A Letter From Ulster

Over half-a-century later the Letter from Ulster still delivers - historically and artistically

There was a rare opportunity on September 21, in North Down Museum’s Long Gallery, to see a locally made film shot almost seventy years ago. One that still has the power to make us question how we were (and are) seen by others.

A Letter From Ulster (1942/43) is a documentary directed by the most prolific Irish director of the 20th Century, Belfast born Brian Desmond Hurst (1895-1986). The screenplay was written by Shaun Terence Young, who went on to direct major feature films such as From Russia With Love, and the producer was William McQuitty, a co-founder of UTV and producer of A Night To Remember.

Quite a pedigree for an officially sanctioned wartime propaganda film designed to be seen by both UK and US audiences.

It is difficult for us now to appreciate how much the conservative, provincial life of the still young Northern Ireland state was changed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers, sailors and airmen during World War Two. To say that there were tensions on both sides would be an understatement.

The Americans, 'overpaid, oversexed, over here', were informal in a society that was still politically and religiously rigid. In turn, they were bemused by the culture(s) they found that still seemed to smack of the thirteen original colonies.

There is no space here to trace Hurst’s career. For that, essential reading is the official legacy website. However, the influence of his one time mentor, John Ford, showed Hurst that a wee bit of blarney sat well with audiences.

Hurst spent prep time with many US troops and in the end chose two young GIs. One was from a Protestant and one from a Catholic background - although this is never stressed in the film, only in what has been written about it.

Their 'letters' to the folks back home - done as voiceovers - are taken from many real letters and turned, by Terence Young, into a cogent and sympathetic script that sounds like the language that young soldiers might use. No pompous official tones are allowed to intrude.

The two young doughboys are not actors, but their natural easy manner and delivery contrasts wonderfully with the stiffness of some of the locals and of their British counterparts. 

Inevitably, the two young men are taken of a tour of the province. Local audiences today are amazed at the urban and, especially, the rural life they see. So too were US audiences in 1943, but for very different reasons. We see a world gone by; they saw a world totally different from that of the modern USA.

We may cavil at the quaintness aspects or at the lack of engagement with the political and religious segregation in that 1940s Ulster. Before that, however, we should stop and consider what was shown and how it was created.

At a time when location filming was difficult due to cumbersome cameras and heavy sound recording equipment, Hurst and his team delivered a fluid, seemingly natural fusion of images and voices. It is a technical triumph.

Everyone here should see this film. And in this era of easy digital images, audiences should know in advance that is not just an old black and white curiosity. It is an extraordinary feat of technique and manipulation.