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Film Studies Discussing Problems in Northern Ireland Essay


A close examination of two separate films centered on problems in Northern Ireland, which are Patriot Games (1992) and The Boxer (1997) one is able to see the ways in which different filmmakers, making films for different audiences approach themes.

This can be evidenced by the use of violence to achieve political ends, the splintering of terrorist or freedom fighter groups over time, as well as the desire for revenge as the impetus for a variety of human behaviors. In the same context, each film sacrifices–or adopts–elements that contribute to its overall impact on the audience.

This is usually based on diversified factors such as budget, acting talent, the nationality of each film’s producers, broad ideological leanings, and, most importantly, the core cinematic experience that each set of filmmakers wants its audience to have. As a matter of fact any two films that deal with essentially the same political, religious or ethnic conflict could tread such different cinematic paths.

To begin with is the film, Patriot Games directed by the Australian filmmaker Philip Noyce, a Hollywood “old hand” who has specialty in expensive and large-scale thrillers. It is by far from a small-scale human drama as it is deemed to be. This does not mean that it is a “worse” film than The Boxer nevertheless fundamentally different. Patriot Games’ source material is the novel of the same name by spy-thriller writer Tom Clancy.

On the other hand, The Boxer, as Roger Ebert’s review is quick to note, is a small-scale drama, directed by the Irish man known as Jim Sheridan. The focus of this film is principally on the lives of two individuals caught up in tempestuous political events engulfing their community. Set in mid-1990s Belfast (which Ebert notes as “hungering for peace”).

The Boxer revolves around the lives of Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis), an IRA member who was a successful boxer until he was sent to prison at the age eighteen because of terrorist affiliations. Maggie (Emily Watson) on the other hand is Danny’s former love.

She is a woman who ended up marrying another IRA member after Danny was sentenced to serving a long prison term. As the film curtains are opened, Danny has been released. Having lost all the appetite for violence, he tries living a quiet life and eventually rekindles his relationship with Maggie.

Both Danny and Maggie are tempting fate in this respect. The IRA has a firm policy forbidding extra-marital relationships with the partners of incarcerated IRA members. The pair, Ebert notes, is “star-crossed [but] not blind for they are too old and scarred to throw caution to the wind” (Ebert 2). By taking this track, The Boxer establishes itself firmly as a film about highly-vulnerable human beings.

Such people are prey to forces largely beyond their control and whose basic decency, self-awareness, and desire to simply continue with life allows them to function in an environment dominated by politically and religiously maneuvered violence. This film is a classic story of “small” people carried up in forces of history much bigger and more powerful than themselves.

Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis has a special fondness for such roles, because it is impossible to watch his portrayal of Danny and not to be reminded of his role in The Crucible (1997), a film about a man who tries to maintain his sanity amid politically, religiously-driven as well as life-threatening issues.

Patriot Games, on the contrary is a film on the same basic groups, political and religious forces focusing very clearly on characters distanced from “small” and have no idea of being (or ever becoming) “too old”. “They are also afraid of throwing caution to the wind” (Ebert).

In accordance to Roger Ebert’s January 9, 1998 review of The Boxer there are many elements of the film that are identified to run parallel, at least superficially, to those in Patriot Games. At the same time, the review highlights elements of The Boxer to be entirely antithetical to those in films like Patriot Games which is a by-no-means accidental circumstance.

Yet, as we shall see, the two films have more in common, in terms of raw thematic material, than many viewers might initially realize. It is the cinematic treatment of that material that eventually leads to such divergent results. However, we should be careful about jumping into conclusions regarding which of the two films is “better” than the other.

As a matter of fact the protagonists of Patriot Games are larger-than-life and throughout the film they do nothing but throw caution to the wind. They are not controlled by an agenda thus they draw the attention to the CIA and are looked for by intelligence agencies over three continents. Both films are interesting in the way they work towards preserving, or reinstitution, of a status quo that existed prior to the machinations of “rogue” elements.

At the end of The Boxer, the IRA “takes care of business” by eliminating Harry—not Danny—implying a return to some sort of stability in the long-running conflict between the IRA and the British, which seems to be moving slowly toward peace. In Patriot Games, the entire thrust of the film is toward the elimination of out-of-control elements who are putting the mainstream IRA in an incredibly difficult position vis-à-vis fundraising in the United States.

The scene with Richard Harris captures this dilemma effectively. However, whereas the drama in The Boxer derives from the audience’s essential empathy with the various protagonists and their struggle to resist incredible external pressures and dangers,

But then, The Boxer is a film meant for entertainment. It is a decisively “human” drama that obeys the rules of the real world as most people would experience it. Its characters are flawed, worn out and tainted by compromise. In the film, Danny declines to name his fellow IRA men, and essentially turns his back on the armed struggle following his release.

Joe Hamill (Brian Cox), the leading IRA man in the community, is occupied with trying to negotiate a ceasefire with the British. Hamill as Ebert notes, has “killed and ordered killings”, but this does not preclude him from making a rational decision to engage in a talk with his enemy.

Danny and Maggie, Joe’s daughter, are betraying her husband in a very real, painful and conscious manner. Danny’s feedback to the prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty, fear, and paranoia is to join his old boxing manager, a desperate alcoholic, in reopening a local gym for fighters from both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide.

In other words Danny concludes that what armed struggle creates in terms of pain and suffering at the local level outbalances any benefit that might crop up from the actual attainment of concrete political goals. Danny’s basic rationality wins out, in other words, and his subsequent actions are those of a man who realizes that ceaseless struggle, the quest for revenge, and essentially permanent anger and despair are “not worth it” in relative terms.

Danny wants to live the life he has, not sacrificial one to a larger and very likely futile cause. In becoming—as Ebert writes—“a figurehead for those in the community who want to heal old wounds and move ahead” (Ebert 5), he embodies the normal human tendency to weigh pros and cons and sacrifice idealism to pragmatism.

As noted from the above discussion, there is strong thematic common ground between Patriot Games and The Boxer on a number of incidences. First of all they Both concern themselves with vast pain, frustration and despair of terrorists or freedom fighters who have failed to achieve their goals and believe that some fundamental change in strategy must occur to produce a shift in fortunes.

The protagonists in The Boxer settle upon the path of peace while those in Patriot Games settle upon far more dramatic and lethal terror tactics culminating in an attack upon members of the British royal family in the United States. In both films, it is the extreme, radical element that is used to generate drama.

In The Boxer, for example, it is not the mainstream IRA per se that is the source of conflict, but the IRA faction led by Harry (Gerard McSorley), a committed extremist who hates Hamill, the sober and steadfast IRA representative in Danny and Maggie’s community.

Yet in rendering a figure like Hamill (a murderer in more than a technical sense) as complex and sympathetic, the film clearly suggests that such figures are comprehensible, rational actors who are not “bad” in a strictly moral sense but “wrong” on a technical, strategic level.

Hamill and the other moderates emerge as misguided figures increasingly aware of the damage they are doing, and have done, to their own communities—not as morally bankrupt people who think killing 1, 100, or 1000 innocent people is justified if it produces the political results they desire. Having lost a child to the British, Harry is very bitter to a point of revealing in the very permanence of the struggle against British control. This is the same permanence that causes such misery in the larger community.

Compromise is unthinkable for Harry because the struggle is what defines him. This dynamic defines the protagonists of Patriot Games as well. They too are radical extremists who see compromise as akin to defeat and actively combat not only the British but their more moderate IRA counterparts. They too are driven by the need for personal revenge, with at least one of the group witnessing the death of his brother during an ambitious terrorist operation and vowing to avenge the killing.

Nevertheless, the drama in Patriot Games derives from the terrorist characters’ essential inhumanity. They are impossible to understand, immune to the temptations of compromise, and entirely irrational in their demands and actions (and, as such, the objects of immense fear). Though hardly flat characters, they are not rounded in the way that those in The Boxer are rounded.

They occupy the role of “Other” in much the same way that Islamic fundamentalists dominate the “role” of terrorist in contemporary films and Communist agents dominated the same role in films produced during the Cold War—figures who may be biologically human, but who are in thrall to an ideology that renders them almost superhuman in their ability to withstand, and inflict, suffering.

Dark, shadowy, physically attractive, and mentally acute, they are somehow superior, in their stoicism and lack of mercy, to the forces of the West—or of ordered society—who are arrayed against them.

This is a theme that Desson Howe picks up in his June 5, 1992 review of Patriot Games, in which he deduces that the film lives up to its “mall-movie mandate, to defend American hearth and home against invincible boy-toy bogymen [sic]” (Howe 2). Howe also notes that the IRA splinter group is in no way defined by basic laws as they exist in the real world, particularly with regard to capabilities: This breakaway faction of the IRA…has an operating budget the Pentagon would die for.

They have top-of-the-line speedboats, infrared storm-the- fortress equipment, nasty car bombs and the usual glut of machine guns. They have easy access to London cabs and Libyan ships and Of course they are thick as thieves with Moammar Gadhafi (Howe 3).

The basic rationality and recognizable humanity of the IRA in The Boxer and the essential irrationality and apparent inhumanity of the central IRA splinter group in Patriot Games owe much to the conventions of film genre. The Boxer, as noted, is a small-scale human drama about complex characters and complex, often contradictory, human motivations. The film is clearly not interested in attempting to convey every aspect of The Troubles—from every possible perspective—nor does it have the budget to do so.

Instead, it attempts to “slice into” a single thematic vein (albeit a rich one) and to extrapolate larger truths from this small sample. Patriot Games, by contrast, is about simplified drama and conflict, which demands a “hero” and a “villain”, and preferably, a villain marked not by self-doubt, but by outrageous ego, confidence, and cruelty, such that that villain’s eventual comeuppance is suitably satisfying.

Interestingly, however—and counter-intuitively—this latter form of drama, in forcing thematic simplicity onto an ostensibly complex subject, has a way of laying bare certain uncomfortable truths that are sometimes invisible to those who aretoo close to a particular agenda.

Though this is naturally a controversial and politically-charged area, there is a strong argument to be made that the very act of “humanizing” terrorists or freedom fighters, or indeed any group that pursues an agenda through conflict, works to rationalize and “soften” barbarous acts and to smooth the wayinto a morally-relative universe in which even an al-Qaida suicide bomber (for example) killing a busload of children takes on the character of a rational and comprehensible, if regrettable, act.

This is not to suggest that The Boxer condones IRA violence; it does just the opposite. As James Berardinelli notes in his own insightful review of The Boxer, the film does go some way toward differentiating between the goals of IRA moderates and sympathizers on the one hand and hard-core zealots on the other (Berardinelli 3): “The message [of The Boxer] is that, in a struggle where violence is the weapon of choice for both sides, there are no winners.

Most of the main characters in The Boxer are pro-Republican, but this is no IRA recruiting film” ( Berardinelli 3). The moderates, who are weary of the violence, are the men and women we are meant to have pity on. In contrast, the hard-liners are clearly the villains. “Their case, as stated by a spokesperson, sounds as barbaric and outdated to other members of the IRA as it does to us” (Berardinelli 4).

On the contrary, a film like Patriot Games, in stripping away nuance and the complexity of human motivations, offers an arguable more “honest” assessment of what politically-driven violence really is in an absolute sense.

This is a point worth pondering, because it is often difficult to identify “evil” in human affairs, and, indeed, the very notion of evil is considered by many to be ridiculous, irrelevant and an entirely unproductive concept. Yet few people alive today would seriously quibble with the notion that Adolf Hitler and Germany’s Nazi regime were evil, or that Japan’s actions in Nanking during the Second World War were beyond morally bankrupt (Berardinelli 4).

Yet, undeniably, the policies and actions favored by these groups and individualsmade complete sense to them in a very detailed, wide-ranging and entirely defensible way. In other words, it is not especially difficult to get caught up in individuals, faces, romantic, abstract goals, historical injustices, national feeling, and other elements that distract from the essence of what violence against defenseless people really is.

Patriot Games offers a few details of personal suffering that help to flesh out the IRA members’ motivations, but even though this is largely for the purposes of high-octane, “mindless” drama, it actually has the effect of rendering the reality of what the IRA does (and what all terrorist groups, including the Protestant paramilitaries, do) much more transparent and vulnerable to well-deserved condemnation (Null 2).

Critic Christopher Null, reviewing the DVD version of Patriot Games, touches on this point obliquely when he suggests that, even though Patriot Games is ostensibly anti-IRA, the fact that it favors slick visuals over nuance actually has the effect of capturing the average viewer’s attention much more forcefully than a political piece eager to dispense its “message” first and entertain its audience second: “Patriot Games is at least a story well-told and impeccably produced. I can stand a little preaching as long as it’s well-made.

So many IRA films are preachy and ugly, so Patriot Games is actually a bit of a relief” (Null 3).Patriot Games is as handicapped as The Boxer is in trying to convey all aspects, and all perspectives, inherent to the political struggle in Northern Ireland. It has the budget, but such an examination is antithetical to the action/thriller genre.

Instead, Patriot Games chooses a “broad and shallow” examination over The Boxer’s “narrow and deep” treatment. It is probably safe to say than any film dedicated to the subject of politics in Northern Ireland must be selective in its treatment of the topic, given the constraints of running time. Perhaps television is the appropriate venue to examine the subject in intimate detail.

On the contrary, it can be argued that only a filmmaker with some sort of connection with a people and a cause is able to offer an accurate picture of individual human beings at the heart of that cause. If being too close to a political conflict endangers a focus on elements of individual human behavior, and individual human lives, at the expense of a firm grasp of moral absolutes, then a focus on “good versus evil” certainly precludes gaining a better understanding of unique and fascinating human beings.

Jim Sheridan, who is Irish, was a young man during the onset of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and has a long history of making films dealing with the Northern Ireland issue either directly or obliquely (Some Mother’s Son, In the Name of the Father, The Field).

He is uniquely qualified to investigate the lives of people at the heart of the conflict in a way that that the Australian director Philip Noyce is not. This is not to suggest that Noyce is incapable of doing so—merely that he is more likely to have a “shorthand” understanding of the characters and issues involved in a way that is better suited to high drama.

His is more likely to be a detached, objective, aloof assessment, whereas Sheridan’s is quite clearly more intimate, subtle and emotional. Patriot Games, as noted, is a big-budget film targeted at a wide, international audience (including an audience outside the English-speaking world) expecting well-made action entertainment.

The Boxer, probably made for 1/10 the cost of Patriot Games (or less), is clearly aimed at an older, more sophisticated audience largely confined to the UK, North America, and the rest of the English-speaking world. Far more than Patriot Games, The Boxer is interested in providing its audience a more intellectually-stimulating cinematic experience.

To conclude, The Boxer and Patriot Games treat similar thematic material in pretty different mannerism thus producing two films addressing the Northern Ireland conflict that occupy fundamentally opposed, but equally entertaining, film genres.

The Boxer is a small-scale drama interested in the complex, conflicted lives of people who are deeply invested, willingly or not, in the IRA’s campaign in Northern Ireland; Patriot Games, by contrast, is a classic Hollywood big-budget action film dependent on stock characters and high drama(Null 3).

Despite the fact that both films concern themselves with issues pivoted to the IRA’s decades-long military campaign, including the damage wrought by violence both on victims and perpetrators, the manner in which armed groups inevitably fracture in the face of setbacks and differing objectives, and revenge as a central driver of human behavior.

Produced by filmmakers from very different backgrounds, working within vastly different budgetary constraints, and concerned with conveying different messages to different audiences, both The Boxer and Patriot Games find politics in Northern Ireland a rich source of thematic and dramatic material.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, J. The Boxer: A film review (dir. James Sheridan). Hell’s Kitchen Films/Universal Pictures. 1997. Web.

Ebert, R. . Hell’s Kitchen Films/Universal Pictures. 1998. Web.

Howe, D. ‘’ [A review of the film Patriot Games] (dir. Philip Noyce). 1992. Web.

Null, C. Patriot Games [A review of the film Patriot Games] (dir. Philip Noyce). 2003. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2020, May 11). Film Studies Discussing Problems in Northern Ireland. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/film-studies-discussing-problems-in-northern-ireland/

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1. IvyPanda. "Film Studies Discussing Problems in Northern Ireland." May 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/film-studies-discussing-problems-in-northern-ireland/.


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IvyPanda. 2020. "Film Studies Discussing Problems in Northern Ireland." May 11, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/film-studies-discussing-problems-in-northern-ireland/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Film Studies Discussing Problems in Northern Ireland'. 11 May.

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