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The Last Bohemian: Brian Desmond Hurst, Irish Film, British Cinema by Lance Pettitt

Despite analysis of Hurst’s work being academic in form, this book offers pleasures to the casual reader

The Last Bohemian: Brian Desmond Hurst, Irish Film, British Cinema
Author: Lance Pettitt
ISBN-13: 978-0815637295
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Guideline Price: $39.95

According to Michael Powell, among the greatest of English filmmakers, Brian Desmond Hurst was a “brilliant Irish director”. In his useful study for the Syracuse University Press, Lance Pettitt does service to the films for which the Belfast man is best known. The indestructible Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim as Dickens’s miserly tyrant, fuses “Ulster gothic” with “Hurst’s humanism”.

Confirming his subject as a key force in mid-century British cinema, Pettitt notes a contemporaneous Daily Mail readers’ poll that puts Hurst’s Dangerous Moonlight (1941) in a wartime top 10 alongside such classics as Henry V and This Happy Breed. The book further acknowledges contributions to Irish cinema that belatedly helped secure the director honours such as a 2004 retrospective at the Cork Film Festival and a sound stage in his name at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Riders to the Sea drew from John Millington Synge in 1935. Ourselves Alone addressed the still-raw War of Independence in 1936.

So the work alone would be enough to justify a book even if Hurst had not lived the sort of life that demands euphemisms such as “colourful”. Working-class Protestant childhood in Belfast. Service at Gallipoli during the Great War. Art school in Toronto. Then Paris. Then apprenticeship in Hollywood under John Ford. Then London. All this while negotiating the pressures of life as a gay man in an often hostile society.

Pettitt addresses those picaresque adventures — raising occasional eyebrows at inventions such as Hurst’s claim to have met Rodin close to a decade after the sculptor’s death — but his main task is an overdue analysis of the work. This is often carried out in academic language. Dangerous Moonlight can best be understood as “an exilic film … in which the vectors of queer sexuality, fashioned from the determining mesh of contexts, acknowledges … suppressed desire in Britain.” And so on.


The Last Bohemian will, however, offer pleasures to the casual reader. Pettitt is particularly strong on Hurst’s struggles to define and explain his national identity. A delightful quote finds him schooling Seán Lemass, then taoiseach, on his origins. “I do not mean the Six Counties,” he says. “I mean what is now and has always been the dominating province in Irish affairs — Ulster.”

Deny that if you can.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist