NFB Watches Wrestling #37: WWE Main Event (13/11/2013)

Ah, the weekend D-shows. It’s the 13th November 2013 and we’re in Phones 4U Arena (that takes me back) in Manchester, UK, for an episode of WWE Main Event! Your titular headliner tonight: The Prime Time Players vs the, um, “Union Jacks”. But it’s really 3MB, so yay! I’m surprised by how hyped I am to see them again.

So, Main Event. This is our first dip into modern WWE’s one hour “others”, not counting 205 Live which is sort of its own proper brand. Main Event is a bit different insofar as it has featured wrestlers from all over the Fed, as the pre-show for episodes of Raw or Smackdown depending on which roster needs the extra room at any given time. Being a feature on Main Event is still generally seen as a WWE career death sentence nowadays, but I do think that this is a little over-blown: it’s an extra hour to get on TV, and two of the people featured in this episode were future World Champions (albeit, by a very roundabout route in one case).

I SEE THE WOR-ULD THER-OH DI-MOND EYES. Digging that theme tune. We’re a few weeks away from Survivor Series where the main event would be, ahem, Orton and Big Show. Yep. Josh Matthews and Alex Riley on commentary, and we go straight to our opening contest, an honest-to-goodness title match.

AJ Lee (c) w/Tamina vs Natalya (WWE Divas Championship)

Ah, the butterfly belt. Wasn’t that something? We’re in a period when the women’s division was just beginning to show what it could do: the consistent arrival of major women’s wrestlers from NXT would be starting within a few months. Lee 151 days into her giant reign, was made to tap to Natalya in a tag match on Smackdown a few weeks previous. You would think that would lead to a title match on PPV wouldn’t you, but it’s evidence of how far women had yet to be regarded by WWE in late 2013 that they are having the match on Main Event instead. Very brief intros from the ring announcer, and away we go. Interesting seeing faces like Natalya at this point, looking younger and, dare I say, less harder than they would seven years later.

Natalya with the takedown, countered with a head-scissors, roll-up for two from Natalya, trading headlocks, takedown from Lee, good smooth chains. Matthews compares Lee to Katniss Everdeen, and man that seems very dated nowadays. Tyson Kidd is watching from backstage, and remember the “Natties Husband” chants on NXT Slightly awkward moment where Lee struggles to get a Crucifix Pain attempt going, converted quick enough into Lee offence in the corner. Natalya back with a Scoop Slam, later trying to put in the Sharpshooter, but Lee scrambles out and heads to ringside. Chased by Natayla, until Tamina steps in. AJ tries the ambush, but Natalya shoves her into the barricade. Nice. Back in, trading blows, Natayla going up top but pulled down hard and spills outside.

After a break Lee has a rest-hold in. Natalya out, but then eats a spinning heel-kick for two. Commentary name-drop Total Divas a few times, which I believe has started recently. Lee maintaining the beatdown, Natayla sent out, and Lee distracts the ref so Tamina can get in a few shots. Back in, another rest-hold, and Tyson Kidd is shown looking on, “distracted”, backstage. He’s wrestling in a bit. Matthews and Riley so entranced by the action they start listing tour dates.

Lee hits a slam, skips around the ring, then caught on a roll-up for two. Natalya looking for some kind of Tilt-A-Whirl but awkwardly countered into a Tornado DDT for two. Lee looking for the Black Widow, Natalya out of it, then hits a clothesline. Snap suplex, drop-kick to the back of the head, then a sloppy looking spinning strike. Natalya looking for the Sharpshooter, again, Lee counters into a pin, for two, twice. Now Natalya gets the Sharpshooter in, and the crowd pops like they actually think they might see a title change. No dice, as Tamina comes in to deliver a super-kick, and the ref calls it in just over 11.

Winner (by DQ): Natalya, but of course Lee retains.

Verdict: Quite good for the most part, excepting the inevitable finish. Lee was great and deserves better remembrance in WWE, and you can see the talent Natalya had. If this was building to something solid I would look on it for favourably.

The heels stare down Natalya, then Lee locks in the Black Widow for a bit to leave her laying. There would be a ridiculous 14 woman Survivor Series style match at the PPV as I recall, where Natalya would beat Lee again.

We are promised highlights from the “Manchester Mayhem” of Raw as we go to break.

Did You Know? John Cena has lots of social media followers. WWE wanted to make sure you knew that. Now you do.

Matthews sets up the “mayhem” from Raw which, it being WWE, was authority figure related. Orton was unhappy about having to face Big Show, beat him up with the Shield helping, and then says “face of the WWE” a few times. He got put into a handicap match for some reason, takes a powder, got beaten up by Big Show, and put through the announce table. Crowd was delighted, serenading Show with “Yes” chants. I’m sure that will last. Matthews wonders who will leave Survivor Series as WWE champion. Like there was ever any doubt.

Backstage, Kidd tries to console Natalya, who is in very fake tears. She thinks this was her only chance, Kidd disagrees and you’d think they would be about to get interrupted but we just fade out. Man, imagine if being the opening match on Main Event was the highlight of your career?

Matthews introduces us to an interview with Corporate Kane conducted by Michael Cole. Writing this just after Mayor Glenn Jacobs ran a political ad where he called frontline medical staff fighting COVID “sinister forces”, implying they were part of a conspiracy to overthrow American democracy. When some complained they felt threatened by such comments from a sitting Mayor he said he was “just trying to start a conversation”. Who would have thought he’d turn out to be more of a monster than Kane, huh? Anyway, he says something about how he’s evolved or some bollocks.

Tyson Kidd vs Justin Gabriel

Kidd out looking a bit distracted. He’s about to become a regular on NXT as I recall, where he would soon main-event the first Takeover with Adrian Neville. Gabriel, well, if you can remember any moments of his Fed career post-Nexus you’re a bigger smark than me.

Lock-up, dueling takedowns, somersault chains. Test of strength back and forth, then Kidd out with some sweet springboard hip tosses. Kidd on the apron, skins the cat and sends Gabriel out. Gabriel tries to whip Kidd into the ring steps, Kidd hops over them to the crowd’s delight, but then eats a big clothesline. Back in, Gabriel with a springboard crossbody for two. We had just too exciting a match, so we move into a rest-hold.

Kidd with a spinning kick, running drop-kick, two. Goes for a German, Gabriel lands on his feet, and able to counter a roll-up attempt into his own German for two. Very nice. Obvious these two consider this a shop window situation. Gabriel with a big kick, Kidd dodges, Gabriel ends up on the second rope somehow and takes a Russian Leg Sweep for two. Great match so far, so Matthews and Riley decide to start talking about parachuting.

Gabriel with a hard backheel trip, to the top, but crotched before he can get the 450 in. “Let’s go Tyson”, and any time you get a chant going on this show you are doing something right. Both on the top, Kidd hits a rana, but Gabriel rolls thorough into a pin and that’s it in just over six.

Winner: Justin Gabriel. Don’t think he has much time left here.

Verdict: Short, but really good. Easy to see how good these two were.

We are promised more highlights from Raw as we go to break.

Cena faced Swagger and Cesaro (remember that team?) on Raw, with Survivor Series opponent Del Rio on commentary. Cena busted out a sitting powerbomb in this match, which was cool. Crowd split 50:50 on him, in the second half of the Super Cena era. We basically get the last five minutes of this one, which Cena wins (lol!) with the STFU on Swagger. Del Rio attacks with a chair in the aftermath, beats him down and Big E, still being called Langston at this stage, of all people shows up to make the save. Just to add a random wrinkle, Del Rio has challenged Cena to an arm wrestling contest at Smackdown in a few days. Okey dokey.

Time for Main Event’s main event.

The Prime Time Players (Titus O’Neil & Darren Young) w/R-Truth vs the Union Jacks (Drew McIntyre & Heath Slater) w/Jinder Mahel

Millionsofdollars, millionsofdollars, millionsofdollars vs 3embe, 3embe, 3embe. Two great under-rated teams here, with the temporarily renamed Union Jacks a great example of guys lower on the card making something out of nothing. The Jacks out in union jack get-up. Crowd big into the Jacks, with immediate “3MB” chants. Two future world champs right there remember, albeit one was probably a mistake and the other had to get sacked first.

McIntyre and Young to start, leapfrog chain, and Drew floors Young with a big drop-kick. Young back with an inverted atomic drop, then a belly-to-belly. In comes O’Neil with a big body slam, oh-a, oh-a, oh-a. Another criminally under-used guy, whose career seems to have ended with a trip. Beatdown offence and double teams, with Slater breaking up the pins. McIntyre able to get a tag, and Slater takes over by sending Young into the post. Young trying to rally back, but Slater with a nice jumping neckbreaker for two.

McIntyre in, and the Union Jacks firmly in charge now. Big chops to Young in the corner, then a big suplex for two. Decent so far, now a rest-hold. Awkward moments where Young is reaching for the tag, and O’Neil very clearly has to not extend his arm to its fullest extent. Jacks maintaining the beatdown with a double suplex off the top-rope. Young trying to fight back with a Sunset Flip for two, but Slater able to maintain control, but only until walking into a back body-drop. Hot tag to O’Neil, who cleans house. Him and McIntyre is a good pairing. He batters the future Scottish Psychopath with a big boot, standing fallaway slam, but Slater saves the match.

Young and Slater dumped out, Mahel trying to distract O’Neil, and he gets taken out by R-Truth. McIntyre able to hit the Future Shock, Slater tagged and hits the Corkscrew for the 1, 2, 3 in just under seven.

Winners: 3EMBEE, 3EMBEE, 3EMBEE

Verdict: Decent, but short, tag.

Crowd happy with this one, as the Jacks take a bow on the ramp. And that will be all.

Best Match: I’ll go with Kidd and Gabriel, two lower-tier guys who knew that they had to give their all whenever they could get TV time.

Best Wrestler: I’ll go with Natalya here, who I think is a slightly under-rated presence on the main roster at this time. People act as if Paige’s Diva Title win a few months after this was the start of the evolution, but Natalya had been making her point for a while by then.

Worst Match: No bad matches here. I suppose if you put a gun to my head the main event should have been longer.

Worst Wrestler: Again, no bad wrestlers here, so I’ll only go as far as saying McIntyre because he didn’t get the chance to show what he can do.

Overall Verdict: A decent 47 minutes worth of entertainment, which is what you want from a show like this. Give it a look.

To view more entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – Tony Parker: The Final Shot

Tony Parker: The Final Shot

Trailer

Cool looking trophy

I’ll be honest with you guys: I wouldn’t normally open the my film reviews for the year with two documentaries, and especially two documentaries you could describe as being in the general “sport” genre, but here we are. For a variety of reasons I just haven’t been in a position to take in new dramas, science-fictions, biopics or what have you for the first two weeks of the year, and so I had to depend on something non-fictional once again. That’s not really a bad thing inherently of course, but it is, I think, a first for me. Thanks COVID!

One of the highlights of streaming television in the last twelve months was Jason Hehir’s The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan-centric documentary that documented the story of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. With Jordan’s magnetic personality at its heart, and the extraordinary narrative of that all-conquering Bulls time to play around with, it was a very entertaining and engaging thing to enjoy during lockdown. Now, we have something more than a little similar, just in feature form: a biopic of one of the more significant basketball players of the last twenty years, playing for one of its most successful teams. I mean, just look at that title. Was The Final Shot a film-medium equal to The Last Dance, or did it come off more as a lazy imitation?

Tony Parker, a basketball prodigy from a very young age, left France before his teens were up to join the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. Twenty years later, as he goes through what will be his final season in the league, he reflects on his life, his evolution through the sport, his four NBA Championships and his efforts to give back to the communities that he came from.

The Final Shot doesn’t really match the level of The Last Dance, though I acknowledge that it is quite difficult to compare and contrast a 98-minute documentary film with a near ten hour documentary series. There are a good few reasons for this: the nature of the titular player, the squashed format making it largely impossible to explore his career in sufficient detail, the obvious stuff that gets left out in other aspects of his life. It’s not a bad film, and does give us an insider view, to an extent, of Parker, the Spurs and the, for my country anyway, not entirely well-known world of international basketball. But you won’t be seeing any “And from then on, it was personal”-level memes arising from this film.

When I say “the nature of the titular player” I can only elaborate by saying that Tony Parker is no Michael Jordan. Jordan dominates the frame whether he is on the court or sitting in an interview chair: every word out of the man seems quotable sometimes. Parker, in contrast, is an understated, almost reserved person, who seems out of place in someways with the shouting coaches, the trash-talking opponents and the baying crowds of the NBA. There’s a moment here where, upon receiving an honour from the French government, Parker is literally speechless at a podium, frozen, unable to fully enunciate his feelings. Jordan would have said three words and have everyone in awe. And it is a fair comparison because in style, editing, pace, The Final Shot is aping The Last Dance in a lot of ways, so it is only natural to draw a line between Parker and Jordan.

Which is not say that Parker is some dullard making you yawn for an hour and a half, it’s just that he seems like a genuinely modest guy who doesn’t quite believe the level of success he has managed to garner. That makes him likable, but doesn’t necessarily make him all that interesting: his musings on making it to the NBA, on winning the big one four times, on his role as an international player, it isn’t unengaging subject matter, but Parker isn’t the guy to really play himself up. That’s left to a myriad of other talking heads from all parts of his life, and they do their damnedest, but at the end of the day Parker clearly isn’t that comfortable having a camera put in his face like this, and the film suffers as a result.

Look looking ball.

And there is a lot that gets covered here. Whole years of Parker’s life and career fly by in seconds, as an obvious emphasis gets placed on his NBA Championships and his leading the French team to a victory in the EuroBasket back in 2013. This kind of Greatest Hits approach is necessary given the limited time, but ultimately a bit unsatisfying: the finer details of what went wrong, what went right and the really critical moment of any of those successes are mostly left to our imagination. Somewhat similarly, any discussion on Parker’s personal life is fairly neutered, aside from some vague references to his marriage to Eva Longeria that mostly amount to her looking on as he wins basketball games.

Whether the man likes it or not, the publicity heavy nature of that union was part of his life, and it’s a little frustrating to see it largely ignored (the film also attempts to craft a picture of a happy modern family life with his second wife, but they separated after the film was completed). I’m not saying that The Final Shot needs to take some kind of sensationalist perspective but it could do with being a bit more challenging of his subject, of trying to delve deep into what flaws or failures he may have had: his extramarital affairs, whether his brushes with celebrity affected his game, etc. Even The Last Dance, as sycophantic as it frequently was, left you in no doubt as to how much of a bastard Michael Jordan was: a similar multi-faceted portrait of Parker does not exist in The Final Shot.

So, what do we learn about Tony Parker in the course of The Final Shot then, other than he is not Michael Jordan and he isn’t very open about himself? Well, there are a few through-lines here worth considering. He’s somewhat innovative in terms of NBA history, being considered one of the masters of the so-called “teardrop shot”. His role on the national French side, which went somewhat disastrously in his early career and had a happier ending later, is of immense importance to him. International basketball is something I know very little about, but it’s clear that representing his nation is a very big deal for Parker, and the pain of the failure at an earlier EuroBasket, when Parker infamously claimed he was being called upon to “do everything” for the team, is etched on the man’s face. Finding some redemption for that, and giving back solidly to the nation of his birth, is clearly a huge motivating factor for him.

And then there is that last year of Parker’s career, when he left the Spurs to join Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets. This is another curiously understudied aspect of Parker’s life, maybe because his one year with the Hornets was so humdrum, the only season of his time in the NBA when he didn’t get to the play-offs Going to Charlotte was clearly a late career spasm of a decision where Parker was attempting to maintain relevancy when he really should have just bowed out: the film frames its conclusion on that bowing out, done back with the Spurs like it was meant to be. Attempting to manufacture some drama over Parker’s fears he will be caught tongue-tied again as his jersey number is retired also doesn’t really work that well, The Final Shot suffering from, and I’m sorry to sound harsh, how milquetoast Parker seems to be. Even when we see the man with more of a celebrity status in China, or promoting his various non-basketball related enterprises, he still doesn’t come off as the sort of attractive personality that you need for documentaries of this type.

From a visual perspective, its nothing that you won’t have seen, at length, in The Last Dance a few months ago. Confessional interviews with Parker, his peers and his family are interspersed with footage of him in his home and with archive footage of his greatest moments on the court. The filmmaker, Florent Bodin, is unseen, contributing directly with some explanatory crawls on occasion. Lots of personalities make you take notice when they show up – Greg Popovich, Thierry Henry (ugh), even Kobe Bryant, the man filmed just a few weeks before his untimely death – but none of them are here to say anything other than variations on “Tony Parker is pretty great”. The feeling is of a very simple, maybe to a fault, documentary, that takes few risks with its presentation.

As such, there really isn’t all that much more to say about Tony Parker: The Final Shot. Owing to my ignorance of the subject matter I can’t say that I didn’t find the experience somewhat educational, but I do question the point of the education. There isn’t really all that much interesting about Parker to me, and on the really interesting parts of his life, The Final Shot pulls his punches. There doesn’t seem to be a unique take on his life here, and even in terms of recordation I wouldn’t say that the film offers anything that a cursory reading of Parker’s Wikipedia page doesn’t do. It’s fine for what it is, which is a 90 minute puff piece of a talented athlete not really in the mood for anything too challenging or controversial: instead it a celebration, a 30 For 30 episode masquerading as its own thing. And it isn’t something that I can really recommend.

The final straw.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: Spring 1922 In Belfast

We have looked at the situation in Northern Ireland from a slightly more general perspective in the early months of 1922, with the new state struggling to define its relationship to the provisional government, and violence being a frequent result. But there was also plenty of internal violence as well. The city of Belfast, that had been a pivotal focal point of sectarian bloodshed since the summer of 1920, showed no signs of any kind of stability becoming manifest and, indeed, was going in the opposite direction if anything. The Spring of 1922 was to be a particularly bloody time, when the situation in the city began to weigh heavily on the nascent political arrangements between Northern Ireland and the provisional government in the south.

Members of Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant communities were dying almost daily at this time. British military forces were caught in the middle, and sometimes liable to be victims themselves: RIC and USC forces were also targets, when they weren’t committing some of the killings themselves. The Treaty, and the de facto recognition of Northern Ireland that came with it, meant that the IRA’s role in Belfast had been eroded, and they now largely resumed their place as an unrecognised non-state actor, at least in the eyes of the Northern Irish government. They hadn’t vanished however, if anything they had seen a surge in recruitment during the truce period, and still maintained a presence, attempting to ward off attacks on Catholic areas.

Events like that discussed in the last entry easily set off recriminations, attacks and counter-attacks in Belfast, with the rioting between the 12th and 15th February especially bad, with at least 27 people killed. The raids of IRA, pro and anti-Treaty, over the border nearly always set off additional violence in Belfast, but it really didn’t take much. Hospitals were full of gun-shot victims, taken there in ambulances that were frequently fired upon. There were so many that it was no problem for Volunteers to seek treatment for such wounds, since they just blended in with the growing crowd.

On the 22nd of February Michael Collins authorised the creation of a special force, dubbed the “Belfast City Guard”. To consist of 70 men from the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, these were to be full-time soldiers tasked especially with protecting the city’s Catholic areas from attack from unionists, be they civilian or constabulary. The activities of this group, similar in many respects to Dublin’s Squad in terms of their organisation, status and special assignment, are not especially noteworthy, but what is noteworthy is the fact that Collins set them up at all. Collins was the named leader of the provisional government in the south it must be remembered, an organisation that explicitly recognised Northern Ireland as a legitimate political entity, but here Collins was arranging the creation of an armed militia unit to act under his overall authority in the capital of that political entity. It shows that Collins, whatever about his turn towards becoming a political leader, was not all that far removed from the person he had been only a year before.

March began much as the previous months. A Catholic was shot dead on a tram on the 3rd, a Protestant in Albert Street on the 5th, four more on the 6th, a day that also saw military patrols briefly engaged with unionists. This was preamble to the 10th when, according to some historians, a new phase of IRA operations in the city began. That day two members of the Belfast RIC were shot dead while on patrol, while three Protestant civilians in other parts of the city were also killed. Soldiers, ex-soldiers, police and USC were all killed in the days that followed, while loyalist civilians hit back. Homemade bombs, often flung into crowds of people or into homes, were becoming a staple of the violence. By the 16th, Ministers in the Northern Irish Parliament were happy to declare that the new state was engaged in a war with the IRA.

While this war seethed on the streets of Belfast, relations between north and south were still on tenterhooks. The next major incident was perhaps not as obvious as the hostage-taking of February, but was still another blow to the idea that the provisional government and Northern Ireland could co-exist peacefully. On the 18th March, a force of Specials took over St Marys Hall on Belfast’s Bank Street. The Hall was a major part of the IRA’s structure in the city, and contained copious amounts of documents detailing the names and locations of various IRA personnel in the North, as well as a cache of arms. Many historians have pointed to the takeover of the Hall and the capture of the papers there as doing a huge amount of damage to the northern IRA in the short and medium term, as they were not as capable of operating without notice.

The act outraged Collins and the provisional government, who felt it a breach of the still nominally existent truce. Over the following week several attacks on RIC and Specials throughout Ulster took place, in Tyrone, Armagh and other places, with many fatalities: these attacks have been placed at the feet of Collins, as retaliatory strikes meant to avenge the capture of St Mary’s and again demonstrate that the IRA was far from a cowed force in Ulster. They provoked their own retaliations from loyalist communities.

All the while people continued to die in Belfast. On the 23rd one of the more infamous incidents took place when the home of the McMahon Family on the Antrim Road was raided by a non-descript gang of armed men. Their identity has never been firmly established, but they are likely to have been informal group working within the Belfast RIC who retaliated against the Catholic community for the deaths of RIC or USC personnel. The family’s father and six sons were herded into the living room and shot at close range: two of the sons survived. The McMahon raid is thought to be a response to the killing of two Specials in the city the previous night, but no adequate investigation was ever launched by the Craig government. Collins was outraged and arranged his own investigation that eventually, with the testimony of Catholic members of the Belfast RIC, named 12 constables involved in the alleged “murder-gang”.

London looked on the growing chaos with concern, fearful that the violence between nationalist/Catholic and unionist/Protestant communities could result in open warfare between Northern Ireland the provisional government, even as the latter was struggling with the anti-Treaty IRA. Churchill and others would have preferred that this struggle remain Dublin’s primary concern, and that there be no possibility of them being reconciled with the radical elements of the IRA in facing a common enemy across the border. Efforts were made by numerous individuals and groups to get Collins and Craig in the same room again. This happened towards the end of March, in London, where the second of the Pacts between the two men was agreed. This was a bit more detailed with the first: Craig committed to involving more Catholics in policing, to make greater efforts to stop police overreach and to ensure fair trials. Collins would use his influence to cease IRA attacks north of the border. Both men would see that prisoners and hostages still in custody would be released, and both governments committed to cooperate to restore peace.

Churchill crowed that the agreement amounted to a declaration of peace but it was hobbled almost immediately by the reaction from elements north and south. The anti-Treaty IRA had no time for such commitments, and within days of it being made had re-instituted the Belfast Boycott themselves. While much of the Northern IRA was pro-Treaty, especially in Belfast, the amount of anti-Treaty personnel there meant that Collins’ grip on the organisation was sometimes suspect. On the other side several members of Craig’s cabinet objected to the Pact and its concessions to Catholics in blunt terms, and the Prime Minister was not of a mind to face them down.

More immediately, the violence did not stop. As Craig and his government made preparations for the creation of a new police force – the future Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was supposed to recruit a third of its personnel from Catholic areas – a new atrocity inflamed tensions. On the last day of the month a member of the Specials was killed and another wounded in an attack on Belfast’s Short Strand. Seemingly in retaliation the largely Catholic Stanhope and Arnon Streets were raided in force by another gang of armed men not readily identifiable, but more than likely members of the local RIC. Several residents – four or five, depending on the account – were killed in the process as the men went door-to-door. The youngest victim was only seven. What became known as the “Arnon Street Massacre” put the second Collins/Craig Pact under unbearable pressure almost as soon as it had been made.

Over 60 people in the city had been killed in March, and the bloodletting continued into April, with additional IRA attacks on police in Tyrone, Armagh and other border counties. Craig refused to permit a joint inquiry into the Arnon Street killings as requested by Collins and when a committee set-up as part of the Pact to encourage conciliation was denied legal status it lapsed almost immediately. Collins, having made two agreements with Craig that had swiftly fell to pieces, now swung back decisively towards military action as the primary avenue of engagement in the North, something that was to the liking of Northern IRA leaders. Long before April was over, orders had been issued for IRA units north of the border to begin preparations for a larger offensive against the Northern Irish government. This offensive occupied much of Collins’ thinking in April, even as events in the south were escalating rapidly.

But before we get to that, we must, for one entry, go down to the other end of the country, to County Cork. Firmly in anti-Treaty territory, it was now to be the site of one of the most infamous group of killings of the Irish revolutionary period, whose potentially sectarian nature ties them to what was happening in Belfast. The small village of Dunmanway was about to forever earn its place in Irish history.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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NFB Watches Wrestling #36: Starrcade 1986

Going to go to the early days of the pre-WCW for this famous show on this one. It is the 27th November 1986 and we are in both the Greensboro Coliseum of Greensboro, North Carolina and the Omni Coliseum of Atlanta, Georgia for Starrcade ’86: “The Skywalkers”! Your main event tonight: Ric Flair defends the NWA World Heavyweight Championship against Nikita Koloff!

The early Starrcade’s are certainly an experience, and this one might be the dooziest of them all: a nearly four hour show across two locations, with the highlight to be a “scaffold match”, hence the sub-title that has more to do with wrestlers preparing to take crazy bumps from a height, and less to do with lightsabers. This was the era where the NWA was basically just Jim Crockett Promotions, and was struggling to keep up with the growing behemoth that was the WWF. Wrestlemania had overtaken Starrcade as the big show in wrestling, and at this time we’re only a few months away from Hogan/Andre at Wrestlemania III, and a year from Vince McMahon putting the boot into NWA/JCP by running Survivor Series against Starrcade ’87: the 1986 edition was pushing against the tide. But it was a stacked push at the very least, with some interesting matches on this card.

Rock and/or Roll music, a very basic lazer show, and literal spotlights over the crowd: it is the 1980’s alright. Our announcer, super-imposed over the scaffold that bridges the ring, welcomes us to “Night of the Skywalkers”, and we get The Star Spangled Banner, complete with super-imposed American flag. This is the Greensboro arena, and we get thrown to Atlanta where a super young Tony Schiavone, complete with glorious mustache, is on hand with Rick Stewart, bow ties all round. I assume the multiple locations is a response to Wrestlemania II earlier in the year, which was held in three places. After a brief intro to the event we are thrown back to Greensboro, where Bob Caudle and Johnny Weaver will be on commentary. They run down some of the stipulation matches we have tonight, without once mentioning who is competing in them. The competitors for the opening contest are in the ring.

Nelson Royal and Tim Horner vs the Kernodles (Don & Rocky)

Mostly nobodies and jobbers here, though Don Kernodle had a few Tag Title runs in the NWA, teaming up with Slaughter for a while. Rocky and Horner to start, and they are very hard to tell apart, wearing similar gear. Trading hip-tosses and a few rolling chains, not too shabby. In comes the larger Don, gets Scoop Slammed quick for one, then up to hit a powerslam for two. Royal in, gets floored with a shoulder, then able to wrap in an impressive looking abdominal stretch for a bit, before Don flips him over. Not too shabby at all.

Don misses on a corner charge, in comes Horner again with a roll-up for two. Don back with another hip-toss, and one thing that is very noticeable early is the crackling noise the ropes make every time anyone touches them. Lock-up, quick tag to Royal, and he slaps on a sleeper. Don able to tag in Rocky, who hits a nice Sunset Flip for two, before hitting a Scoop Slam for two. Rocky then misses on a crossbody, Horner back in and hits a spinning powerslam for two. Some leapfrog chains, both men collide, and Rocky able to make the tag to Don. Delay suplex to Horner for two. Big back body-drop puts Horner down, but then Don misses on a very telegraphed headbutt, then eats a drop-kick for two. No matter, he rallies back with a stiff looking clothesline.

Rocky in, hits a press slam, but only two. A chain of O’Connor Rolls, and Horner finds himself on top for the 1, 2, 3 in around seven-and-a-half.

Winners: The Royal and Horner Connection

Verdict: Actually pretty good as an opener for the time and place, it just needed some more context to sell it.

After a brief replay of the pin we get thrown without much ceremony to a blacked-out Atlanta, where we get some honest-to-goodness entrances for their first contest.

Brad Armstrong vs Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin w/Precious

Two guys who could arguably have had bigger careers than they got, especially in Armstrong’s case: it’s hard to find anyone who ever had a bad word to say about him. I think “Precious” was Garvin’s real life wife. They are out escorted by cops, with Garvin as the flamboyant heel, with sparkly ring gear, and push-ups before the bell.

Lock-up, and Garvin breaks to abuse the crowd. Lock-up, breaks down into fists flying, and the crowd is into this. Dueling takedowns, another, extended lock-up, as Precious gives out at ringside. Armstrong with an elbow lock as we go to rest-holds early. Some brief chains, and the two move from hold to hold on the mat. All a bit dull, and even the commentators aren’t saying much. Garvin takes the advantage with a bunch of not super-impressive-looking leglocks.

Armstrong eventually rallies back with an armbar, and Garvin actually taps but it’s the 1980’s so there was no such thing. Precious gets up on the apron to distract which allows Garvin to lock in a head-scissors, but I’m not sure he even did anything illegal. Armstrong eventually out of it to slap on his own headlock, then a hip-toss, but Garvin back with a head-scissors again. The crowd is into it, but this is frighteningly dull, even for the time.

We go back and forth with the headlocks for another minute as Precious jaws at Armstrong. Some dueling pin attempts with Garvin grabbing the trunks, but caught out by the ref. Another extended headlock, then the biggest move of the match when Garvin counters with a reverse suplex. Garvin with a choke, then chucks Armstrong out. Precious berates him, and we are getting close enough to the time limit of 15 minutes. Garvin’s kicks keep Armstrong out for a bit. Three minutes left. Snapmare from Garvin for two. Clothesline for two, and I suppose this one has picked up a bit. Back-breaker for two. Two minutes to go, Garvin hits a shoulder charge off a whip and both down.

Garvin looking for another backbreaker, countered into a crossbody, but only two. Dueling whips into the corner, Armstrong charges into a knee. Slow pin, but only two. One minute. Garvin looking for a sleeper hold, Armstrong out. Dueling roll-ups for two. 30 seconds. Another headlock, because why not. 15 seconds. Garvin to the top, but the time expires just as he leaps, to find nobody home, as it happens. Maybe the timing was off?

Winner: Time limit draw, but the real winner was the headlock.

Verdict: 12 minutes of dull-as-dishwater holds, then did get a mite more exciting for the finish.

The two keep fighting, until the ref pulls Armstrong away. Precious gives out to Armstrong as the crowd bays for blood. Garvin back in, takes some punches and rolls out. Trying to get back in as Precious and the ref attempt to dissuade him, and eventually Garvin leaves. Not exactly the red-hot feud they might think it is. According to Cagematch Garvin would win a re-match between two two on Mid-Atlantic a few weeks later.

Straight back to the Greensboro for a wordless intro to the next match, but plenty of mariachi music.

Baron von Raschke & Hector Guerrero vs Shaska Whatley & the Barbarian

Von Raschke was a big AWA guy, Hector is one of the famous Guerrero brothers but perhaps best known for being the guy in the Gobbeldy Gooker costume, and later for non-wrestling work with TNA. Whatley was a mid-card NWA guy and later a New Generation-era jobber, Barbarian of course has been all over. No context provided for this one, other than it being described by the ring announcer as “a special grudge match”. Guerrero described as “the very popular Hector Guerrero”, like they think the audience needs a hint who to cheer for.

Things breakdown from the start with a four man brawl. Heels sent clattering into each other off stereo whips. Guerrero and Whatley to start off proper, and Guerrero showing off some nice flips and drop-kicks early. Sells well too, flopping around the ring from strikes. Barbarian in, misses a boot, then able to drape Guerrero onto the ropes. Misses a big charge and ends up flying outside, where he takes a tope crossbody from Guerrero that the crowd goes bananas for. Fighting at ringside where the lights aren’t on, so hard to see what’s happening.

Eventually back in, where Barbarian hits a press slam, while half of the commentary team leaves the desk to go interview Dusty Rhodes later. Jeez, talk about not giving this match much credence. Heels double-teaming Guerrero, now firmly ensconced as the face-in-peril. Takes a backbreaker from Barbarian, then a big headbutt that he sells like crazy. Double back body-drop from the heels gets two. Wonky big boot from the Barbarian gets two, and a stunned Guerrero looks for the tag in the wrong corner. Sidebreakers, and one thing that’s a bit disorientating is the position of the ringside cameras, that keep switching position and making the teams look like they are in the wrong places. Off a whip Guerrero spits in the face of Whatley and gets a hot tag to the Baron. Crowd explodes.

Baron looking all out of shape, but cleans house anyway. Locks his famous Claw on Whatley, but Barbarian saves the day. Things break down again, Whatley misses a corner charge on the Baron, takes an elbow drop and while it isn’t immediately clear if the ref counts to three, that’s it in just under seven-and-a-half.

Winners: East Germany and Mexico

Verdict: Guerrero can go, and is miles ahead of anyone else in event so far. Other than that, standard tag.

The heels attack Von Raschke after the bell, but hitting a big boot and a diving headbutt. Guerrero in belatedly to make the save and drive the heels away.

Backstage, Johnny Weaver is with Dusty Rhodes. He defends the NWA TV Title against Tully Blanchard later. Rhodes isn’t full of chat however, and kicks Weaver out of his dressing room. Bit of a pointless segment really.

Back to Atlanta for our fist title match of the evening.

The Russians (Ivan Koloff & Krusher Kruschev) (c) vs the Kansas Jayhawks (Bobby Jaggers and Dutch Mantel (NWA United States Tag Team Championships) (No DQ)

The imaginatively named “Russians” are your standard evil Soviets, with Koloff really from Ontario and Kruschev – better known as Smash and Repo Man – from Minnesota. Jaggers a somewhat forgotten NWA guy, and oddly out of place next to the much bigger deal that is Dutch Mantel. The titles on the line are brand new, with the Russians champs for just over a month.

Starting off with Mantel and and Kruschev, and after a show of power in comes Jaggers. Rapid tags interspersed with beatdown offence. Who are the heels again? Kruschev breaks things up with a sudden roll-up attempt, but it’s back to rapid tags soon after. Eventually Koloff in, and there’s brief pause as the commentators play up the possibility of weapons. Russians can’t really get anything going, and the Jayhawks are most certainly employing heel tactics, distracting the ref so they can double-team one of the Russians, preventing tags, etc. I guess it’s OK when it is against evil communists, amirite?

Eventually the Russians get going for a bit, but only for 30 seconds before the Jayhawks are well back on top again. Schiavone posits that if they were to lose, the Russians would be looked down upon even more by the Kremlin. Not sure if Gorbachev is an NWA fan myself. We got outside for some more brawling, where Mantel is sent into the ringside barricade, and now the heels can actually be, you know, heels. It’s beatdown offence and basic double-teaming with the occasional interjection of Jaggers, and we get a really bad looking double clothesline from Mantel to the two Russians. Hot tag to Jaggers, and he cleans house.

Things breakdown, four way brawl on the inside and out. Koloff grabs a chain and goes to the top, but dumped off by Jaggers. Now Mantel has a whip, which he takes to both Russians. Jaggers and Kruscher awkwardly brawling on the inside, Jaggers gets a head full of chain from Koloff, and that’s it just over nine.

Winners (and still NWA United States Tag Team Champions): The wicked communists.

Verdict: Bit of a mess of a tag match, where they did a terrible job of establishing alignments.

Back to Greensboro for what could be a showstealer or a disaster. Oh, and we’re around a quarter of the way through the show, but a third of the way through the card, so some of the later matches must be going long.

“Ravishing” Rick Rude w/Paul Jones vs Wahoo McDaniels (Indian Strap Match)

Wahoo an NWA guy whose best years were in the 70’s, and he doesn’t look in the best shape here. Future WWE Hall of Famer all the same. Rude on the up and up, and I have a feeling he’s been put with the wrong guy for this show. The strap is hooked on and away we go. This is a four corners match, though they only explain that after the bell.

McDaniels with some early whipping and knock-downs, before just straight-up choking Rude on the mat. Rude tries to take a powder for some reason, but gets dragged back into the ring. McDaniels has never lost an Indian Strap match, which has zero difference from any other strap or chain match. Rude taking McDaniels down but then gets a poke to the eye. Who’s the heel here? Back on top quick enough with mounted punches and his own whips. Slow enough this one.

Spending a lot of time in the corner with the beatdown, eventually a Scoop Slam and Rude finally goes for the win, getting only as far as two corners before Wahoo takes him down. Back to the corner, only this time it’s McDaniels with the beatdown and whips. Very samey feel to every part of this, and lengthy sections where commentary is silent. Chop down off a whip, and now McDaniels goes for the turnbuckles. Gets three before getting a kick to the head. Wahoo looking very gassed despite not really doing much.

Rude to the top to land a big knee strike, and at some point Rude was actually busted open, which this match does not deserve. Rude to the top again, but knocked off – well, McDaniels rolled into the ropes – before he can do anything. McDaniel’s going for the corners again, Paul Jones getting animated at ringside, Wahoo gets as far as three, takes a while to get to the fourth, chops down an interfering Jones, and then gets forearmed into the last corner in just over nine. However, there’s no bell, so not all clear this was the finish.

Winner: Wahoo McDaniels, despite doing almost nothing.

Veredict: Total bomb with a confusing ending.

Rude and Jones with the beatdown, but Hector Guerrero and the Baron out to make the save. Crowd is hot, but couldn’t tell you why.

Backstage, the Russians are interviewed by some guy whose mike is not working. They are looking forward to the Bunkhouse Stampede event, where they will get the chance to take down Dusty Rhodes. They insist Koloff will win later, or else. Amazing, the total lack of Russian accents from either of these guys.

Back to Atlanta.

Sam Houston (c) vs “Superstar” Bill Dundee (NWA Central States Heavyweight Championship)

Dundee we’ve met before, briefly, and is, you will be stunned to hear, an Australian heel that the partisan crowd dislikes even more than the Russians. Looks in bad shape it has to be said. Houston is a real nearly-man whose alcoholism problem pretty much destroyed any chances of a career bigger than this level. No better way for them to face each other than over one of NWA’s many regional belts.

Lock-up, and Houston thrown away. “Let’s Go Sam” chants annoy Dundee enough that Houston is able to take him down. Some roll-up attempts to no effect for both, then a nice electric chair into a head scissors from Houston, though the subsequent waiting around kills the crowd. Hip tosses, a drop-kick and Dundee begs off momentarily. Then gets in a head-lock, but gets given out to for hair pulling. Transitions into an armbar, then into a pin for some reason, but only two.

Houston gets Dundee into position and calls for a Bulldog, but Dundee out of it, then Dundee out of a Sunset Flip pin. Houston slingshotted to the outside, which the camera misses. Able to recover and hit an Atomic Drop that Dundee sells like Michaels against Hogan, flipping over the ringside barricade. Eventually back in, Dundee nails a big kick, then to the top, hits a flying right hand – rubbish looking – but only two. A fishhook that the ref breaks up, then a necktie rest-hold. Not much to this one so far.

Dundee with a bit of rope-a-dope flooring Houston, but only two. Dundee’s offence just elbows and strikes, but now gets in an awkward looking Boston Crab. Houston able to reverse this into a rolling pin attempt, but he’s too close to the ropes when he does it so both guys just end up tangled, looked awful. Dundee trying to get some heat back by flinging Houston out again, then hits a springboard axe-handle when Houston is back in, probably the spot of the match so far. Back to the head-locks right after though, ugh.

Houston out of it eventually, rallying back with strikes. Dundee goes down, but Houston clearly wanted him to spring back up, so Dundee suddenly recovers when urged to. Sloppy stuff. Houston with an awkward running kick, a Scoop Slam, but then Dundee dodges a knee strike. Dundee starts working over the knee as we go past the ten minute mark, with a 20 time limit. Please no. Houston locks a deathlock by shoving Dundee, who ends up barging into the ref. With the ref seemingly down he grabs the belt for a shot, but turns out the ref wasn’t as bumped as we thought and calls for it in just around 10-and-a-half. Phew.

Winner (and still NWA Central States Heavyweight Champion): Sam Houston, who heroically takes a DQ victory.

Verdict: A few good spots, in the middle of a lot of dull stuff. Ending was badly booked too.

An enraged Dundee attacks Houston with the belt again in the aftermath, and the face has to scuttle out of the ring. Crowd sounds unimpressed. Schiavone announces the winner in the ring, with his mike only half-working. Jeez, this is shoddy. Straight back to Greensboro for the next contact. We still have nearly two-and-a-half hours left, with just six matches remaining.

Jimmy Valiant w/Big Mama vs Paul Jones w/ “Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez (Hair vs Hair) (Raging Bull Suspended In A Cage)

This has a clusterf**k written all over it. Valiant an older guy whose best years were already well behind him. Jones we have seen already tonight, better used as a manager than a wrestler. Context for this one? Non-existent. This is actually the hair of valet Big Mama against that of Paul Jones but you only know that because the announcer says so, the commentators certainly aren’t keeping us informed. Fernandez refusing to get in the cage, and the ref arguing with him about it is a very young Earl Hebner. I wonder if he was selling stuff out of his car at this one. Anyway, a bunch of faces come down to manhandle Fernandez into the cage so we can get this over with.

The bell rings with Jones still trying to get Fernandez out of the cage, and Jimmy Valiant commences to throw his opponent around. After a spell in the corner the ref drags Valiant away, Jones takers the chance to take some knucks out of his tights and nail Valiant. Some badly whiffed mat punches leads to two, and for some reason Valiant has bladed. Eventually Valiant rallies back, dueling strikes, Valiant locks on a sleeper, Jones gives up the knucks, and Valiant uses those for a 1980’s WMD for the pin in just about four minutes.

Winner: Jimmy Valiant and I suppose Big Mama, that nature of her problem with Jones left to our imagination.

Verdict: Rubbish from one guy who should have been retired and another guy who shouldn’t have been wrestling.

Crowd explodes with the fall it has to be said. The electric razor is out immediately, and Jones lays prone as he gets shaved bald. Bull out of the cage, ambushes Valiant from behind. Rick Rude out to join in the beatdown too. A chair is produced, and Valiant takes a double pile driver into it. Jones hides his shame under a bandana as the three heels make their exit. “Some concern about the condition of the Boogey Woogey man in the ring at this time” explains commentary with a seriousness that is mind-boggling. Some of the faces check on Valiant who eventually walks out on his own power. There follows a slow-motion replay of the head shaving that literally lasts for 90 seconds.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Schiavone plugs the Bunkhouse Stampede, which gets its own video package. Nelson Royal is next to a campfire to explain the concept, because of its western roots, which is essentially a hardcore battle royal. Royal doing this without a script, and man it does not sound great, he’s just way too dry and dull. Dusty Rhodes would win all four Bunkhouse Stampede events as I recall.

Plenty of time to kill here, and we now get a promo for the Crockett Cup. Some rapid-fire highlights of the 86 edition, with some dire narration from some guy in a TV studio. The Road Warriors won the first one, and the concept died off after just three years.

Astonishingly we are only just about halfway through this show.

Big Bubba Rodgers w/Jim Cornette vs Ronnie Garvin (Louisville Street Fight)

First of two appearances from Cornette tonight, and fair to say the second one is the bigger deal. Rodgers is, of course, the Big Boss Man, Garvin a fairly popular face in the 80’s who never truly broke into the top tier of performers. Loving Bubba’s bass-heavy entrance. Cornette introduces Bubba, Paul Heyman-style, as “the baddest man on the planet”.

Circling, Garvin with punches, Bubba no-selling mostly. Cornette’ ringside advice to Rodgers is to “break his neck”. Oh, so that’s all you need to do. Rodgers calling for a test of strength, but gets a few more right hands inside, and now Rodgers is knocked down and out of the ring, to Cornette’s general unhappiness. Lock-up, now Garvin tossed out. Rinse, repeat for another segment. Garvin grabs a glass of water from…somewhere, throws it in Rodgers’ face, which is a devastating maneuver apparently. More righthands, Bubba out. Cornette hands him something, back in so Garvin can put on a choke. Weird rhythm to this one so far.

Rodgers gets in a corner charge, and I think it’s a roll of quarters in his hand, and he’s wailing on Garvin. Garvin down, up at a count of eight, rinse, repeat. Is a Louisville Street Fight a Last Man Standing match? Garvin bloodied up now. Takes a Scoop Slam, then a Big Splash, and now the ref is counting a fall so I guess this isn’t a Last Man Standing match? Kicks out, sort of, up at nine. Suddenly Garvin has some kind of rope or wire, and Rodgers waits patiently to be tied up, only not really. Now choking Bubba with it. This match is really random.

More right hands from Garvin, neither of these guys seems to know how to, you know, wrestle. Bear hug from Rodgers for a bit, before Garvin lays in some headbutts. Rodgers lets go, then locks it in again, then takes some headbutts again. Does every spot need to happen twice in this match? More right hands, and the last to the chest is enough to propel Rodgers out. He’s counted while outside, which is a first for any street fight I’ve seen. “Bubba fight back!” yells Cornette, helpful. A few more rights, both to the outside, more rights, back in. Frighteningly dull.

Rodgers to the top looking for a Bubba Slam, intercepted and slammed to the mat. Gets two for Garvin, and with a kick out lands on top of the ref, which counts as a bump. Nasty looking Piledriver from Garvin, no ref for the count, and Cornette in to crack Garvin with his gold racket. A new ref in, both men down, counts to ten, the ref decides that, since there must be a winner the first man who gets to his feet will be the winner. Why have a count-out at all then? Cornette in, remonstrating with the ref, and gets shoved out. Garvin stirring first, then Rodgers, Rodgers grabs the ref to distract him so he doesn’t see Garvin on his feet. Garvin collapses, Rodgers gets up and they call that a win in just under 12.

Winner: Big Bubba Rodgers, but really there are no winners here.

Verdict: Awful stuff. Garvin looked shallow in terms of offence, Rodgers wasn’t much better.

“Bullshit” chants greet the decision. Quick, back to Greensboro.

Dusty Rhodes (c) vs Tully Blanchard w/J.J. Dillon (NWA World Television Championship) (First Blood)

This should be a treat, I hope. Rhodes getting a lengthy entrance as we watch him go through the arena, then through the crowd with an escort. Fans all over him. Blanchard with mountains of heat when announced. Dillon puts some kind of protective cover on Blanchard’s forehead pre-match, to the referee’s unhappiness. When that is removed, they slap some Vaseline on instead. Lots of ill-feeling, to put it mildly, and Rhodes lays a punch on Dillon, who blades unnecessarily. Blanchard leaves the ring, and then they sound the bell for some reason.

Eventually back in so we can start. Thunderous “Dusty” chants. Rhodes dodges a charge, then kicks the legs out from Blanchard. Lock up, Rhodes blocks a head strike and Blanchard backs off. Interesting chess game feel to this one as Rhodes poses in the corner, his elbow cocked. Blanchard gets a takedown, but Rhodes dodges a falling right, and Blanchard skitters out.

Back in, lock up, Rhodes with a headbutt, which seems like a move that could be counter-productive in this match. Blanchard playing defence the whole time. Rhodes gets in a good strike, elbow drop to the knee, and again, and Blanchard runs out again. In danger of falling into a dull pattern here, as the crowd quietens. Back in, 30 seconds of circling, then Blanchard gets the takedown. Trying to tear at Rhodes’ face, but Rhodes out of it.

Strikes in the corner, Blanchard pushes off and Hebner goes night night. Blanchard goes on the attack, Rhodes dodges and Hebner goes super night night. Dillon has thrown his shoe into the ring, Rhodes picks it up, fakes using it, but tosses it instead. Laying in the head strikes, Blanchard is bleeding, but no ref. Rhodes knocking Blanchard about, Dillon slapping on some Vaseline as Rhodes tries to get the ref going, when he turns back to Blanchard he gets nailed with a roll-of-quarters assisted punch. Rhodes is busted open, the ref is suddenly revitalised, and he calls it after one look at Rhodes, in around seven-and-a-half.

Winner (and new NWA World Television Champion): Tully Blanchard and Vaseline

Verdict: It was OK, told a decent story, but not a very engaging match.

Blanchard and Dillon hightail it out of there while Rhodes remonstrates with the ref. Crowd a bit numb.

Back to Atlanta for the titular match. Time for (dramatic pause) the Skywalkers!

The Road Warriors (Animal & Hawk) w/Paul Ellering vs the Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton & Dennis Condrey) w/Jim Cornette (Scaffold Match)

Apropos for me to talk about this one now, as at time of writing Animal, real name Joseph Laurinaitis, has just passed at the far too young age of 60. I’ve heard all about this match but never actually seen it, so I am very interested. Just waiting for that Cornette bump. The Warriors out and pose for the crowd on top of the scaffold, which traverses the ring, while the heels look on in trepidation from below. “Precious” Paul Ellering looks so young. With a bit of a delay, the Express slowly make their way up the scaffold. The Warriors greet them by shaking the structure, making the Express cower.

So, what are the rules of a “Scaffold Match”? Well, both teams fight on the top of the scaffold, and the first team to knock both opponents to the ring below win. It’s a fairly sizable drop too, so this is pretty high-risk for the period. No titles on the line, and not a hint as to why these two teams are willing to settle their differences in this manner. Given the narrow walkway they have to work with, I’m not expecting a technical classic, though I’m also not expecting a fruition of the Network’s “Only one team will survive” description. Still, looks dumb as hell.

We commence the awkward grappling, where the men involved are trying to look like they might be in danger of getting thrown off, but are really anything but. There’s only really enough room for strikes and kicks, but things are enlivened when Condrey throws some powder at Animal’s face, to Cornette’s delight. Crowd is a bit dead, except when people start dangling. First major moment is when Eaton and Animal end up beneath the scaffold, but eventually both scramble back to the ladder. Eaton blades at some point, like it was needed. Condrey too.

Warriors putting in the shots, Condrey trying to climb down the ladder, but Hawk intercepts. They exchange shots on the structure for a bit, and eventually the other two do the same on the other side. Now all four are playing at monkey bars, and one after the other Condrey and Eaton fall, in just about seven.

Winners: RIP Animal.

Verdict: About as good as it could possibly be given the circumstances. Which is to say, not very. At least the Express didn’t hurt themselves.

In the aftermath Ellering chases Cornette up the structure, he gets cornered, ends up hanging from the underside and drops to the ground, landing feet first before crumpling. As Cornette has famously outlined, he was initially supposed to take such a bump, but backed out when he realised the distance, which was around 15 feet. The plan instead was for Bubba Rodgers to catch him, but the sunglasses wearing Rodgers couldn’t see properly and was in the wrong position. Cornette hit the mat hard and legitimately suffered some series leg injuries in the process. As much as I dislike the man for a lot of reasons, it was a botch not of his own making, and he could have killed himself. And all for this stupid gimmick match.

Schiavone declares the Road Warriors the winners, then introduces some highlights of The Great American Bash. Just as with the Bunkhouse Stampede, we get some basic clips with terrible commentary over them. The Bash that year was actually a tour of 12 events with similar cards, ongoing at the time of Starrcade, a few of which have ended up on the Network. Includes Rhodes beating Flair for the top belt in a cage match, to the delirium of the recorded crowd.

Schiavone announces an intermission, and when we are back introduces the credits for the audience, who really could not care less. I suspect they are playing for time. Back in Greensboro, time for the main event of that location.

The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express (Ricky Morton & Robert Gibson) (c) vs the Minnesota Wrecking Crew (Arn & Ole Anderson) (NWA World Tag Team Championships) (Steel Cage Match)

Must have taken a while to get that cage up, hence the lengthy delay. There is still an hour left in this show all the same, with two matches left, so they will be long. Both teams get a big reaction, with the Wrecking Crew heavily booed and the Express adored. Not a terribly big cage, maybe seven feet mat to top. Despite the cage, normal tag rules apply. Ole and Gibson to start. Lock-ups and Arn in, things breakdown almost immediately, and when we’re back properly it’s Arn getting bullied around. Some rapid action, and when things settle we have Ole and Morton going at it, with Morton striking down Ole repeatedly.

Express with the advantage momentarily, but Gibson soon being beaten down by turn-taking Anderson’s. Focusing on the left-knee with strikes and rest-holds. Crowd very loud despite the baseness of the offence. Morton whipping them up with “Rock N Roll” chants, but the Anderson’s maintain the beatdown. Extended leg-lock from Arn, eventually both men are up, Gibson hits a sudden enziguri and hot-tag to Morton, but no expected cleaning of house because we still have 50 minutes left in this show. Instead, Anderson’s are quickly back on the slow, beatdown offence. Some variation when Morton’s head gets raked against the cage, which gets the crowd really riled. Not much use of the cage so far. Naturally, Morton blades.

There’s nothing really wrong with the pacing here – NXT does the double face-in-peril structure really well decades later, but they didn’t invent it – it’s just the actual move-sets are limited enough, even for the era. It’s just joint locks, stomps and the occasional throw into the cage. When Arn busts out a Scoop Slam it seems positively exciting. Arn then to the top, but it’s a top-rope nothing for Morton to hit a shot to the mid-section. Things break down, and the Anderson’s able to maintain the advantage. Morton really bloody now, but able to get a clumsy-looking running knee to send Ole down, but no sign of a tag yet. Lengthy rest-hold spot, then Morton rallying back with strikes, but nothing doing.

A few near-tag spots get the crowd going, then Arn nails a sweet looking spinebuster, best move of the match, but only two with Gibson breaking it up. Ole off the top shortly afterwards with a knee to the head, suddenly we have a match. Cinching in a rough looking shoulder wrench on Morton, eventually he kips up out of it, but still nothing doing yet. More rest-holds, more dueling strikes, and both men down. More near-tags, Morton with a roll-up for two, things break down again. Ole looking for a Scoop Slam on Morton, Gibson with a drop-kick, Morton wraps him up and that’s suddenly it in just under twenty-and-a-half.

Winners (and still NWA World Tag Team Champions): Rock and/or Roll Express

Verdict: It was fine, but the ending was strange. No hot tag despite the crowd begging for it, and the face champs made to look weak and fluky. Crowd happy though.

Brief brawl after the bell before the Express, our crowd-favourite champs, basically run away.

Back to Atlanta for the proper main-event.

Ric Flair (c) vs Nikita Koloff (NWA World Heavyweight Championship)

Full experience for Flair’s entrance, with a few cheers, and I thought he might be default face because he’s fighting Johnny Foreigner. Looking into it (and I had to do that myself, because this show certainly isn’t going to tell you) Flair was meant to fight Magnum TA at this event, but Magnum’s real-life car crash ended his career a few months beforehand. With glasnost in the air Koloff, also a US Champ, was re-positioned as a face to take on Flair. This explains the music video that plays between entrances, which features Magnum running shirtless on a beach to a terrible country-western song. If you didn’t know the context that must seem like the weirdest thing ever, because the words “original challenger” “car crash” and “retired” are not used. By the by, the change at the top of the card is also one of the reasons for the Scaffold Match existing, as a means of drawing in the crowds. Yeesh.

A full half-hour left in the show so this one will be long, but thankfully won’t go the 60 minute distance as Flair frequently did. Lock-up, and Koloff flings Flair back to a big reaction. And again. The Nature Boy takes a powder on the outside for a bit, back in, and now able to lay in some chops. But Koloff no-sells them, to Flair’s shock, and he’s off to ringside again. Standard Flair stuff so far. Back in, a very half-hearted “Woo”, and back to it. Lock-up, Koloff flings Flair back again. Flair jawing, dragging Koloff into the corner, and then hip-checked across the ring. I sense a sneaky manoeuvre coming.

Koloff flings Flair around a bit more, one-handed Scoop Slam, then another, and the crowd is into this. Flair skittering away, tries to lock-up again and walks into an elevated bear hug. Koloff puts Flair down to turn it into a pin, a technique I’m not sure I have seen before, but only two. Back to standing, and eventually to the ropes. Flair dodges a corner charge, and then hits a delay suplex. They use this to call Flair a “master strategist”, but all he did was dodge. Koloff no-selling the suplex, and a stunned Flair vacates the ring again.

At the ref’s insistence Flair comes back in, lock-up, into the corner, more chops from Flair, some strikes to the head gets some traction. A shoulder-charge gets nowhere, and when Flair tries again Koloff takes him down by the throat, looks brutal. Koloff looking for a running club, but Flair dodges again and Koloff goes flying over the rope, hitting hard. They explain this isn’t a DQ as Koloff sent himself out. Flair slams Koloff’s leg into the ringpost, back in, and Flair with a blow to the back of the same leg. We have an in-ring story.

Kicks to the leg, chops, and Flair suddenly locks in the Figure 4. Using the rope for leverage when the ref isn’t looking, a few two-counts when Koloff has the shoulders down. Koloff able to turn over, and Flair lets go. A bit early for that spot I think. Flair goes back to the leg, then runs Koloff’s face over the rope. More chops, strikes, chokes, but Koloff still able to throw Flair off. A big shoulder-charge sends Flair down, but the champion then able to throw Koloff to the outside (under the bottom rope). Some ringside brawling has Koloff in a bad way. It’s slow-paced, but effective so far.

Back in, Koloff taken down, and Flair drops the knee for two. Reverse suplex gets two, then shots to the head to help Koloff open up after a blade job. Lot of blood tonight, but it has added very little. Koloff coming back, another one-handed Scoop Slam, another big hip-toss, then Flair Irish Whipped into the corner hard enough to put him out. Not a DQ for some reason. Koloff follows, some more ringside brawling and this time the Russian has the advantage. Back in, Flair knocked down a few more times, and then from a big shoulder-charge the ref gets bumped out of the ring. Took it like a champ.

Koloff nails a big clothesline, gets the cover, but of course no count, to the crowds general unhappiness. Koloff goes looking for the ref, and Flair able to attack from behind with a knee, but only two when a new ref appears. Koloff goes for another big clothesline, Flair ducks and the ref gets it again, this time for a bit longer. Another ref in trying to break up the brawling, Koloff shoves him away and my jaw drops as the bell is called for in just about twenty minutes.

Winner: Both are disqualified. Flair retains. Glasnost wasn’t that over clearly.

Verdict: Was actually quite good, but the finish ruined it. Imagine if they pulled this at a Wrestlemania main event? Just hot potato the belt if you want Flair as champ.

Refs and heels take to the ring to try and bring Koloff down, and there is a big beatdown. The faces come out to defend him, and we have an even bigger brawl. Flair blades at some point. Crowd sounds apathetic. They pipe up when Koloff gets his hands on Flair again, and the brawling continues. Eventually they are pulled apart. Replays, then Schiavone announces the result, to boos. The commentary teams run down what we have seen, we get thrown to a highlights package that is at least 75% still photos, and that will be all.

Best Wrestler: You know what, I’ll give it to Hector Guerrero. He was able to do moves out there that 95% of everyone else present could only dream of pulling off.

Best Match: There wasn’t really a stand-out one. I would go with the main event if it had an actual finish, but instead I will pick Rhodes/Blanchard, which was booked well in regards the stipulation.

Worst Wrestler: Take your pick of a lot of options, but in terms of guys still potentially in a position to go who look very limited, I’ll plump for Wahoo McDaniels, whose offense was terrible.

Worst Match: Will give this to the Scaffold Match, just because it was so dangerous and stupid, and on top of it all just wasn’t entertaining at all.

Overall Verdict: A long drawn out affair filled with mediocre or sub-par matches, capped off by main events that were either dull or booked stupid finishes. Even for the era this is a poor effort, at a time when the WWF were streaking ahead of the competition. And it’s just so long! Avoid.

To view more entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie

Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie

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The Cooler King behind the wheel.

It is often slim pickings when it comes to fresh releases in the first week of a new year, and that frequently results in shorter or absent reviews from myself. The month of January will see more new films in the coming weeks, but for now I found my bacon saved in the form Sky’s dedicated documentary channel, the previous home of the previously viewed The Longest War, and usually good for a new educational feature if you are in need of something you can put the number “2021” on.

Which is not to say that this is a throwaway watch at all. You have a combination here of a number of interesting subjects: the titular actor, who so defined the film-making landscape of a certain time; another example of motor-racing on film, to whet my appetite ahead of a resumption of Formula E in a few weeks and Formula 1 in a few months (COVID permitting); and a film about film-making, in this case a very unique film-making rivalry, with archive footage seeing the light of day for the very first time. Was Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie a good introduction to 2021, or a bad omen for a year that yet portends significant disruption for the industry?

In the late 1960’s Steve McQueen was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood, but the man himself sometimes seemed to act as if the starring roles were just a means of pursuing his real passion: motor-racing. With veteran director John Sturgis at the helm, in the mid-60s McQueen aimed to be in the lead for the quintessential motor-racing film, Day Of The Champion, whose production went up directly against a competing film, Grand Prix. It was a race to see who could get their film into theatres first, with McQueen determined to get his obsession on-screen in as vivid a manner as possible.

So, let’s approach The Lost Movie from those three perspectives. Firstly, it is sort of a biopic, a partial one anyway, for McQueen, and for the most part I would say it is quite interesting from that regard. It doesn’t focus so much on the minute details of his early life, or on nearly anything after the events in question (more on that in a bit) but does provide a nice summation of his character and status in the Hollywood machine at the time. McQueen was a man who really did seem to come from absolutely nowhere to suddenly be the epitome of cool in a counter-culture world, whether he was stealing the limelight from Yul Brenner in The Magnificent Seven or jumping over barbed wire on a motorbike in The Great Escape.

McQueen has the look, the charisma and the confidence to be the leading man of the 1960’s and early 70’s, and The Lost Movie gives you a good idea as to how he was able to garner these qualities and use them to forge this perceived status as one of the first major A-Listers of a new Hollywood era. A rough upbringing was challenged by a stint in the military, and while a propensity for hard partying was never far away, McQueen was the kind of quasi-Renaissance Man that you just wanted to see more of, whether it was in a film or on a racing track. One interviewee, Christabel Charlie, sums it up nicely about a car trip they took together, matching the obsession with the admiration: “He was charming, chatty, had wonderful blue eyes…He behaved extremely well.”

When I say “on a racing track”, I mean literally racing on a racing track. McQueen wanted to be that guy, and even competed in some professional competitions for a time, and this is what influenced him to become somewhat obsessed over Day Of The Champion. The Lost Movie does its level best to add to the conversation as to why motorsport is such a draw for people, and while it does not add much new, it still does a good job of getting across how enrapturing the sport can be. The sense of constant danger, of individual driving skill married to the team aspect of a pit crew, of extreme speeds and exact concentration blending together, these are all things that The Lost Movie is keen to get ingrained in your head. The contributions of several key racing drivers of the time, not least Jackie Stewart, is important here, with he busting out the old, but accurate, line that F1 cars of the 60’s had the driver placed in the middle of what essentially an easily breached fuel tank. Drivers could, and did, die in the cockpit with disturbing regularity. It’s the idea of daredevils being married to sportsmen: why wouldn’t you want to make a film about that?

Well, one of the reasons is that is was rather hard to do at the time, if you wanted to do it right. John Sturgis for Day Of The Champion and John Frankenheimer for Grand Prix make significant contributions to this documentary, and any cinephile worth their salt will be interested in how they went about getting footage, how special rigs were constructed for the F1 cars so that the speed and thrill could be adequately captured, how big-time actors weren’t exactly acting as they zoomed around Monte Carlo. The footage captured at the Nurburgring, seen by a wider audience for the first time here, is genuinely mesmerising, and speaks to the commitment of the production team to go the extra mile in placing the audience firmly inside the cockpit of an F1 car, something that simply had never been possible before.

Rarely will you see in-car footage of racing that looks this interesting.

There are lots of moments here worth consideration; James Garner getting into a verbal argument with a Monaco official holding up filming, perhaps indicating some taut nerves from the realities of being behind the wheel; F1 drivers at the time dividing into the camps of either production (some switching the other other side when Sturgis’ film was 86’d so “We got paid twice”); Frankenheimer’s remarkably chaotic manner of filming surrounded by real pit crews and real spectators; and always, the distant figure of Steve McQueen, stuck filming The Sand Pebbles in east Asia, railing against the Hollywood system that was keeping him from his passion project.

Strangely for a film that has his name on it, McQueen is absent for large stretches of the story being told. The Sand Pebbles might have been one of his greatest accomplishments from an acting perspective, but the tortured production ended any pretensions that Day Of The Champion had at beating Grand Prix to theatres: the fact that you may have never head of Day Of The Champion may perhaps indicate how the story ends. Grand Prix is a film that I can actually take or leave really: it’s impressive from a cinematography perspective, but its story and script are fairly humdrum in comparison. It doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Rush, a curiously dismissed film here, a victim of an epilogue crawl that states no contemporary F1 film has ever been made since Grand Prix, with the false implication being that no F1 film’s have been made at all.

The Lost Movie gives us a sometimes heartbreaking look at how Hollywood was not always a dream factory, even for people as magnetic and well-liked as McQueen. It was a rough-and-tumble business – it still is, I suppose – where studio heads were sensitive to embarrassment and unwilling to indulge the creative types for too long. The people involved being interviewed now seem capable of looking back without too much in terms of displays of emotion, but that might just be the distance: when the final fate of Day Of The Champion becomes clear, it seems like a terrible waste of talent and effort, to be thrown away in a largely manufactured rivalry with an opposing studio.

The Lost Movie can be viewed pretty simply as your standard TV documentary in format. There are very obvious pauses for commercial breaks, summations of what you have seen so far when they are over. Artsy chapter cards give us stylised quotations from the titular actor himself. David Letterman’s narration, something I don’t really think he is the very best suited for, can sometimes come off as a bit monotonous, as if the man himself has very little interest in what he is narrating on: director Alex Rodger, a little known guy who got into this on the back of creating pre-race vignettes for F1, is an unseen figure, though I commend his work on the archive footage, in terms of changing it into digestible chunks here. It’s short-enough, coming in just under the 90 minute mark, and displays a fairly rigid focus on its main premise: once the kerfuffle with Day Of The Champion and Grand Prix is concluded, we are rapidly heading towards credits, with nary a mention of what was left of McQueen’s life. In other words, The Lost Movie’s scope is limited: some may find this admirable, but for me I thought that it could have used just another few minutes to give us further insight into McQueen’s life, how he viewed racing during the rest of the 1970’s, and whether his untimely death carried with it greater regrets over things like Day Of The Champion than might have been immediately apparent. Bullitt and Le Mans are given only brief mentions.

I doubt that The Lost Movie is going to feature in an end of the year Top Ten in twelve months time, or even be my favourite documentary, but it was a reasonably entertaining diversion. It aimed to give us a portrait of McQueen from the angle of his motor-racing obsession: I think it did that, albeit it could have been fleshed out more. It aimed to give us an understanding of why men like McQueen have that obsession with motor racing: I think it did that too. It aimed to give us a look behind the camera and give an insight into the ingenuity of cinematography when the occasion called for it: I think it did that. Parts of the production are a little stilted and I doubt that the film will ever have much more remembrance than as an interesting footnote to McQueen and Sturgis’ career, but The Lost Movie accomplishes the majority of what it set out to accomplish. If you are interested in these topics, and have access to Sky Documentaries, it is recommended.

Gone too early, but never forgotten.

(All images are copyright of Sky Documentaries).

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Ireland’s Wars: Collins’ Northern Policy And The Clones Shootout

We have spent a good few entries recently discussing the larger geo-political/military situation in Ireland, between the furor around the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the growing split in the nationalist movement. While all of that was going on, the situation in the north of Ireland remained, to put it lightly, extremely volatile. There had been ongoing violence from the moment the truce was signed all the way up to the end of 1921, with flashpoints of rioting in August and November that had left dozens dead in Belfast alone, while the rest of Ulster vacillated between allegiance to the Republic and following the unionists into a new state. In the first few months of 1922 this violence began to carry a bit more of a political/military, rather than purely sectarian, aspect, as the new provisional government began to flex what muscle it had in relation to Northern Ireland.

1922 was only a few hours old when the first deaths in the North happened, and it very much a case of beginning as you mean to go on: the victims were two young civilians, 14-year-old Hugh Corr and 21-month-old Samuel Campbell, Campbell apparently killed by the ricocheting bullet that had hit Corr. Catholics, they were killed by a sniper on Belfast’s Nelson Street. Their deaths were really par for the course, just the latest in a seemingly endless string of attacks and counter-attacks being prosecuted by either side of the sectarian divide, happening throughout the North but concentrated heavily in Belfast. At least 16 more people would be killed in the city in the rest of January, the victims of snipers, bombs, fires and what we can easily describe as mob violence. On a few occasions gunmen simply called to the door of targets and shot them then and there.

The government seemed unable to wrest any kind of control back, despite the presence of British military personnel in the city. USC men could not be relied upon to properly police largely Catholic areas, something British officers noted in messages back to London, despairing at the idea of the Army having to deal with both republican gunmen and out-of-control unionist militia. They wanted unionist forces to deal with unionist criminals first-and-foremost, but this was never likely to be taken up by the new Northern Irish government, intent as they were on maintaining a unionist ascendancy at all levels.

On the 14th of January, things escalated dramatically when a number of players from a Monaghan gaelic football team were arrested in Tyrone, while travelling to play a match in Derry. One of them was Dan Hogan, brother of the Michael killed on Bloody Sunday, then the O/C of the 5th Northern Division. Papers found on Hogan indicated that he and others were using the match as a pretext or cover for the attempted jailbreak of three IRA Volunteers being housed, awaiting execution, in Derry, following a failed jail break attempt the previous month. The fate of the prisoners had been a cause of some unrest in the area, and it seems likely that Hogan’s mission was a GHQ-sanctioned one: Michael Collins and Eoin O’Duffy, the new Chief of Staff of the IRA, were taking a keen interest in it at any rate.

This sudden crisis provided an opportunity for Collins to implement an adversarial policy towards the North. Despite his negotiation and support for the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was an explicitly pro-partition document, Collins had no intention of supporting the creation of a Northern Irish state. For him, partition was not something that was meant to be a long-term political solution, and almost from the moment that Collins returned from London he began working on ways to undermine Belfast. In early 1922 this meant a consolidation of resources in border counties, north and south, in preparation for continuing operations.

At the same time, the provisional government was left facing the thorny issue of what to do about the North politically. On the 21st of January Collins had met with James Craig and made a loose pact that the Belfast Boycott would end and that Craig seek to get Catholic workers expelled from their jobs during the pograms re-instated (something that, in the end, he was unable to accomplish, though the Boycott was ended), but presumably could come to no agreement on the issue of prisoners like Hogan. By the end of the month the provisional government has decided on a peaceful policy of non-recognition of Northern political powers, with Dublin to try and pay the wages of Catholic teachers and local government authorities in the North, while Sinn Fein TD’s refused to sit in its Parliament. They also insisted on the release of both the Monaghan footballers and the three Derry prisoners, but Craig was, for the moment, unmovable.

It was perhaps because of this perceived intransigence that Collins moved to undertake a more militant solution. On the night of the 7th/8th February, a large number of IRA Volunteers from Monaghan, Longford and Leitrim crossed the border at varying points in cars, to raid a wide swath of territory. The operation was nominally under the command of the “Ulster Council”, a sort of northern-focused off-shoot of the IRB, but in actuality it was the brainchild of Collins, O’Duffy and Richard Mulcayy, with Frank Aiken as a major directing force, so was an official incursion by any other name. No-one was killed that night, though some USC were wounded when their patrol was ambushed near Newtownbutler. At least forty people, prominent unionists and members of the “Specials” were kidnapped from their homes and brought back south, to serve as hostages against the safety and release of the IRA men held captive in the North. Some IRA personnel were also captured in the process.

By then the three Derry prisoners had had their death sentences commuted to 15 years imprisonment, but this wasn’t enough to take the air out of the balloon. Unionist reaction to the kidnappings was predictably furious. USC flooded into the border area where the kidnappings had taken place, with crossings turned into military posts and other methods of entering the North destroyed. Both sides exchanged potshots at each other, with a particular fulcrum of such incidents being the area around Clones. The town had become a major staging point/centre for the IRA operating near the border, but it was its train station that would cause the coming trouble.

On the 11th February, a party of Specials took a trip from Newtownards to reinforce other USC units in Enniskillen. The route they took, by train, happened to cross the border for a time, as they met a connection at Clones: it was unclear if this was a deliberate provocation or a startlingly unwise, but not malicious, travelling choice. The Specials, all armed, had to wait for a time in Clones for their connecting train. Some of what surviving USC accounts call “suspicious looking young men” at the station probably informed the local IRA, if they weren’t IRA members themselves.

Nearby Volunteers, suitably enraged when they were informed of the arrival of the USC in their town, made their way to the station, led by battalion commandant Matt Fitzpatrick. We can’t be completely sure of his intentions, which could have been to arrest the Specials, or enact a more permanent solution to their presence south of the border. What happened when he, and his group of rapidly assembled Volunteers, arrived at the station is predictably disputed. The Enniskillen train was stopped from leaving, and firing broke out: IRA accounts claim Fitzpatrick was shot dead after calling on the Specials to surrender, the USC claim the IRA opened fire without provocation. Either way, Fitzpatrick was killed at the outset, and then an impromptu gunfight erupted through the train and on the platform.

The exchange of fire was confused, but did not last very long: the Specials were outnumbered, just about, and many of them were caught on the platforms without cover. Four members of their party were killed, and most of the others wounded before the situation was brought to some form of control: the IRA listed only Fitzpatrick as a casualty. Additional IRA personnel were reaching the station all the time, answering Fitzpatrick’s call, and so the Specials were obligated to throw down their guns (some claimed members of their party were killed in the act of doing so, or after, but this is unverifiable). Many civilians were caught in the crossfire also, though none were killed. The surviving USC were taken prisoner.

The aftermath did little credit to the IRA. Civilians on the train, those not hit, were ordered to carry the dead and wounded out of the train, before it was allowed to continue its journey. When it arrived into stops north of the border, the shattered carriages, blood-soaked interior and similarly blood-soaked passengers provoked outrage. IRA units from much of the surrounding area poured into Clones upon hearing of what had happened, perhaps in the mistaken belief that some manner of invasion was taking place. Something approximating martial law was implemented in the area, and a young girl was inadvertently killed that night by the IRA in Monaghan Town.

Clones was a vicious and chaotic encounter, a suitable example of the same viciousness and chaos that were the defining elements of what was happening in the north of Ireland. The USC should never have been in Clones, whether they intended to travel there or blundered over the border. The IRA should, perhaps, not have rushed to the confrontation, a sign of the spontaneous nature of the organisation that flew in the fact of higher direction. Whatever exactly happened at the train station, whoever fired first, it was an encounter that did not say much about either side from a military perspective: just an exchange of gunfire from two armed groups acting more on emotion than martial direction.

Unionists in the North and hawks in London were outraged: some legislators demanded a military re-conquest of the south. British military withdrawal was temporarily paused, but Craig was refused authorisation to send a large force of USC over the border to “rescue” the prisoners. Another bloody bout of sectarian violence and rioting took place in Belfast in the aftermath, with at least 27 people killed in the three days between the 12th and 15th of February. Things seemed dangerously poised, but Winston Churchill was more interested in maintaining whatever facade of stability that there was then escalating things back to the point of conflict. On the 16th February, at his behest, the British military arranged for the release of the gaelic footballers, and in response the IRA released most of their hostages: within a short enough time more would be released. On this occasion at least, things were allowed to de-escalate, and the manner in which the British military took the first step may have been important in allowing all sides to save some face.

Clones has become a surprisingly forgotten incident in the larger Irish revolutionary period, drowned out by the tidal wave of blood being shed in Belfast. While it appears likely that it was more of a chance encounter that an intentional confrontation, it was the inevitable result of Collins’ northern policy, which was fundamentally unsound. Collins seemed to think that Northern Ireland was an entity driven only by a Protestant community centred around parts of Belfast, and that they were able to exert their will only because of a British military presence. He thus seemed to think that an IRA operating a guerrilla struggle with a base in the south could overturn the Northern government, but the lack of a popular support base in the North for such an endevour made it very unlikely to ever succeed, not to mention the existence of the practically paramilitary counter-insurgent force that was the USC. Of course the Belfast government was similarly operating from an unsound position, in making the same mistake that the British had made repeatedly over the previous few years: thinking that any move they made would not immediately result in some manner of escalation from the other side.

Things in the North would get worse, not better. We have touched on it to some extent here, but in the next entry we must focus more singularly on the issue of Belfast, always the epicentre of violence in Northern Ireland at this time. In March of 1922 things would explode there once again: the manner in which it did so would give Collins’ Northern policy its next big test.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

NFB Watches Wrestling #35: WCPW World Cup – USA Qualifiers

Commentary on the in-ring or mike prowess of wrestlers named in the #SpeakingOut story should not be taken as support for them in general. I beleive her.

Only two more of these qualifier shows before we get into the business end. It’s the 21st July 2017 and we’re in the Bowlers Exhibition Centre of American heartland Manchester for the USA Qualifiers of the WCPW Pro-Wrestling World Cup! Your main event tonight: with only World Cup matches on the card, the second preliminary final.

A raucous crowd are behind Dave Bradshaw and James R. Kennedy on commentary, as we head to the first Tale of the Tape. This is a two hour+ show with just six matches, so expect some lengthy contests.

David Starr (boo) is honoured to be an American representative. Bobby Fish (yay) does his best work when the lights are brightest. Might not get on so well if they go ringside then. Starr says he’ll grind it out. Fish will force Starr to adapt to him. The sexual predator spouts his catchphrases. Fish will win because is unpredictable and the complete performer.

David Starr vs Bobby Fish (WCPW Pro-Wrestling World Cup USA Preliminary Semi-Final #1)

Starr the wXw Shotgun Champ at the time. Fish has already debuted with NXT, and will be off there full time the following month, so even if he wins this match I doubt he’s going to the finals. The crowd with love for both men, but more obviously for Starr. Wonder what his reactions will be like nowadays.

Greco-Roman chains to start, then Fish with a leg-lock: when Starr gets to the rope he exhorts Fish to “follow the rules” and let go, for some cheap laughs. Starr with a trip off a whip, then a crucifix for two. Handstand evasions, then a very awkward Lou Thesz press from Starr. Fish body-dropped onto the apron, then drop-kicked to the ringside. Fish out of the way of a tope, Starr pulls out of it, but after some more dodging chains is able to hit one to a big reaction.

Back in, Fish with the takedowns and we got outside again straight away. These two are too good to be brawling at ringside. Starr with the beatdown, no count-out, and did I just see Mick Foley in the front row? Back in, Fish with a big kick to the back to the crowd’s unhappiness. Knees to the chest, snapmare, then a springboard senton for two. Dueling strikes, Starr with a jumping knee, running chop, adds a few more, dodges a high kick, and then hits a flipping Big Ending. Some good back-and-forth now.

Fish fighting back, but gets caught up in the ropes and nailed with a cool-looking Product Recall DDT, but only two off a rope-break. Starr looking for his Product Placement, Fish out, takedown on Starr and we’re back outside to trade kicks, and you better believe Bobby Fish is winning that fight. Back in, more kicks, big shoving boot into the corner, looked vicious. Fish locks in a tight Ankle-Lock, Starr able to get to his feet then bridges backwards into a pin for two. Starr charges, and takes an Exploder into the corner for two. Fish looking for a suplex, but countered into a dropping neck-breaker. Looking for the Product Placement again, Fish out of it, misses a roundhouse then takes a swinging forearm to the back of the head. This time he does hit the Product Placement, with a bridge – terrible finisher for the record – and that’s it in around nine minutes.

Winner: The sexual predator.

Verdict: Didn’t need the ringside brawling, but as good as you would expect from these two. Fish onto bigger and better things than WCPW. Boom.

Starr seeks a handshake, and Fish decided to jaw at him a bit, and it looks like he’s trying to cut a promo without a mike. They do eventually shake, to the crowds delight.

Jay Lethal and Moose are next for the Tale of the Tape. It’s the first time Lethal has represented his country. Never in TNA’s tournaments? Moose is honoured and aims to be “the lone winner”. As opposed to the group winner? Lethal will use his speed to avoid Moose’s power. Moose is the cream of the crop, something he repeats a few times. Lethal is the greatest wrestler in the world, which even as hyperbole is a stretch.

Moose vs Jay Lethal (WCPW Pro-Wrestling World Cup USA Preliminary Semi-Final #2)

Moose the GWF Champion at the time, but out with no belt, not sure why. Crowd goes mild for Lethal, who probably hit his apogee a few years before this. He takes a brief powder before we get going, which is very unnecessary. I’ll give them one thing, they get dueling chants going, but probably play to the crowd too much.

Takes a long time for even a lock-up. Moose mocks Lethal’s height, or lack of it, and then a wrestling match breaks out. Lethal gets in a chop, Moose isn’t impressed, super-kick, a chain of slow-ass handstands, some leapfrogs and then the most telegraphed charge I have seen in ages where Lethal is able to lower the bridge and send Moose outside. Lethal lands an awful looking tope where Moose seems to have problems selling, adds another to make up for it, but gets caught on a third and slammed against the apron. On paper it’s all a great sequence, but Moose looks remarkably sedentary.

Lethal answers a count of eight, and eats a series of chops. Hilarious moment when Bradshaw says Lethal must be running on fumes, when Moose looks gassed AF. Able to hit a Scoop Slam for two, but nobody home on a drop-kick, Moose out of a Figure 4 attempt, and this time hits his drop-kick, so I’m guessing a rest-hold is coming up. We go the ringside, chops, Moose hits a “running” pump kick – more of a jogging pump kick really – does another one that looks even slower – a brisk walking pump kick? – and heads back in to let Lethal answer another eight count. Terrible rhythm to this one so far, and I think it would be dangerous to let Moose win and fight again tonight.

Lethal trying to rally back, but walks into a pop-up powerbomb – Lethal doing most of the work there – then a near-fall for Moose off a running senton. “No wasted motion” says Kennedy, and yeah right mate. Here’s the long awaited rest-hold, with a bear hug for a bit. Lethal out eventually, then eats another pump kick, but then able to hit his own super-kick. Hip toss, drop-kick, cutter, then a slow trek to the top-rope to hit a top-rope nothing, countered into a brief leg-lock. Lethal out, Lethal Combination, but it’s not a finisher anymore so only two.

Lethal looking for a suplex, Moose not playing ball, hits another pump kick, but Lethal no-sells this one and now he’s able to hit the suplex, but only two. Crowd struggling with this one, a lot of silent sections. Moose trying to call for chants as he takes shots from Lethal, but the crowd is not biting. Imagine Hogan Hulking up to silence to get an idea. Moose starting to no-sell the offence, hits back with a few strikes of his own but walks into another super-kick. Another pump kick, hip-attack into the corner, drop-kick into the corner, only two. Labouring offence from both guys now, and this one needs to head towards a conclusion.

Lethal out of another corner attack, but caught on the second rope with a “Go To Hell” Choke Bomb, but Lethal kicks out at 2 and 49/50ths. Moose with laboured chops, goes for a springboard crossbody which looks like it might be the last of his energy, but it’s countered into an STO for two. Handspring cutter – the “Lethal Injection” – gets only one to the crowds genuine shock. Enziguri, super-kick, another, a third, another enziguri, another super-kick, a third enziguri, Moose still not going down because this is dumb as hell. Another Lethal Injection ends it in just under 17-and-a-half.

Winner: The one who looks slightly less likely to keel over after going nearly twenty minutes.

Verdict: Moose looked shocking out there, and the protection he got in the booking of the match was very silly. Credit to commentary for trying to play it up as epic.

Post-match, the world’s least deserved show of respect, with Lethal actually keeling over, but in a kayfabe way. Him and Starr has only one winner on the basis of this.

James Storm and Keith Lee up next, oh hell yes. Lee invites us to bask in his glory. Storm is sorry for everyone else’s bad luck. Lee is one of the most exciting guys in the industry. Storm looking forward to facing some new young faces (umm…). Lee plans to avoid the super-kick. Storm is used to dealing with big guys. We even get some Impact stills here, so WCPW really pushing the boat out. Lee is the best “big man” in wrestling.

Keith Lee vs James Storm (WCPW Pro-Wrestling World Cup USA Preliminary Semi-Final #3)

At time of writing this Lee has just started his main roster run on WWE, and I’m hoping and praying he gets the run he deserves. Storm is one of the best things to come out of TNA, with whom he was to finish up with this year. He was, pre-lockdown, spending his 40’s on NWA Powerrrrrrrrrr. I know who has the better deal. Dueling “Keith Lee”/”Beer!” chants, and that is a contrast.

Lock-ups, leapfrog chains, and that will never not look impressive when Lee does it. Lee invites Storm to bask in his glory, and gets a slap instead. Lee on a corner charge, dropped onto the apron, going for a springboard spear but caught with a Lung Blower. Nice. Only two, Storm maintains the attack, and finally gets Lee down off a big clothesline.

Lee dodges from a corner charge, and floors Storm a few times himself, before a not-so-great looking rana. Even Mr Limitless has limits it seems. Connects on a corner charge, big double slap, milks the reaction for a moment and then does it again. Crowd popping big. Storm rallying back with an awkward double axe-handle, enziguri from the apron, then a neckbreaker for two. Slightly odd feel to this one, lots of pauses in-between short high-intensity moments. Storm struggles a bit to get Lee up on top, but is able to hit a Frankensteiner. Storm to the top, and has just, just, enough distance to hit a splash for two. Looked dodgy as hell, and this is threatening to turn into a botchfest.

Storm looking for a powerbomb, Lee resisting, hits a big left-hand for two. Lee looking to go up town, but intercepted as he goes. Storm able to carry Lee into the middle of the ring and hit the Eye of the Storm, but it’s not a finisher anymore so only two. Lee gets up a bit quicker than he really should, hits the Ground Zero (which has the much better name of “Big Bang Catastrophe” recently), and that’s the 1, 2, 3 in just under ten.

Winner: Oha, oha (Keith Lee)

Verdict: Not as awesome as I would have hoped, and ended real sudden.

Onto the next, and final match of this round.

Matt Sydal and King Ricochet are both happy to be here representing the US of A. Sydal is representing the entire planet more so, because he is heel, I think. Ricochet thinks representing America is pretty cool, as the highlights focus on his crazy in-ring style. He doesn’t have a set strategy, but his ability to improvise will carry the day. Sydal can endure more pain than anyone. A little milquetoast this one, they try to play up the two’s tag teaming past (they held IWGP Jr Heavyweight Tag Titles together) but no real commitment behind it.

Matt Sydal vs King Ricochet (WCPW Pro-Wrestling World Cup USA Preliminary Semi-Final #4)

Sydal a few years removed from his WWE run where I genuinely think he could have made it bigger there before injuries (and a well-documented fondness for the wacky tobaccy) derailed him. No getting away from that, because that run in the Fed is the first thing commentary brings up. Speaking of trips to the Fed, Ricochet is half a year or so from arriving on NXT, where he would have a crazy-good run, and now is predictably lost on the main roster.

Handshake to start, and I’m guessing this is going to be hardcore indie style. Headlocks, then into one of the standard Ricochet chains where both guys are dancing more than fighting, but looks amazing. Some flipping chains follow, and Ricochet tweaks his left knee for a kayfabe impediment. Sydal able to hit a running drop-kick to the corner to take the advantage. Ricochet soon sent to the outside, where Sydal locks on a strange leg-lock variation on the apron.

Back in, where Sydal takes a roll-through drop-kick after a dodged charge, but then answers with his own drop-kick to the injured leg. Sydal locks in a half Boston Crab, but Ricochet to the ropes quick enough. Sydal with a spinning heel kick, then a sweet looking Muta Lock. Ricochet out of it eventually, rallying back, and floors Sydal on a big charge. Hits a 619, springboard uppercut, looking good. Powerbomb attempt, Sydal out with a kick to the head, but walks into a cutter, then a standing shooting star for two. This was getting slow, but has now sped up measurably.

Ricpchet looking for an uranage maybe, but Sydal out of it. Fireman’s carry, Sydal out of it again, but Ricochet counters him back into it, but before he can hit the Benadrilla kick Sydal gets it in instead. Only two, Sydal to the top, Ricochet up, top-rope nothing and Sydal eats a scissors kick. Dueling uppercuts, corner charge from Ricochet, then Sydal hits a bizarre inverted cutter/DDT thing. Going for the Air Sydal (what a terrible name), but nobody home. Ricochet with a few kicks, his own Benadrilla, and that’s enough in just under ten, surprisingly.

Winner: Prince Puma/King Ricochet/Emperor Main Event

Verdict: Shorter than I thought, given there is the better part of an hour left in the show. Ricochet rarely puts in less than an awesome shift, but Sydal wasn’t entirely at the races.

This means our main event will be the admittedly mouth-watering clash of Keith Lee and Ricochet.

A lengthy promo for WCPW Loaded follows, the promotion’s weekly show that went off the “air” a few months previous to this but is due for a return. I’m sure it will work out swimmingly for Blampied. Just a few months until his true colours are revealed, as a reminder.

Back in the arena, another sexual predator is coming back out.

David Starr vs Jay Lethal (WCPW Pro-Wrestling World Cup USA Preliminary Final #1)

I’ll say this, that “Your favourite wrestler’s favourite wrestler” line is dynamite. Lethal goes after the leg straight away, and before you can say “Please no”, we’re going to the outside for some brawling. Eventually back in, where Starr isn’t able to get in a tope owing to a knee injury. Lethal commences working over the knee even more, hanging it on the ropes, stomps, etc.

Starr trying to rally back with roll-ups and strikes, and now able to hit a tope after getting Lethal out with a high knee. Taking a while to nurse his knee on the outside, then back in with chops. Not a great energy to this one really. A series of strikes and chops in the corner, and Lethal collapses from the hurt. Some dueling strikes, a few counters, and Lethal hits a big cutter, but no energy to go for the cover. Both men slowly back up, Lethal to top, Starr follows, some grappling on the top rope, Starr knocked off, Lethal, after a wait that makes the whole thing seem rather silly, hits an elbow drop for two.

Lethal looking for the Lethal Injection, but countered into a release German. Lethal no-selling essentially, gets intercepted on a tope attempt, hit with a big suplex neckbreaker, but only two. Both men back up eventually, Lethal hits the Injection for two, then transitions into a Figure 4. Starr screams, trying to get to the ropes, nothing doing, and after around a minute taps out, with just over 13 on the clock.

Winner (and progressing to the Finals): Jay Lethal, surprisingly.

Verdict: Finish a bit of a surprise, I’m guessing Starr wasn’t available for the rest of the tournament, or was too expensive. Not much to say about this one, which was nothing to write home about.

Show of respect in the aftermath. I might nit like Lethal in terms of how much he can go at this point, but at least we won’t see Starr again.

Blampied is in my face to plug Loaded again. I have no confidence it will succeed again!

On to the main event, which has the space to be epic.

Keith Lee vs King Ricochet (WCPW Pro-Wrestling World Cup USA Preliminary Final #2) 

Both men smiling at each other as we start, and we get a handshake to boot. Lock-up, and Lee easily shoves Ricochet into the corner. Going back in, Ricochet is unable to take Lee down, and is flung about instead. Gets in a headlock, and Lee uses just his neck to life Ricochet up. A shoulder charge ends with Ricochet on the floor, he puts in another headlock, and Lee teases that he might tap out, but instead deposits Ricochet on the top. Bit of a comedy feel to this now, but then we get a sudden rana/leapfrog chain, that ends with Lee flooring Ricochet with a drop-kick.

Ricochet with a totally ineffectual chop, and gets floored when Lee reciprocates. Lee hitting bigger moves and clotheslines now, and gets two on the first pin attempt. Wearing Ricochet down with body stands and rope-based chokes. Ricochet rallying back with strikes and a big spinning forearm. Goes for a springboard crossbody, but nailed with a Lee crossbody instead. Big throw, big corner charge, an even bigger throw, and an even bigger, bigger throw. Impressive strength, but getting a little dull now. Lee going for another Avalanche, but Ricochet avoids it by simply collapsing.

Lee charging again, but gets caught, and Ricochet somehow delivers, just about, a Fallaway Slam, in what is easily the spot of the night. Deserved “Holy shit” chants. Flying forearm into the corner, apron enziguri, springboard uppercut, running shooting star, but only one, much to Ricochet’s shock. Looking for the Benadrilla, but doesn’t have the strength. Charging again, and walks into a huge chokeslam, with some of the biggest air I’ve seen from such a move, but only two again. Unreal spot again.

Axe Kick from Ricochet, springboard drop-kick, springboard 450, only two. Seems like a match where there is little back-and-forth, just periods of dominance. Ricochet looking for the Bendrilla again, but again can’t get Lee up. Pump kick, big chop, but caught on another charge into a bear hug, transitioned into a belly-to-belly. Sweet looking. Big Bang Catastrophe, but Ricochet kicks out, to the crowd’s surprise. Ricochet prone, Lee going to the top, moonsault but nobody home.

Another scissor kick, high knee, spin kick, now Ricochet able to hit the Benadrilla, but Lee stays on his feet. Another Axe Kick where Ricochet very obviously whiffs. Ricochet to the top, shooting star, but not great contact and Ricochet rolls away. Lee rallies with a goozle, the King breaking out of it, Lee responds with a Spirit Bomb, but again only two. Kick out spam, thy name is WCPW. That’s OK, because out of another lift from Lee Ricochet counters into a roll-up for the win in just about 19 minutes.

Winner (and progressing to the Finals): One. And. Only.

Verdict: A bit oddly paced, and that meant the finishing sequence didn’t have the impact it should have had. These two have done better.

Another show of respect in the aftermath, and honestly this show has had a few too many of them, it makes everything seem very samey. Not enough heels I suppose.

After the show goes off the air, we get a recap of the draw they have already made for the Finals, though there are still two slots to fill. We have Will Ospreay vs Rey Mysterio, Joe Coffey vs Michael Elgin, Kenny Williams vs KUSHIDA, Lucky Kid vs Hiromu Takahashi, Bad Bones ve Penta El Zero M, Zack Sabre Jr vs Jay Lethal, with Mike Bailey and Ricochet down to face the two qualifiers from the final “Rest of the World” preliminary show. Ospreay/Mysterio the obvious stand-out. Looking forward to it, though I understand there was some late changes to the card , so we’ll see.

As for tonight:

Best Match: Starr/Fish was the standout I suppose, benefiting from seeming fresh in comparison to the matches that followed.

Best Wrestler: Ricochet is going to be hard to beat out for this category anytime he is on a show.

Worst Match: Lethal/Moose was honestly a bit of a train wreck for both men, but especially Moose.

Worst Wrestler: Against my usual procedure, I have to give it to Moose, who looked so out of shape and limited for someone of his apparent notoriety.

Overall Verdict: It needed more heels and more imagination. Too many wrestlers were in second gear, and there was little to really write home about.

Just one more of these prelim shows before the finals. Sock it to them “Rest of the World”.

To view more entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Film Rankings And Awards 2020

What a year it has been huh? Three months of normality, nine months of streaming. New films continued to come out at a steady pace regardless of the virus, and so my rankings and awards for the year that was.

10. True History Of The Kelly Gang

Ned Kelly the historical figure is someone that I have often perceived as being all things to all men, depending on what they want him to be: criminal, revolutionary, philosopher, genius. Justin Kurzel, more intimately familiar with the legacy of Kelly as an Australian, takes on Peter Carey’s novel, and Kelly himself, in the prism of that varied status and runs with it, opening with a very interesting foreword: “Nothing you are about to see is true”.

What is true is the power of George McKay’s performance in the title role, bringing us a multi-faceted character in Kelly, wrapped up in rage, injustice, Irish rebel heritage and Oedipal complexes. His life and times are brought to us in a truly eye-catching visual manner: drone footage of a the desolate badlands mixes with eerily intimate interior shots, creating what we can only call an otherworldy feeling. Kurzel brings Carey’s unique use of language and writing in the novel to life on the screen in the best way it possibly could have, with a cast who are firing on all cylinders.

True History Of The Kelly Gang is certainly the most unique take on Ned Kelly that I have seen cinematically, and there has been more than a few. It attempts to craft a three dimensional view of its chief subject that treats him more like a literal legend than an historical figure. Throw in some excellent portrayals of Kelly’s supporting cast of characters, backed up by fine performances from all involved, and then layer on Kurzel’s wonderful cinematography, and you have yourself a winner. Kurzel has added splendidly to the conversation on Kelly and his legacy, with an adaption that does credit both to the source material and to the director.

Ned Kelly (George McKay) in True History Of The Kelly Gang

9. Sea Fever

I must admit, Sea Fever caught me a bit unexpectedly. Even with all of the attractions in its cast and crew, I was honestly not contemplating seeing something this good or this polished. It’s a film that feels like it was very carefully put together and the execution is fantastic, meshing a very, by now, well-worn story of people being trapped in a confined space with a monster with some very thought-provoking material regards fear, contagion and the terrible outcome when the two are mixed. Thus, to say that Sea Fever is the perfect film for 2020 is understating the matter quite decisively.

Leaning more towards sci-fi unease than flat-out horror, director Neasa Hardiman does a good job at teasing things out without overplaying her hand or making Sea Fever too lengthy: we spend just enough time in every act to feel comfortable, from Siobhan’s stuttering efforts to integrate with the crew, the growing crisis of the middle section and the breakdown of the last. In what must be called a really key success of script all seven characters onboard the Niamh Cinn Oir stand-out in different ways, with their own quirks, personality flaws and clashes with others. Hermione Corfeld is excellent in the lead role, and the tension of the narrative is handled excellently.

The larger message of Sea Fever on infection and fear would appear to be that most people cannot be relied upon to toe the line and insure the larger safety of the community, which will result in their own destruction and the destruction of others: If this film had been made later, I would have said that Hardiman perfectly captures the COVID experience in a well-thought out allegorical production, and I suppose that it is to her credit. Sea Fever certainly carries some resonance, and is the best Irish film of the year.

Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) in Sea Fever

8. The Boys In The Band

The Boys In The Band is a really great movie: it was one where I was enthralled from beginning to end, for a lot of different reasons. It’s brilliant on a lot of different narrative and production levels. But perhaps its greatest accomplishment is the way that it rolls back the curtain and allows us a look into a sub-culture that, for me, a straight white male from a middle class background, is decidedly alien, in its culture, in its language, in its demonour and does so in a manner that allows for it to become very understandable, relatable and sympathetic by the time that the credits come up.

There isn’t a cast member out of step here, with obvious spotlight to be put on Jim Parsons as the bitter self-hating host of the film’s reveries, Zachary Quinto as the cool-as-ice birthday boy and Brian Hutchison as the probably-gay-but-repressing friend who wanders into proceedings. The resultant verbal war between all of these characters and more goes to some strange and some very dark places: debates on monogamy, commentaries on living in the closet, and heaploads of insecurity from all and sundry.

The Boys In The Band can only be described as a mesmerising experience. It’s truthful, heartfelt, real, in so many different ways. Its script sparkles with every neat touch, flourish, insult or tear-jerking moment. At times it may struggle a bit with what it is trying to get across, and a modern-day audience may need to put a little work into it to make it past the outward use of f-bombs, to get to the meaning behind the words, or the idea that these men could tolerate each other’s presence for two hours believable. But if they do, they will find a film adaptation that is a really meaningful effort to bring what was era-defining on the stage to the big-screen once more. I do think that the world could do with a few more features of this subject and about this era. The Boys In The Band is as good a place as any to start the education.

Michael (Jim Parsons), Alan (Brian Hutchison) and Hank (Tuc Watkins) in The Boys In The Band

7. Tenet

The most important comment that I can make about Tenet, the one that must surely come before all others, is that it is one of the most genuinely confusing films I have ever seen. Tenet left me bewildered at times, with its science, with its structure and with its many unanswered questions. It is indeed a passion project gone a little bit mad, where the premise cannot be explained properly and where it cannot thus be married to the plot properly. This really should be a disaster of a film. And yet. It is instead a film whose ambition, sense of scale, cinematography, music, performances and gusto simply has to be admired. I liked Tenet, despite not really understanding its inherent nature. Only Nolan could pull that off.

Everything about Tenet lifts it up from what could have been a dense morass of hard-to-fathom sci-fi. Its cast is, to a man, doing wonderful work, with John David Washington commanding in the lead and Robert Pattinson continuing his post-Twilight transformation alongside him. On a character level, the film works beautifully, between the suitably named Protagonist, Neil, Kenneth Branagh’s interesting villain and Elizabeth Debecki’s turn as a female character in a Nolan film actually worth a damn. It looks spectacular, a true mind-melter of cinematography, and even when the visuals become married to the complexity of the premise, the aspirational nature of them excuses their other drawbacks. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year, just for its sheer ingenuity.

Yes, the complexity of what it is portraying is so dense that I doubt I will ever truly understand Tenet. In some ways, this strikes me as a film where Nolan just could not pull back from some of his worse impulses, perhaps finally a bit too caught up in his own press. But the strength of the man’s vision, his words and his drive is obvious, and the end result is a movie that may be slotted into the lower end of the Nolan filmography, but which will comfortably settle into the role of one of 2020’s best films, an epic that is undercut only by its own Icarus-like leap for the heavens.

Neil (Robert Pattinson) and the Protagonist (John David Washington) in Tenet

6. Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is a rip-roaring triumph, at once a unique ode to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime-solving vision, and a stunning effort to introduce modern feminist themes to the entire idea. This is proper Holmesian fiction, whatever the first name of the main Holmes character, and I loved nearly every minute of it, its look, its sound, its script. And right at the heart of it is that lead performance.

I might have said it a few times about different people over the years, but it is worth bringing the old descriptor out of retirement: Millie Bobby Brown has the potential to be huge. Brown jumps into the role of Enola Holmes and makes it her own from minute one: Shakespeare-like, she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience like we are her imaginary friend along for the adventure, with a deviousness in her eye that like something out of Richard III. She brings effervescent joy at moments, the pits of despair at others. She can pull off a good fight scene, she can play the bashful teenage girl caught up in an unexpected quasi-romance, and she can sell us on the idea that she is a young woman with all of the same gifts as Sherlock Holmes, with just the needed polish missing.

With the help of a great supporting cast, Enola Holmes proceeds with a succession of really engaging mysteries, in every code deciphered, in every chemical composition identified, in every aside direct to the audience and in every overheard conversation in the past that becomes very relevant to the future. It’s a tonne of fun watching Enola’s trip into the world, and her interactions with her brothers. It’s a family film, an adaptation of a young adult novel, but it never dares to talk down to or underestimate the audience. Instead, it exhibits an intelligence and a creativity that I was honestly not entirely expecting, leaning in hard to its premise and the potential that it has. And right at the core is a really great-to-see feminist theme. Enola’s entire journey, from her past training with her forward-minded mother to her final triumph over the boorish Mycroft, encapsulates a phrase, in her physical strength, in her moral choice to be a protector of others and in her ability to stand apart and succeed doing it. “The future is up to us” says Enola, and I could stand to see more of this in the future.

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) in Enola Holmes

5. 1917

I went into Sam Mendes’ World War 1 epic thinking about a lot of different films that the promotional material for 1917 had reminded me off, but this was a disservice to what the director was trying to do. In 1917, he has crafted something that we can call unique, though it makes one think of Spectre, Dunkirk, Birdman and every third person video game you have ever had chance to play. From the first time that Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay’s characters wake up behind the lines all the way through to the moment that sleep beckons again, Mendes rigidly follows them through an adventure of horror, death, mud and salvation. Traditional story-telling beats are largely out the window here, in favour of a brutally intimate look at an exceptional day in the life of two British rankers.

The leads are good enough, but the way that Mendes gets the supporting cast to stick in the mind is impressive. Colin Firth’s manipulative General, Andrew Scott’s jaded lieutenant, Mark Strong’s wandering Captain, Claire Duburcq’s young French woman and Benedict Cumberbatch’s disillusioned Colonel are all characters that make an impression despite having individual screen-time of little more than a few minutes apiece. The script, from Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, has much to be credited for in this, as does Mendes’ sublime direction of his actors.

1917 is an intimate affair, one where the viewer comes almost to inhabit Blake and Schofield, seeing the world of the Western Front directly through their eyeline and immediate surrounds, hitting checkpoints between encounters. The dichotomy between the static nature of the warfare being depicted and the fluid camerawork is not lost on the viewer either. Some of the sequences created here are breathtaking: One, “The Night Window”, is a haunting display of ruined French streets illuminated in the motion of falling flares and burning buildings. The effect is a delirious mix of the beautiful and the terrifying, added to when the bullets start flying and the soldiers start running. It’s a trip to the underworld, a terrible trial to be endured, and looks simply stunning.

1917 is full of such moments, and never fails to grab a full hold of your attention. It is a daring thing, and the end result is a polished nugget of cinematic gold. With it, Sam Mendes has etched his own mark into the war genre, and laid down a marker to many other directors who pretensions of doing the same.

Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George McKay) in 1917

4. Da 5 Bloods

Obviously it wasn’t planned, but this film could not have picked a better year to be released. The movement for greater recognition of the rights for minorities has never been as relevant, as notable or as dominating in its impression on the international news cycle than it is right now, making it the perfect time for Spike Lee’s latest “joint” to become part of that same conversation. Certainly, BlacKkKlansman did much the same in the aftermath of Charlottesville. But, in many ways, that may be a disservice to Da 5 Bloods, which is a plenty interesting film all on its own.

It’s a war movie, and a war movie about a conflict that still rages in many ways, especially on a cultural level. Between modern remembrances and a series of flashbacks, we see the experience of the “Bloods” this small unit that got caught up in a gun battle over a pile of gold in the middle of the jungle. Not all of them made it back, and now, decades later, the veterans of yesteryear return looking for understanding and catharsis. The resulting journey is a heart-rending one, where each man has his own complexes and grief to work through, all in the shadow of Chadwick Boseman’s “Stormin” Norman.

In the middle of a brilliant cast, it is Delroy Lindo who stands out the most, especially in a late monologue delivered straight to camera,that is a passionate exhortation on military camaraderie, PTSD, the black liberation movement and a refusal to any longer be a victim of society. But that’s just one moment in a film that is overflowing with big moments: the use of the modern-day cast in flashbacks to emphasise how stuck they are in the war, a breakdown scene at a river market, an incredibly tense encounter with a landmine. A cavalcade of characters represent the various strands of the Vietnam conflict: while it is on a smaller scale, it is much the same battle that was waged nearly 50 years ago.

Da 5 Bloods is a searing reminder of past crimes against minorities in America, and a uncomfortable reminder that such crimes remain ongoing in present day society. It challenges the audience at every turn, and the solutions that it seemingly advocates will be unpalatable for some. But it’s so captivating, stemming from a place of genuine anger and frustration, that bleeds into every line of dialogue and every frame. The film overflows with enough ideas, and strands of ideas, that it undoubtedly becomes a bit unwieldy and messy at times, but such flaws can be forgiven. It’s a film you can’t take your eyes off of, for its whole 150 minute running time.  Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear: Black Lives Matter.

Paul (Delroy Lindo) in Da 5 Bloods

3. Parasite

Regardless of what your overall opinion of Parasite is, it is simply undeniable that it is one of the most fascinating movies of recent times. The critical praise it has received could be called off-putting, but it is apt. It is, all at once, a family drama, a caper movie, a black comedy, a psychological thriller, and a social commentary, somehow managing to carry all five of those aspects off pretty much flawlessly, with Bong Joon-ho jumping between them all in terms of tone and pitch, sometimes mid-scene. It’s easy to see why Parasite has garnered the laurels that it has, and in many other years it would have been considered untouchable.

The central narrative is of the Kim’s inserting themselves bit-by-bit into the world of the Park’s, and Parasite could have been a good enough film if it just focused on that, such is the quality of the back-and-forth between the criminally minded Kim’s, and the vapidity that marks so much of the interactions with and between the Park’s. But it’s also a crime film where the director dodges the pitfall of having the central characters be unlikable through the ingenuity of their caper and the thrill of seeing it all come together, then become a hideous inversion. It goes from a first half comedic sense of maudlin mirth, to turn suddenly into a tension-filled expose of inequalities in Korean society in the second half: there are so many layers here that I am still somewhat in awe of how Bong was able to pull it all of. Parasite is a film that will be talked about for years to come, every inch of it worthy of extrapolation. The cast is great, the locations used for filming, most especially that upper-class Seoul apartment wherein we see either side of the divide be parasitic, are entrancing and even in translation the script is a very engrossing thing,

My opinion of Bong had been well and truly reversed with this. The man who smashed his audience with a metaphorical plot hammer in Snowpiercer has grown up a bit in my estimation, and is now much more worthy of the praise that he has received. Bong’s Parasite lives up to the constant descriptor of it being his masterpiece: a film that perfectly balances many different aspects, is entertaining in its own right, thought-provoking in its engaging narrative and a showcase for its director, writers and wonderful cast. More than anything else, I came back to the most accurate adjective that I can think of: that this is a fascinating movie, more than anything else, something that must be seen to be truly understood and appreciated. I suspect we will all be watching and discussing Parasite for some time to come.

Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) in Parasite

2. Soul

The latest in a series of theatrical write-offs now getting their chance as a Disney+ release, Soul has a hell of a lot going for it: the first Pete Docter directing/writing project since Inside Out; a great cast of acting and comedy luminaries; a musical emphasis that Pixar has done well with in the past; and yet another attempt at tackling the great topic of death, with the studio having a pretty good track record when it comes to weighty themes. I was ready to be wowed, but wary of the mediocre, which is the 50:50 call many of Pixar’s offerings come out as nowadays.

There’s a lot worth discussing in Soul, a film that goes from covering what appears to be the very mundane to the cosmically meaningful. Like so many of their offerings before now, the Pixar team that brought us Up, WALL-E, Toy Story 3 and Inside Out attempts to tie a line between those two distant polls, while making the material from either end of that line as good as it can be. And, once again, they have succeeded. It suffices to say that this vision is one that grabs your attention in the world that is created: the eerie look at what constitutes the film’s version of the “Great Beyond”; the strange, wonderful yet also oddly creepy version of what happens before we are born in the “Great Before”; and a vibrant, living version of New York City.

Just about every level of Soul is a success: the voice cast, especially Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, are great. It sounds wonderful, this really entrancing mix of jazz and unnerving electronic beats. It looks simply stupendous, but I’m saying nothing you haven’t heard before about Pixar there. It is in its messages that Soul really soars though: that one should find the pleasure of living in the little things as much, or more, than with the big things; that obsessing on your dreams can be a very bad idea; and that, well, get busy living or get busy dying (that’s god damn right). There’s a maturity in Soul that really grabs you: it’s existentialism for kids, but has a hell of a lot to say to the grown-ups as well.

Soul deserves its place on their top tier, it really does. It’s a film that manages to show us something very imaginative about what the world beyond our own, and before our own, might look like. It says something extremely profound about the nature of living in our world, and does so against the traditional grain. It does all of this with some incredible visuals, brilliant music, an excellent cast and an occasional sense of fun that is merged with the drama seamlessly. The best Pixar films have always been able to tick all those boxes, and lodge themselves very firmly in the mind, now and forever: Soul does that. It’s a contemplative experience, one likely to make you ask questions of yourself, and wonder about what your best life is: better figure it out, because the Great Beyond waits for no-one (just ask Terry).

22 (Tina Fey) and Joe (Jamie Foxx) in Soul.

1. Hamilton

When it was announced that Disney+ had found the means/inclination to accelerate their release of the only legitimate filmed adaptation of Hamilton, it’s probably the most excited I’ve been about a production in a few years. I adore Hamilton, and have done from the very first time that I got the soundtrack up on my Spotify account after seeing the name mentioned a few times. A filmed adaptation of Hamilton was absolutely inevitable, but it was far from guaranteed to be a success. This is a recording of the stage show with much of the original cast, not a production made exclusively for the medium of film: it is not a certain thing that such a recording will facilitate a working bridge between the stage and the screen. The theatre experience is not the streaming experience, to put it another way. Hamilton is already a piece of art that has well-earned the moniker of being a cultural phenomenon: but this project set the bar high in terms of artistic challenge.

Well, bar seen, met, vaulted. Disney+’s Hamilton captures everything about the stage-show that makes it so great, and lets it breath on-screen: the amazing, concise, introduction to the title character; the list of defining statements as lyrical motifs; the dichotomy of the Hamilton/Burr character journeys; the black comedy masterclass of King George; the use of dual roles for actors to contrast Hamilton’s rise surrounded by friends with Hamilton’s fall surrounded by enemies; the way that Hamilton himself is given a three-dimensional portrait as a genuinely flawed human being; the raw emotional power of “Tomorrow They’ll Be More Of Us, “Say No To This” or “Burn” to name but a few.

I could go on, but will limit myself to saying that Hamilton, on stage or on-screen, is an experience that cannot be missed. It grabs a hold of you very quickly, and has you thinking about it literally months after you first experienced it. This came out on Disney+ and I had watched three times in a week, which is Lord Of The Rings level for me. Every lyric, ever turn of music, every look in the eye advances what Hamilton wants to be, and does it with an understanding of character, narrative and theme that is, very much so, genius-level.

Since I first heard that booming intro to “Alexander Hamilton”, and all the way to Eliza’s final gasp in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, this was a film that I loved. Seeing the production in this format only makes me like it more, with so many additional aspects to consider and savour, whether it is the ability of expression on the casts’ face, the seamless choreography of the larger ensemble or the idiosyncrasies that can only occur with a live performance. And that is before you consider the larger majesty of Hamilton itself: its brilliantly skewed POC take on a critical figure and critical period in American history, the depth it displays at every turn and the music that so powerfully drills into your soul and lodges itself there. I was unsure how I should rank a film as unique as this, but there can only be one spot. Raise a glass to freedom, and to the best film of the year.

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Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manual Miranda) and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr) in Hamilton

Honorable mentions this year include A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood, which was a really thoughtful portrait of a very special man; Togo, which went far, far beyond low expectations and convinced me Disney+ had a future with original movies; Uncorked, a really unexpectedly affecting film making the best use of a minority cast; Code 8, an interesting low-budget take on the superhero genre; Time To Hunt, a Korean crime/horror film that finely balanced varying tones and themes; And We Go Green, a great exploration of Formula E; Black Is King, which takes the idea of movie album to exciting new places; Emma., a heart-warming adaptation of a well-worn story, with a very strong central performance; You Cannot Kill David Arquette, a fascinating story about a very niche topic; and Mank, a wonderfully scripted look at the life of a notable Hollywood screenwriter.

As is now my yearly custom, a brief word on dishonourable mentions. A Fall From Grace had bizarre production choices and was the very definition of “rushed”. Lady And The Tramp was a spectacular mis-fire of CGI mediocrity. Artemis Fowl had grand aspirations, and fulfilled none of them. Bronx was an ill-pitched mess. But the winner for the worst film I have seen this year must go to the hideously mis-judged The Last Thing He Wanted, which was a largely incomprehensible feature I actively regretted seeing, that to this day I am still confused about.

And so, to the awards.

Best Actor

Awarded to the actor who has impressed the most throughout the year in leading roles.

George McKay (1917, True History Of The Kelly Gang)

Two top-notch leading roles seal it for McKay over others, in the intense focus of 1917, and the manic, radiating energy of True History Of The Kelly Gang.

Honourable mentions: Lin-Manual Miranda (Hamilton), John David Washington (Tenet), Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods), Jim Parsons (The Boys In The Band), Song Kang-ho (Parasite)

Best Supporting Actor

Awarded to the actor who has impressed the most throughout the year in roles other than the lead.

Leslie Odom Jr (Hamilton)

From the beginning to end of Hamilton, Odom Jr provides a rock-solid narration, some great acting when required, and then ascends magnificently with his own lyrical contributions.

Honourable Mentions: Zachary Quinto (The Boys In The Band), Robert Pattinson (Tenet), 1917 (Dean-Charles Chapman), Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood), Chadwick Boseman (Da 5 Bloods)

Best Actress

Awarded to the actress who has impressed the most throughout the year in leading roles.

Millie Bobby Brown (Enola Holmes)

Brown throws herself into the title role of Enola Holmes, and stands out as best in a fantastic cast. Themes of feminism, investigation, action, romance and familial strife are all things she tackles with a supreme confidence, in a performance that should pave the way for her to become a true luminary.

Honourable Mentions: Beyonce (Black Is King), Anya Raylor-Joy (Emma.), Hermione Corfield (Sea Fever), Issa Rae (The Lovebirds), Dilan Çiçek Deniz (One-Way To Tomorrow)

Best Supporting Actress

Awarded to the actress who has most impressed throughout the year in roles other than the lead.

Essie Davis (True History Of The Kelly Gang)

The role of the Kelly matriarch, and its relationship to Ned, is a complex one that most certainly touches on an Oedipal theme, and Davis did a fantastic job with it, the warped moral centre of Ned Kelly’s life.

Honourable Mentions: Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit), Jang Hye-jin (Parasite), Elizabeth Debicki (Tenet), Niamh Algar (Calm With Horses), Phillipa Soo (Hamilton)

Best Ensemble

Awarded to the best cast, generally, of any film during the year.

The Boys In The Band

A tough one, very tough, this year, with any number of likely winners. Perhaps it was just how complex the job was with each of the characters in The Boys In The Band, and how each cast member succeeded so admirably.

Honourable Mentions: Enola Holmes, Parasite, 1917, Da 5 Bloods, The Boys In The Band, Hamilton

Best Director

Awarded to the best director of the year.

Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)

In my eyes, Bong has finally made good on a career of inflated critical praise, directing one of the stand-out movie masterpieces of recent times. His use of buildings, space and angles is at its height in Parasite.

Honourable Mentions: Neasa Hardiman (Sea Fever), Sam Mendes (1917), Christopher Nolan (Tenet), Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods), Justin Kurzel (True History Of The Kelly Gang)

Best Production

Awarded to the film that has the best production values of the year, in terms of sets, props and other associated elements.

1917

I don’t know if any film or piece of media before 1917 has managed to place a viewer so firmly in the world of the western front, in every construction of a trench, in every fully realised weapon and in every uniform.

Honourable Mentions: Da 5 Bloods, Parasite, 1917, Black Is King, Tenet, True History Of The Kelly Gang

Best CGI

Awarded to the film with the best use of computer-generated imagery and graphics.

Soul

In a year that saw major movie releases severely curtailed, Pixar was able to break the Star Wars hegemony of this category with its excellently created pro and after life world.

Honourable Mentions: 1917, Sonic The Hedgehog, Togo, Onward, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run

Best Score

Awarded to the composer/ film with the best instrumental (non-lyrical) music of the year.

Hamilton (Lin-Manual Miranda)

This will come as little surprise I suppose, but I do find that the actual score of Hamilton is one of its lesser-noted aspects, behind the wonderful lyrics from the same man. It’s a brilliant medley of styles, and is the perfect accompaniment to the story being sung.

Honourable Mentions: Soul (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), 1917 (Thomas Newman), Enola Holmes (Daniel Pemberton), Tenet (Ludwig Goransson), True History Of The Kelly Gang (Jed Kurzel)

Best Soundtrack

Awarded to the film with the best songs, generally, of the year.

Hamilton

I mean, it really couldn’t be anything else this year. Every single one of Hamilton’s tunes is expertly crafted and memorable in its own way.

Honourable Mentions: Black Is King, Da 5 Bloods, Soul, Phineas & Ferb The Movie: Candace Against The Universe, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga

Best Original Song

Awarded to the best song created for a film of the year.

“The Plan” – Travis Scott (Tenet)

Some good choices this year, but I did feel that Scott’s tonally appropriate conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending epic was the best option.

Honourable Mentions: “Great Unknown” – X Ambassadors (The Call Of The Wild), “The Universe Is Against Me” – Ashley Tidsdale, Olivia Olson and Laura Dickenson (Phineas & Ferb The Movie: Candace Against The Universe), “Parting Ways” – Cody ChestnuTT (Soul), “Volcano Man” – Will Ferrell and Molly Sanden (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga), “Only The Young” – Taylor Swift (Miss Americana)

Best Adapted Script

Awarded to the best script adapted from another source of the year.

Hamilton (Lin-Manual Miranda)

There isn’t an individual lyric of any song in Hamilton that isn’t heavy with meaning, and is one of the most inventive adaptations of a historical biography that has ever made it to the screen.

Honourable Mentions: The Boys In The Band (Mart Crowley and Ned Martel), Enola Holmes (Jack Thorne), One-Way To Tomorrow (Faruk Ozerten), True History Of The Kelly Gang (Shaun Grant), Emma. (Eleanor Catton)

Best Original Script

Awarded to the best original script of the year.

Da 5 Bloods (Danny Belson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee)

From unloved spec script to one of the stand-out offerings of this year, Da 5 Bloods is a film that overflows with wonderful dialogue and scintillating monologues.

Honourable Mentions: Soul (Pete Docter, Mike Jones and Kemp Powers), Uncorked (Prentice Penny), 1917 (Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns), Parasite (Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won), Sea Fever (Neasa Hardiman)

Best Cinematography

Awarded to the best camerawork of any film of the year.

Tenet (Hoyte van Hoytema)

I’m close to just naming this award after van Hoytema, this being the fourth time he has won it in nine years. Tenet, whatever about anything else, is a visual spectacle of unparalleled scope, and the master of the craft is at the heart of why it is so.

Honourable Mentions: Da 5 Bloods (Newton Thomas Sigel), Parasite (Hong Kyung-pyo), 1917 (Roger Deakins), Time To Hunt (Lim Won-geun), True History Of The Kelly Gang (Ari Wegner)

Best Make-Up/Hairstyling/Costuming

Awarded to the film with the best combined make-up, hairstyling and costuming work of the year.

Black Is King

While it may not have got much love from me in other categories, one can’t help but marvel on the depths of colour, variety and inventiveness that was on display in Black Is King, in terms of how its principals were arrayed, styled and otherwise presented.

Honourable Mentions: Mulan, Hamilton, 1917, True History Of The Kelly Gang, Enola Holmes

The Ashling Award

Awarded to my girlfriend’s favourite film of the year.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

Best Comedy

Awarded to the best comedic film of the year.

The Lovebirds

Best Animation

Awarded to the best animated film of the year.

Soul

Best Romance

Awarded to the best romantic film of the year.

Emma.

Best Sci-Fi

Awarded to the best science fiction film of the year.

Tenet

Best Comic Book

Awarded to the best film based on a comic book/graphic novel of the year.

Birds Of Prey

Best Documentary

Awarded to the best non-fiction film with a documentarian focus.

You Cannot Kill David Arquette

Best Historical

Awarded to the best historical film of the year.

Hamilton

Best Irish

Awarded to the best Irish film of the year.

Sea Fever

Best Scene

Awarded to the best, non-action, scene of the year.

Taking a moment (A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood)

Best Action Scene

Awarded to the best action/fight scene of the year.

The Night Window (1917)

Best Battle Scene

Awarded to the best large-scale battle scene of the year.

Finale (1917)

Best Delivered Line

Awarded to the best written and delivered line(s) of the year.

“I don’t care what dat damn VA say…VA don’t know shit from Shinola! Worst fucking doctors in da world! Malignancy, shit… I was born malignant! Dis fuckin’ place bathed me in dat Agent Orange lymphoma herbicidal stew. Army bastards scorched da Earth wit’ it! Sprayed dat poisonous shit in da water, da air, my blood stream, my cells, my DNA, in my muthafuckin’ soul! I ain’t dying from dat shit! Hear me! Hear me! You will not kill Paul! The US government will not take me out! I will choose how I die! Got it?! Couldn’t kill me then, ya’ll sho’ in da fuck won’t kill me now! Right on! Right on!” – Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods)

Best Set-Piece

Awarded to the best single set-piece sequence of the year.

The Party Game (The Boys In The Band)

Best Hero

Awarded to the year’s best presented protagonist character.

Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton)

Best Villain

Awarded to the year’s best presented antagonist character.

Aaron Burr (Hamilton)

“Diamond In The Rough” Award

Awarded to the actor/actress who gives the best performance of an otherwise bad movie.

Lara McDonnell (Artemis Fowl)

“Bang For Your Buck” Award

Awarded to the best film in the shortest running time.

Sea Fever (97 minutes)

“Inception” Award

Awarded to a film that is still good despite its plot holes.

Tenet

“Walter Mitty” Award

Awarded to a film that is still good despite its clichéd elements.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

“Lonely Planet Guide To…” Award

Awarded to the best world/universe building within a film.

Soul

“On The Shoulders Of Giants” Award

Awarded to the best sequel, reboot or remake of the year.

Birds Of Prey

“Equality Now” Award

Awarded to the film that features the best use of female characters.

Enola Holmes

“Surprisingly Tolerable” Award

Awarded to the worst movie idea that turned good.

Code 8

“Why Is No One Applauding?” Award

Awarded to the film that has been rated too lowly by the critical community.

Time To Hunt

“We’re Going To That” Award

Awarded to the film with the best trailer(s) of the year.

1917

“You Can’t Take The Sky From Me” Award

Awarded to the best thing of the year.

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” (Hamilton)

That will do it for 2020. In 2021 I’m looking forward to The Dig, Raya And The Last Dragon, No Time To Die, Black Widow, In The Heights, Shang Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, Uncharted, The Tomorrow War, The Suicide Squad, Dune, The Last Duel, Eternals, Elvis, West Side Story, Spider-Man 3, The French Dispatch and The Matrix 4. It’s been a hell of year, but film will never die.

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Review: Soul

Soul

Trailer

Welcome to the rest of your afterlife.

Hey, it’s the last review of 2020, and the last chance for someone to upset that top ten. Pixar have done a good job recently at breaking into that ranking, with Coco my film of the year in 2018, and Toy Story 4 up there twelve months ago. The company’s first pandemic-era offering of 2020, Onward, didn’t do it for me, a very engaging film but one that did not live up to the lofty expectations that come with having that lamp in your title sequence. Instead it was more of a middling affair, a reminder that the Disneyfication of Pixar means the days of nothing but knock-outs are well and truly over.

Enter Soul. The latest in a series of theatrical write-offs now getting their chance as a Disney+ release, it had a hell of a lot going for it: the first Pete Docter directing/writing project since Inside Out (who else has made 2 billion in three movies?); a great cast of acting and comedy luminaries; a musical emphasis that Pixar has done well with in the past; and yet another attempt at tackling the great topic of death (this will be the third time in the last five films this has been the case), with the studio having a pretty good track record when it comes to weighty themes. I was ready to be wowed, but wary of the mediocre: which side of the 2020 Pixar coin did Soul come out on?

Joe (Jamie Foxx) is an unfulfilled jazz pianist scrapping by while he awaits his big break. Shortly after gaining such an opportunity he falls down an uncovered manhole, and awakens in an afterlife where he flees the “Great Beyond” in favour of the “Great Before”, a place where souls are prepared for life on Earth. There he meets “22” (Tina Fey), a soul who has long refused to advance into life: together, the two of them seek to find a way to get Joe back into his comatose body, and to the gig on time, but along the way Joe begins to learn the downside of having an overriding passion.

There’s a lot worth discussing in Soul, a film that goes from covering what appears to be the very mundane (a serious plot point is the main character needing to get a split in his trousers fixed in a hurry) to the cosmically meaningful (is there a bigger question in our existence than “What happens when we die?”). Like so many of their offerings before now, the Pixar team that brought us Up, WALL-E, Toy Story 3 and Inside Out attempts to tie a line between those two distant polls, while making the material from either end of that line as good as it can be. And, once again, they have succeeded.

That question – “What happens when we die?” – is something that every single person capable of asking it has asked. We’ve all come up with our own ideas, interpretations, fantasies, of what life after life would be like. Soul is a depiction of one of those things, and it is an enthrallingly unique one. Joe, after an unfortunate walk into an open manhole cover, ends up staring into the “Great Beyond”: a vast starscape in which there is a moving walkway heading towards an imposing, eerie brightness. Souls float into it, crackle like flies hitting a bug zapper, and they are gone with no other ceremony. Joe, like many of us would, flees in a panic and ends up in the equally interesting, but less terrifying, “Great Before”, depicted as a sort of new-age learning environment where unformed souls are given some polishing by a ceaselessly polite and affirming collection of Picasso-esque lifeforms all named Jerry.

I’ll stop there: it suffices to say that this vision is one that grabs your attention in the world that is created. No obvious religious theology here, just an attempt, as there was with the depiction of good/bad mental health in Inside Out, to parse the idea of what came before and what will come after down to a simple level: existentialism for kids, but in a manner that will make the grown-ups think hard as well. There are a lot of big ideas at play throughout, but I thought that Soul did a good job at finding the balance between them all.

But how to get from this plot to the previously mentioned mundanity? Soul starts out that way, in a really great eight-or-so minute sequence, where we get introduced to Joe, his love for music, his struggles in life and the sudden possibility of getting his big break, all before a rather big fall (Docter has some experience in getting the audience immersed fast, being the man behind the first five minutes of Up). Jamie Foxx plays Joe with a great sad sack energy, very much making him the kind of friend you always roll your eyes at because he never shuts up about the one thing he is completely obsessed with. Jazz has become the only thing in Joe’s life that he identifies as having worth, and then he, well, dies. It’s good to see a POC character in this role though Soul never brings a great deal of overt attention to it. It’s just who Joe is: scenes in a barbershop or in a jazz club – “black spaces” as co-director Kemp Powers put it – explore black culture and ways of interactions that are unique to that culture, but it is never the main point of the exercise.

The sudden volte-face in terms of locations, music, tone and colour as we go to the Great Before is jarring but in a very intriguing way: it’s there we meet the bulk of one is a great supporting cast, from Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon-like 22 who just wants everyone to leave her alone, the various Jerry’s that run the place (Richard Ayoade being the best), Moonwind, voiced by an irrepressible Graham Norton, is a new age guru who helps lost souls get through their problems, and Terry (Rachel House), the cosmic accountant who injects just the right amount of antagonism into proceedings without ever threatening to take over things (and they are actually dead right: one of the most powerful lines of the film is when Terry tells Joe “You cheated”). This cast is able to take us on a journey where we are reminded about the big things, the little things, and why there might not be much of a difference between them.

I really appreciated the way that Soul handles its humour, which is often of the blackest kind. It’s a serious film in so many ways, perhaps the most “adult” that Pixar have ever done, but it is able to effectively weave in plenty of jokes, and often these jokes are actually at the core of some of the films deeper messages. Case in point: 22 has had a list of dead mentors stretching all the way back to Ancient Greek philosophers, and Soul employs her memories of their failing efforts to get her to go to Earth as a recurring joke. But then, at the end, those same memories come back in a remarkably serious sequence, that ties int the kind of ideas that Pete Docter also explored in Inside Out, namely how one can attempt to turn constant criticism into a joke, but on the inside it can still tear them apart.

Foxx and Fey have some decent chemistry.

But that’s pretty serious sounding, for a film that can frequently engender belly laughs: the trombone playing student who blows the top off their trombone: the cat soul that inadvertently finds itself on the path to the Great Beyond; the unexpected hostage-taking by Joe’s mother early on; anytime Terry is interacting with a Jerry, his grouchiness colliding with their unceasing politeness; Joe having to communicate through a cat; and many, many more. Soul knows when to bring the drama, when to bring the emotion, but it is a very amusing experience at the same time.

Soul takes an unexpected turn when Joe figures out how to get back to Earth with the want-away soul of 22. Together, the two end up back on terra firma where Pixar once again brings the absurd to an altogether serious situation, with Joe inside the body of a cat, and 22 inside the body of Joe. Hi-jinks ensue. Said hi-jinks are fun, meaningful and serve the larger plot nicely: it’s the way in which the production team manages to thread that line between the cosmic and the mundane. Throw in a St Peter-esque accountant trying to figure out why the Beyond count is off by one, some drama between Joe and his mother, and 22 coming to understand what it means to actually live, and you have yourself an effortlessly entertaining, always engaging story of figuring out the important things in life, that’s so well paced I was genuinely surprised when the finale rolled around. Which leads me nicely into my next point.

I was agog at one of the main ideas of Soul, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is a disease in Hollywood sometimes that the chasing of dreams is portrayed in the brightest possible light: I think La La Land is a perfect example as a comparison to what Soul does (and that was a musical film too): there, a character who decided to reduce his passionate ambition to a tertiary priority in order to focus on making himself a financial success first was portrayed as a man who was kidding himself about ever possibly being happy with anything else he tried to do. Soul has the courage and the conviction to state bluntly to a lot of impressionable young minds a badly needed contrasting message: don’t get obsessed with following your dream, because it might not work out, and even if it does it might not be the glorious self-actualisation you think it will be. In fact, you might even find that your back-up plan is what you were meant to do, something that traditional scripts in films of this type treat like heresy. And then it follows this up with a brilliant ode to finding pleasure, enjoyment and passion in the things you might not normally associate with those words: in the everyday and ordinary things that might not be flashy life-defining events, but which offer some of the best opportunities for living our best lives. This can be eating a slice of cake in a quiet moment, it can be having a new conversation with an old friend.

In the depths of lockdowns over COVID that are stifling our ability to YOLO our way through existence like other parts of Hollywood insist we should be doing, that’s a message I can get behind. And it is portrayed so well in Soul, in twin scenes where the main character looks upon a record of a life where he appears to have accomplished very little, and then later realises that this same record of his existence, if considered more carefully, carries a great deal of meaning in even the smallest act. This film had me near tears looking at a guy eating alone in a diner and not because it is a sad moment, but because of the realisation that it was a happy one. God damn, we need to remind ourselves more that such things have worth if we approach them the right way, and we need more films like Soul willing to tell the La La Land’s of this world where to go.

Soul is, by definition, a very musical film, but it is striking how it straddles the line between the very jazz-focused stuff on Earth and the sort-of low-fi chill hop of the Great Beyond and Before. The jazz, from Jon Batiste, is all great, really getting across how it is a form of music that just about anybody can enjoy, and through Joe, with Foxx’s performance, the film is able to get across the fierce love that it engenders. From a truly awful band class renditions of the Disney jingle at the start (a brilliant opening joke) right through to the end titles “It’s Alright”, Soul’s jazz has plenty of the title. But really I was more impressed with the other half of things, where the score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross really gets going. It might seems strange given that they have won plenty of awards, but I do feel they are sometimes underlooked in the modern film composing scene. Soul is another example as to why this should not be so. The nearest approximation that I can think of is Mike Morasky’s work on Portal 2, a sort of simple, but entrancing series of electronic beat, with varying chimes that create an ambiance of other-wordlyness mixed with the bureaucratic. The world of the “You Seminar” sounds like a sort of unnerving operating system, and it’s a perfectly pitched audio idea.

The visual side of things is, of course, similarly stunning. It’s old hat to give praise for that department to Pixar, but I guess if they keep providing the goods, I’ll just have to keep providing the kudos. Here they have re-invented their depiction of form and outdone themselves yet again: in the slightly more realistic, yet still caricature-like human models in the real world (New York in animation has never seemed so, well, alive), and in the absolutely unique look of the other-world, that brings “abstract” to a new level for this genre. The Jerry’s in the Great Before (reduced to wiry outlines because that is all that humans can comprehend), the Great Beyond, the “Hall of Everything”, the sea of lost souls, and that’s just one half of the film. The influences appear to have been extremely varied: you can see bits of Interstellar, A Matter Of Life And Death, It’s A Wonderful Life, Coming To America and even, yes, La La Land, in various parts. As always, it is the little touches that truly amaze: Joe’s jazz idol busting out a truly incredibly animated saxophone; Joe’s several close calls with death before he actually falls into the manhole; the abacus of Terry, that he uses to count souls; the ship that Moonwind uses on the sea of lost souls; and those are just the finer details. I could talk at length about any particular scene of Soul: there is something that catches the eye in every frame, from those blue representations of our spiritual selves, down to the playing of an instrument (Soul might deserve awards for its finger animation alone). There’s love in this film, in every iota of it.

Soul might not be my very favourite film of the year, but it came damn close to reaching that peak. I am repeating myself every year it seems, but Pixar keeps making incredible films. And Soul deserves its place on their top tier, it really does. It’s a film that manages to show us something very imaginative about what the world beyond our own, and before our own, might look like. It says something extremely profound about the nature of living in our world, and does so against the traditional grain. It does all of this with some incredible visuals, brilliant music, an excellent cast and an occasional sense of fun that is merged with the drama seamlessly. The best Pixar films have always been able to tick all those boxes, and lodge themselves very firmly in the mind, now and forever: Soul does that. It’s a contemplative experience, one likely to make you ask questions of yourself, and wonder about what your best life is. Unlike some other films of late, it has no merchandising concerns, no pretensions of setting up a sequel. Perhaps it might be for the best if the studio was to move on from death as a baseline for their films, but if they are to do so Soul is an excellent way of leaving it. This film deserves the largest possible audience, one it is unlikely to get via streaming. It deserves your set of eyes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy a slice of pizza. Highly recommended.

You got it.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ireland’s Wars: The Handover And Convention Crises

The board was already set for the Civil War after the passing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, with the entire movement split to varying degrees. Now, in the Spring of 1922, both sides jostled for favourable position on that board, ahead of what was increasingly inevitable hostilities. The anti-Treaty side held an advantage, though temporary, in numbers of IRA personnel they could potentially call upon, but many of their leaders recognised that it was important to have actual physical territory those men could operate from and defend, be it a province, a county, a city or a barracks. With the British military commencing its withdrawal from Ireland, the handover of what they had previously held was the next major step on the road to the Civil War.

One of the very first acts, which initially had a much bigger figurative than practical value, was the the first significant handover in the form of Dublin Castle. For the better part of 700 years, all the way back to the Lordship of Ireland, the castle in its various guises had served as one of, if not the, main administrative centre of the Anglo-Norman, then English, then British presence in Ireland. Along with its housing of governmental, constabulary and military branches of British control, it had an enormous symbolic value: the entire British administration in Ireland has often been described simply as “Dublin Castle”. On the 16th January, the British handed control of the building over to a provisional government delegation headed by Michael Collins. Lord FitzAlan, the last Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, gave Collins control of the building and its various functions after a short ceremony, with a cheering crowd assembled outside. It’s this event that is the inspiration behind the famous, but likely apocryphal, story that upon being told he was seven minutes late for the ceremony, Collins replied “You’ve kept us waiting 700 years, you can have your seven minutes” (another version of the story has Collins being greeted with a polite “We’re pleased to see you” to which he replied “Ye are like hell boy!”). The British were keen to put a conciliatory tone to things, with much talk of congratulations to the new government, but when Collins issued a statement later he pointedly – presumably thinking of military elements – referred to the event as “the surrender of Dublin Castle”.

Taking over Dublin Castle was one thing, but taking over the country was another. That required an army that would be in a position to take over the various military and RIC barracks due to be vacated. Things started small, with the establishment of what became known as the “Dublin Guard”, essentially a collection of men from the Squad and certain reliable Volunteers from the larger Dublin Brigade, who took up residence in the key British barracks at Beggers Bush (the name of which became synonymous with the new army command, in place of “GHQ”). While they maintained the name of the IRA for a time, few were under any illusions that these men were the nucleus of a new armed force, a perception aided by the fact that they were uniformed and armed by the British.

Across the country, the new National Army took shape. It was the same story in most places: a core of established IRA officers and men, surrounded by a larger amount of new recruits, nearly always from outside Munster and the west. Many difficulties were encountered: there was a paucity of officers in many places, and many of those that were there were stuck firmly in guerrilla thinking; making sure that men were regularly paid was a constant problem, that meant that mutiny was never really all that far off; basic supplies and material, like uniforms, were often in short supply; a working intelligence system was non-existent outside of the capital; and the initially territorial nature of the new army meant that the “GOC” – General Officer Commanding – of a certain area had a great deal of leeway in the appointing of officers and the ordering of units, to the point that some described them as chieftains in their own right. Anti-Treaty infiltration of the army was also a recurring problem, as was getting specialist personnel in place in order to use certain weapons – like artillery – or certain vehicles, like the Crossley Tenders or Peerless Armoured Cars the British were willing to give to the provisional government. Ill-discipline, especially from War of Independence veterans who found that adapting to the form of a regular army was not to their taste, was frequent. At the same time a new police force, the Civic Guard, was formed to be the provisional government’s replacement for the RIC and DMP: this too was a direct challenge to the anti-Treaty IRA, who wanted the Republican police to remain as the main constabulary.

There was little time to build things up carefully and deal with all of these problems, because the situation across the country would not wait. Richard Mulcahy’s initial compromise plan was that local IRA units, regardless of their affiliation, would take over their nearest barracks; this might seem like a crazy idea in retrospect, but it was designed to prevent conflict. It couldn’t hold, especially when it became apparent that large swaths of the country were already falling under anti-Treaty control: throughout February and March, efforts were made to get pro-Treaty units into as many barracks as possible, with a very loose plan that the officers then in charge of such positions would hold the surrounding area. That this was the same sedentary strategy that had doomed the RIC in 1919 seems to have not been adequately considered.

Different outcomes resulted. In some places, pro-Treaty forces took barracks and held them, anti-Treaty in others. Anti-Treaty fighters under Ernie O’Malley would raid Clonmel barracks in February, capturing a substantial amount of arms and ammunition, but weren’t in a position to hold it. In Athlone the British would hand over the military barracks to anti-Treaty forces, who would later vacate when a stronger pro-Treaty force arrived: later, a tense stand-off resulted with Griffith went there to make a speech, but fighting was avoided. Anti-Treaty IRA took the majority of barracks in Munster and the west, while pro-Treaty garrisons dominated the midlands and the east. Things were more divided in those parts of the north that the IRA had a right to take barracks in, while chaos continued to reign in larger parts of Northern Ireland (a topic I will cover soon enough). Of course British garrisons remained in place in plenty of barracks, with their government wanting them to delay departure in the event that they were needed to fight back against anti-Treaty elements.

It is Limerick City that was the main site of the handover crisis. The British began to withdraw from the several barracks buildings in the city in late February, at a time when the local IRA was riven with discord. The Mid-Limerick Brigade had openly declared that their allegiance remained with the Republic, and no longer with GHQ, offering the possibility of the city falling entirely into anti-Treaty hands. Limerick’s importance, in its own right and as a linking point between the south and the west, meant that the provisional government was loath to allow this, and so Michael Brennan, commander of the pro-Treaty 1st Western Division, was ordered into the city, backed up by men of the Squad. Ernie O’Malley and his 2nd Southern Division refused to allow this to happen uncontested, and he was soon moving his own forces into the city.

A strange and often tense stand-off was the result. The pro-Treaty troops held most of the barracks’, but their anti-Treaty counterparts were able to seize plenty of other positions, and benefited from a clear numerical superiority. However, the animosity between the two sides had not yet grown to the point where fighting was an inevitability: Brennan recorded having friendly lunches with members of the opposition, and O’Malley would state that pro-Treaty soldiers would happily let him know they had no intention of firing on his men. O’Malley was left frustrated when anti-Treaty commands elsewhere in the country refused to give him support for an assault on pro-Treaty held barracks, with Roy O’Connor not allowing any of his engineers leave to travel to the south-west. Brennan too was in an undercut position, what men he had not adequately armed and not entirely trustworthy anyway: he asked for more men from Sean MacEoin’s Midlands Division, along with armoured cars and tanks.

Griffith, and to a certain extent Collins, saw the Limerick crisis as a serious test of their governments capacity to govern, and wanted the takeover of the evacuated barracks completed. Mulcahy however, saw things differently, recognising, probably correctly, that the new National Army was in no position, mentally or physically, to open hostilities in Limerick. Instead, he decided to play for time, and to open negotiations with the other side. He was aided by the fact that both Eamon de Valera and Liam Lynch were of a similar mindset.

With the involvement of Limerick’s mayor, an agreement was hammered out in Dublin, that saw the Limerick Corporation hold the police barracks and those barracks still held by the British Army at that point, the anti-Treaty IRA hold two of the other military barracks with a small force answering to Lynch, the National Army to do the same for one other police barracks (they under the command of a man named W.R.E. Murphy, a British Army veteran of the western front who had been head-hunted by Collins to join the new pro-Treaty military) and the departure of all “outside” troops. With this, fighting was avoided at the price of Limerick essentially falling into de facto anti-Treaty control. Many pro-Treaty personalities, military and civic, were disgusted at what they saw as a humiliating climbdown, but it is difficult to see what else could have been done: if fighting had broken out, it seems likely that the anti-Treaty side would have prevailed in Limerick at the time. Some anti-Treaty leaders, most notably Tom Barry, were similarly dissatisfied, believing that a fight they should be having then and there was bring needlessly deferred. The situation in Limerick would be very different in the summer.

All of this was preamble for the crisis that occurred in late March, when the formerly agreed Army Convention took place in Dublin. In truth it was never likely that Mulcahy would hold to his agreement for the Convention to take place, and that agreement was repudiated by Griffith ten days before it was due to happen. The provisional government knew that nothing good for its position would happen at such a Convention, which was guaranteed to be dominated by anti-Treaty voices, and end with the IRA repudiating the authority of GHQ and the Dail. But of course a huge portion of the IRA was already operating under its own authority and so, despite efforts by Mulcahy and Lynch to craft a larger compromise that would prevent a split, the Convention went ahead on the 26th.

It was preceded by an infamous press conference arranged by Rory O’Connor, wherein he essentially claimed leadership of the militant anti-Treaty faction, dismissed both the Treaty and Document No. 2, stated that the IRA would prevent the holding of any elections and, in a moment startling for its lack of foresight, answered the question as to whether he was planning to establish a military dictatorship with the words “You can take it that way if you like”. The pro-Treaty side would make much hay out of O’Connor’s anti-democratic comments in the weeks and months to come, and they have become the go-to example of how the anti-Treaty sides’ political aspect gravitated heavily to force-based authoritarianism, a not unjust description. That perception was not helped by anti-Treaty attacks on newspapers that supported the provisional government, or the raids of banks and post offices for funds by anti-Treaty units. Before too long, the provisional government would be able to frame the conflict as one of law and order against militant chaos.

Whatever about its proscription, the Convention went ahead a few days later, with Mulcahy uninterested in starting a war by trying to forcefully stop it from happening. As expected, it was dominated by IRA units from the south and west. It agreed that the IRA should re-form its previous Executive to act as its leadership, and no longer recognise the authority of GHQ. That was about as far as it went though. There were divisions over exactly who should sit on the Executive, and on what exactly they should do then: there remained little firm appetite for a full-on military confrontation. Those officers recorded as attending were suspended by GHQ, and then funding was cut off for their units, increasing the amount of raiding and levy-taking going on in the countryside. After another meeting early in April, a 16-man Executive was agreed upon, with Liam Lynch at its head as the new anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff; among its other members were Liam Deasy, Liam Mellows, O’Connor, O’Malley and Tom Maguire. However, the Executive membership would fluctuate significantly over the next year-and-a-half and the most important point is that Lynch was now stepping into a recognisable leadership position.

We should also touch on the actions of one Eamon de Valera during this timeframe, though his overall ability to impact on the unfolding events was lessening all the time. While men like Lynch, O’Connor and O’Malley had respect for de Valera, they had no interest in allowing him any control over the movement: for them, the time of politicians leading the IRA was coming to an end, and de Valera spent much of the time between the passing of the Treaty and the proper beginning of the Civil War trying to win back the influence he had previously been able to wield.

This perhaps explains the remarkably militant tone of speeches he made during a tour of the country in March and April, wherein he repeatedly stated that the Treaty and the provisional government would, if necessary, need to be violently opposed. The most infamous of these speeches, given in Kerry, saw de Valera explain that the IRA “would have to wade through Irish blood” to stop the Treaty. The speeches would become another propaganda coup for the pro-Treaty side, able to paint de Valera as a crazed hypocrite who had abandoned his preference for constitutional opposition to the Treaty. The man himself, greatly embarrassed, would later protest that phrases in his speeches were taken out of context, but it is hard to see how. More likely he was attempting to curry favour with the militants now firmly in charge of the anti-Treaty movement: if so, it was a failing attempt.

It behooves me at this point to give a brief note on terminology. for much of the ensuing century to use the term “Irregulars” when referring to the anti-Treaty side of the Civil War. The term is a pro-Treaty invention, something that the provisional government ordered media to use in an attempt to de-legitimise their opponents as the opposite of their own “Regular” forces. Despite the fact that its use became so common that any derogatory meaning has become very diluted, it is not one that I myself will use. Somewhat similarly, I will refrain from dubbing the pro-Treaty side that of the “Free State” or Free Staters”, at least until such time as we reach the point where the Irish Free State actually came into being, in late 1922. In their place, the more appropriate terms are simply “anti-Treaty”, “Republican” or “Executives” for those who opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and “pro-Treaty”, “National Army” or “provisional government” (sometimes capitalised, though I choose not to) for those who supported it. Similarly, from this point onwards I will more and more, though not exclusively, use the term “IRA” in reference purely to the anti-Treaty side, which I think is just a reflection of what the state of affairs had become.

Things in Ireland were becoming chaotic with all that I have described above. Banks and post offices were becoming the subject of constant armed raids, the basis of a counter-state under military rule was forming in Munster, members of the RIC were still being attacked and killed at regular intervals and the sense that the country was being divided into two armed camps was very apparent. In the next entry, we must focus in once again on the worst of the chaos, which was undoubtedly in the north still, now with the added complication of Collins’ attention, and intervention.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment