Given the time-honored premise that conflict is the heart and soul of drama, there must surely be few real world situations that can foster drama more readily than the climate of hatred and terror that has reigned in Northern Ireland for decades. Dating back to the "Easter Rebellion" of April, 1916, the "troubles" are nearly as old as the movies themselves. Not surprisingly, they have been the subject of dozens of motion picture dramas down through the years. In recent years, we've seen such Irish rebellion pictures as "In the Name of the Father" (1993), "Michael Collins" (1996), and this year's "The Boxer." For a sampling of earlier treatments of the troubles, look for these titles on home video.
"The Informer" (1935). The movies' greatest poetic champion of all things Irish must undoubtedly be John Ford. Although he was known primarily for Western movies, some of Ford's very best films were set in Ireland, the homeland of his immigrant parents. In this adaptation of Liam O'Flaherty's novel, Victor McLaglen stars as the hapless Gypo Nolan. During the 1922 Civil War, Gypo happens across a poster offering a 20 pound reward for information leading to the capture of Frankie McPhillip. Although Frankie is Gypo's best friend, the impulsive Gypo yields to temptation and turns Frankie in. Having done the deed, however, Gypo finds himself a hunted man. He manages to elude the IRA, but is ultimately hounded to his death by the inescapable censure of his own tortured conscience.
"Odd Man Out" (1947). British director Carol Reed is best known for "The Third Man" (1949), and justly so, but this remarkable story of a wounded IRA leader's odyssey through the Belfast underground deserves to be right there on the shelf beside it. James Mason plays Johnny McQueen, whose participation in a payroll robbery goes tragically wrong, leaving him bleeding and desperate, on the run with nowhere to turn. Following him from place to place, we can only watch in fascinated horror as his wounds cause him to sink gradually into delerium. It is a virtuoso turn by both Mason and Reed.
"Cal" (1984). One of the more obvious ways of exploiting the dramatic potential of the troubles is through a variation on the tried and true Romeo and Juliet theme, with the Protestants and Catholics as modern day Montagues and Capulets. Create a pair of lovers with ties to opposite sides of the conflict and you are guaranteed a story line brimming with dramatic possibilities. There are plenty of movies based on this premise, but one of the best is this excellent adaptation of Bernard MacLaverty's novel. Cal McCluskie is a young man who has been involved in IRA activities, although his heart isn't really in it. He's much more interested in a local librarian, but it seems that she is the widow of a policeman who was killed in an IRA bombing. Cal didn't kill the man directly, of course, but it seems that he did drive the getaway car.
"Hidden Agenda" (1990). If you're familiar with the political thrillers of director Constantin Costa-Gavras, like "Z" (1969), "State of Siege" (1973), or "Missing" (1982), you'll have some idea of the look and feel of director Ken Loach's approach to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Just as Costa-Gavras has done in the past, Loach takes a notorious real life event and fictionalizes it in order to comment on it without having to get caught up in sorting out the particulars of the actual case. The story is based on British official John Stalker's investigation into a shooting in Northern Ireland by British security officers. In the middle of his investigation, Stalker was summarily removed from the case, allegedly because he had turned up evidence of British wrongdoing that proved embarrassing to the Thatcher administration. The film features a Stalker surrogate, played by Brian Cox, but the main protagonists are a pair of American investigators, played by Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif, who learn the hard way just how thorny and knotty the political tensions between Northern Ireland and England really are.
Judging by recent headlines, it would be folly to expect this particular political Gordian knot to be unraveled any time soon. Movies on the subject will no doubt continue to be made as long as the bloodshed continues, but it's a high price to pay for good drama.