see himself 'lyin’ in the street dyin’' is so cringeworthy it surely generated howls of laughter when it premiered in cinemas across Northern Ireland at the time.

A Prayer for the Dying does have Bob Hoskins playing a priest who seems to enjoy beating people up with bin lids, so that works in its favour. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think I could sit through an entire film about Mickey Rourke, Rogue IRA man without doing serious damage to myself or others.

Next up is The Devil’s Own.

If Mickey Rourke's flawed Belfast accent was enough to damn A Prayer for the Dying, then the trifecta of Brad Pitt, Natasha McElhone and Treat Williams (none of whom seem able to pick a side of the border, let alone a town or even a county, from which to derive their respective accents) should be lampooned for all eternity for their feeble attempts at realism.

But there are greater troubles with The Devil’s Own. The eminent critic Roger Ebert observed that the film showed 'ignorance of the history of Northern Ireland' and that 'the issues involved between the two sides are never mentioned'.

This is for a very good reason – mainly because The Devil's Own isn’t really a film about the Troubles at all. Oh no, this film belongs to that esteemed sub-genre of films that are much-loved by Hollywood execs: Harrison Ford’s Mild Mannered Character Doesn’t Really Want To Fight But Has To Fight.

For further installments see Air Force One (Ford vs. Russian Separatists), Firewall (Ford vs. cyber thieves), The Fugitive (Ford vs. the one-armed), and our next film…

Harrison Ford vs. rogue members of the IRA, round two: Patriot Games.

Again, not a film that really has anything to do with the Troubles at all. True, it features Sean Bean as an escaped IRA prisoner intent on exacting revenge on his brother's killers on American soil, but Patriot Games is more about Harrison Ford doing his bit as 'a reluctant soldier', as the trailer puts it.

The fact that his character's opponents are rogue IRA types seems to be neither here nor there, bar the fact that the Troubles were an issue at the time.

For all the pertinence Northern Irish history has on the plot itself, the villains could have been rogue Sandinistas, rogue ETA agents, rogue Québécois militants or, had it been made ten years later, rogue Indiana Jones fans, hell-bent on avenging their childhood memories.

Give it time I think, Ford will get to them sooner or later.

Next up, yet another film where the Troubles spill over onto American soil in Blown Away.

The greatest crime that sticks with me from this film is a scene in which Lloyd Bridges, playing an Irish native, holds up a pint and says, 'Nothing like a pint of Guinness', despite the fact that the liquid in question is so watery looking you could read your paper through it!

The usually reliable Jeff Bridges plays an ex-IRA man who pitches up in Boston to become a bomb expert for the police, who presumably have a very lax screening policy. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, plays a former compatriot who is now, of course, a rogue IRA man with a Jeff Bridges sized chip on his shoulder.

Again this film has next to nowt to do with the Troubles, bar an excuse for the big stars to mangle another accent, blow things up and provide an opportunity for some dubious flashbacks.

So there are four examples of the Troubles represented in Hollywood cinema and not a one with any real positive aspects to them. As mentioned before, there are plenty of others to choose from – including my favourite, Sin City, which features a group of grossly over the top Irish mercenaries.

You’ll notice that the films themselves are relatively recent, so there’s no Shake Hands With the Devil or Odd Man Out. Perhaps films about the historical Troubles are better?

You’ll also notice that all my choices feature the Troubles through the prism of a rogue IRA man – are there any films that show the other side or the story, or are they removed from the picture? Are there any that deserve a higher billing than the above? Feel free to comment below.