It was while I was watching the Tile Films production A Terrible Beauty the other day (via the TG4 Player, awesome that they aired and then streamed it) that I began to think about the Easter Rising and the world of visual entertainment (someday I might talk a bit about the same thing in regards the War of Independence and the Civil War, but for now I’ll just focus on that one week in 1916).
A Terrible Beauty is fine, good even. But I felt vaguely disappointed by the whole thing, and all because of my own misassumption: for whatever reason I had thought that it was just a dramatized version of the fighting in the Northumberland Road/Mount Street Bridge area during the Easter Rising, as opposed to being a docudrama more in the style of TG4’s brilliant Seachtar Na Casca.
As a result, I was little underwhelmed at the sudden intrusions of modern day experts and the “characters” talking directly to the audience, not to mention the narration. I’ve seen this before (and Seachtar Na Casca did it far better in my opinion) and in the case of A Terrible Beauty its attempt to be both an historical dramatisation and a modern documentary ends up leaving both halves weaker than they should be. The acting isn’t really the best and the historical narration from the experts is simplistic and dull. An attempt has been made to try and recreate the “action” of Easter week in this particular area, but I suppose the budget didn’t really allow for everything that the production team might have wanted: in the end it’s a lot of post-production added muzzle flashes and British soldiers falling over. If A Terrible Beauty was trying to capture what it felt like to be on Mount Street Bridge during this conflict, I don’t really think it succeeded that well. The HD camera work looks great alright, but you need more than sharp visuals to have good action.
Which got me thinking about the Easter Rising on screen in general, that is, away from the world of documentary. Has there been a really decent visual dramatisation of the Easter Rising? If not, why not? And can there ever be one, realistically?
Let’s look briefly at the existing offerings (or at least all of the ones I am personally familiar with, I’m more than likely missing a few). Insurrection was an RTE production released around the time of the 50th anniversary, also of the docudrama variety, which tried to show the events of the Rising as if they were taking place during a standard (at the time) news cycle. It’s an interesting take on the whole thing, with a unique enough approach. But it was still basic, hamstrung by the budget and the times it was created in. Good luck finding any of it around today (RTE’ had some of it up online for a while, but it appears to be gone now).
Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins depicts the conclusion of the Rising in its opening, in a battle scene that is as anachronistic as they come. It serves merely as a means of introducing the title character and little more.
Rebel Heart was a 2001 BBC miniseries, whose first episode revolved around the Rising. Criticised for bias and historical inaccuracy by both sides of the remembrance divide, the depiction of the Rising was itself fairly basic, focusing on a handful of fictional characters over any larger re-enactment. It included some decent Irish acting talent from the likes of Liam “Onion Knight” Cunningham and Daragh “Sergeant Harper” O’Malley in that episode. Rebel Heart, while perhaps deserving more praise than it got (it’s probably the best, completely dramatised, depiction of the Easter Rising yet made), has largely failed to become ingrained in the consciousness as much as the likes of Michael Collins.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles depicted the Rising, including the run up to it and its aftermath, in the episode “Love’s Sweet Song”. This is one that is often derided because of the terrible accents and maudlin love story, but it’s actually not that bad, as a brief summation of the times and political feelings that defined them. The events of the Rising themselves are basic enough (most of this shows budget was going to recreations of World War One) but this is certainly worth a look.
I’ve already mentioned Seachtar Na Casca, which was a great docudrama series, which was followed by the lesser Seachtar Dearmadta more recently. Seachtar does a great job at creating vivid portraits of the key figures, but doesn’t have the mandate or the production ability to show the Rising in larger terms than some basic combat sequences that are oft repeated.
There are two other film projects to mention. The first, The Rising, is a planned biopic of Sean McDiarmada whose creators are seeking to get their project off the ground through crowd sourced funding.
The second is the once titled “Easter Sixteen” or “Easter Rising”, which you might have read about a few years ago. When announced it promised to be the first attempt at a big screen adaption of the Rising story singularly, with a 25 million dollar budget and big names like Guy Pearce, Chris O’Donnell and Gary Oldman all “attached” at various points.
The last news I can find on this project, which notes its production/financing difficulties but has a generally optimistic tone, is dated to 2nd of July 2010. After that, there is literally nothing to be found, not even a scant rumour, on the project. It is thus safe to declare it either dead or lost in the bowels of “development hell”.
These are some examples, good, bad and nonexistent, of ways the Easter Rising has been captured (or tried to have been) on screen. So, what is the problem? Why can’t things like Easter Sixteen work out?
Well, the simple fact is that something like the Easter Rising is a fairly niche historical event in worldwide terms. Once in a while you’ll get something like Braveheart that garners an almost global audience despite being about something, medieval Scotland, which the vast majority of the movie going public knows nothing about. If Easter Sixteen ever did get to cinemas, that’s the kind of effect it would be looking for, with the big name stars sucking in an audience, and word of mouth doing the rest.
But that’s a big risk for the major production companies to take, and it would appear none of them really wanted to do so with the aforementioned project. So, you’re left with smaller production companies, like the Irish ones, who don’t have the capital to really make something on a par with Braveheart in terms of production quality. You want this to be a war movie, something akin to the Civil War sequences of Michael Collins on a larger scale. That costs. A lot. The 25 million budget quoted for Easter Sixteen was probably very optimistic.
And if we’re talking something done by the national broadcaster, forget it. RTE has such substantial money troubles, that a big budget miniseries about the Easter Rising is totally beyond its reach and the same goes for every other Irish TV channel. It’s why TG4 sticks to its docudramas and why TV3 ignores the whole topic completely.
It’s possible the coming centenary might encourage the creation of some kind of dramatisation, but it will probably be more in line with the aforementioned Rebel Heart or “Love’s Sweet Song” in terms of production quality and scope. That’s just the way it is.
For me, what I would love would be a low-scale character driven drama, multi-season like Love/Hate, focusing on (fictional if they prefer) personalities going through the events of that period, with a start off in the Easter Rising. If you can’t get the big war movie stuff done, don’t try and do it on a paltry budget and wind up with something horribly inferior or underwhelming. Play to different strengths, like Love/Hate and other Irish drama have done, and focus on story, characterisation, script and ambiance. It can be done. A few people caught up in the horror of Dublin street fighting? I’d watch that. Rebel Heart spent too much time on (if we’re being honest) sub-par action sequences at the expense of character, Young Indiana Jones was far too basic. A better job can be done. It should be done. The visual drama medium, whether it’s TV or the big screen, is something that should be utilised more as part of revolutionary remembrance.