The Belfast-born WWI ‘deserter’ who became one of the greatest war film directors
Brian Desmond Hurst’s cinematic take on war from the Anglo-Irish conflict to the Mau Mau in 1950s
Brian Desmond Hurst, producer William Sistrom and studio head J Arthur Rank on the set of Hungry Hill, based on a book by Daphne du Maurier, at Denham Studios in June 1946. Photograph: Getty Images
This handsomely produced but quixotic volume will delight many readers whose particular bent is military history and popular film. But it will frustrate many others who are cultural historians with interests in Ireland and cinema. It is published in the middle of Ireland’s officially declared “decade of commemorations” (1912-22), with Britain’s formal state programme of events for the Great War in full flow and the popular fascination with 1914-18 showing no let up. What here then is of interest to Irish Times readers?
The answer is twofold: firstly, Truesdale and Esler Smith’s research contributes to the now established narrative of Irish people’s role in British military history, notably the 20th century’s two world wars, whose decisive battles have achieved now iconic status in our understanding of conflict, such as the Somme and Gallipoli and, from the second World War, Arnhem. The latter is less prominent in memory perhaps and indeed much of this book is taken up with meticulously detailing logistics of the disastrous British airborne invasion of the Dutch town of Arnhem late in 1944, featuring as it did a number of Irish combatants. The book’s chosen method is to use the critically acclaimed 1946 film Theirs is the Glory as the optic to review the “Operation Market Garden” campaign, and set it alongside other conflicts and their film treatments.
But secondly, this book’s dominating subject and guiding framework is the life and films of Belfast-born director, Brian (born Hans) Desmond Hurst (1895-1986), director of Theirs is the Glory and responsible for an output of more than 30 films made in the British cinema industry, a notable number of which dealt with conflict of various kinds. The book treats this capaciously from the Irish War of Independence (Ourselves Alone, 1936) to the Battle of Britain (Dangerous Moonlight, 1941), the North Africa campaign (The Black Tent) and the Mediterranean theatre (Malta Story, 1953), but it also includes the British colonial war against Kenya’s Mau Mau in Simba (1955).
That is an intriguing clutch of film topics over a 20-year period and Hurst was one of a new stable of directors – Anthony Asquith, Lance Comfort, David Lean and Carol Reed who learned their trade in the 1930s, though Hurst had studied art at Ontario College of Art in the early 1920s and did his apprenticeship in silent Hollywood later that decade under the tutelage of none other than John Ford.
As far as conflict is concerned Hurst was directorially involved in WWII with propaganda films such as The Lion Has Wings (1939) and short films from the 1940s about what to do if a Nazi parachutist lands in your back garden (Miss Grant Goes to the Door) and another to welcome US troops to Northern Ireland (A Letter from Ulster). These films are collectively essayed in Chapter 10 “Hurst and conflict on film” and this will be considered in more detail below. But before this it’s worth considering the book’s overall structure, the argument that it sets out and the rationale for the approach adopted by the authors.
What case do the authors make in their book? In their introduction they proclaim Hurst to be “Northern Ireland’s greatest film director” – echoing the banner tag, “Ireland’s most prolific film director of the 20th century”, on briandesmondhurst.com. Furthermore, they assert that “Hurst’s nine films on conflict and warfare, with the tenth being the centrepiece of this book, Theirs is the Glory, offer a unique insight [my emphasis] into these themes like no other film director from the British Isles.” Really? The idea that the insight offered on conflict is ‘unique’ is not explicitly or convincingly argued in either the book as a whole, nor in Chaper 10 specifically, eg read page 250 as to the kind of reasoning offered. And of course, to use the term ‘British Isles’ (twice on page ix) is telling, especially when the book is at pains elsewhere to emphasise Hurst’s origins in ‘East Belfast’, that ‘Hurst was an Ulsterman, a soldier and artist’ (page 206) and hailed as ‘Northern Ireland’s greatest’... etc. The full implications of the political geography of Hurst’s life and career in film are never fully drawn out despite the fascinating contradictions of his life arc, which perhaps endure as part of the ‘Hurst enigma’ outlined by Esler Smith in Chapter 8.
The book makes extensive use of film and the associated materials (scripts, stills, posters) which richly illustrate their textual commentary, but in their introduction the editors rather coyly pull back, cautioning that ‘from the outset, it has not been our intention to critique to any great extent the “Hurst conflict on film catalogue” [and that] ‘we will leave the critiquing to more qualified authorities on film and film history’. (xii) To discuss or analyse critically is surely required if the co-authors want to sustain the claims that they appear to make for Hurst’s singular significance?
Much of the book is driven, firstly, by the duty of reclamation for the lives sacrificed and forgotten, notably of the Royal Irish Rifles being ‘airbrushed from history’ (Chapter 6). But it is also a book of veneration by people with close connection to Hurst. Principally, of course – as is acknowledged by the sleeve-note – Esler Smith is related to Hurst. This does rather colour a largely uncritical appreciation of his family’s famous great uncle.
The eminent actor-peer, the late Roger Moore, outlines in the book’s foreword as he had done in his own memoir, My Word is my Bond, that Hurst was instrumental in enabling his own acting career, plucking him from spear-carrier anonymity on the Caesar and Cleopatra film set in 1944, paying for Moore’s Rada tuition fees and setting him on his way that led to fame in the Bond franchise via Guy Hamilton, one of Hurst’s contemporary acquaintances.
Moore comments insightfully that, based on his own first-hand experience, Hurst was ‘letting his films do the talking…we can see a man striving to say something about conflict: the shadows it casts; the lives lost; the opportunities that may emerge.’ (vi)
Do the authors get us any closer to resolving what it was that Hurst was creatively exploring in the film material about combat, war and political conflict that formed a recurring theme in his career? Other writers, actors and directors in cinema in the interwar and post-1945 periods had similar lived experience of battle, fighting and killing first hand, and ‘war’ films became a staple genre in British cinema, box office and a screen working-through of a national post-trauma syndrome, from In Which We Serve to Dad’s Army.
The lion’s share of the book – seven chapters – is given over to Arnhem. It is a conflict in which many Canadians served and perished alongside British, Irish and US troops. The film received a dual premiere in London and Ottawa. And the book is essentially an assiduous reconstruction job – ephemera, the paraphernalia of maps, troop lists, cap badges, photos of machine guns, tank types and so on. Truesdale and Esler Smith are clearly experienced military historians, researching military records, National Archives, Imperial War Museum Duxford, regimental records and cross-checking with Hurst’s memoir. But they also relish using contemporary material, new photographs of battle site locations revisited, veterans’ reunions, battlefield tours and so on.
This is the work of the relatively new mode of a popular history that uses 21st-century tools under new conditions (internet, mobile phone cameras, relatively cheap European travel, greater leisure time, early retirement, aging population), but based on old-school historical values and practices: belief in ‘facts’, archive and universal human truths. And yet, what actually is the value of showing ‘then-and-now’ photos of a staircase location in Holland or Nissen huts in Northern Ireland (pages 83 and 303)? What does having photos of one of the authors (page 83) alongside a veteran from Arnhem achieve in helping our understanding of their wartime experience and historical events?
Some of the conjunctions of testimony from WWI veterans at military museums are graphically inserted into the discussion – 2014 and 1914 as it were – which do resonate and give a reader cause to reflect. But this approach could have been followed through when Hurst’s film Simba (1955) about the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya is discussed (pages 324-31). Why not have the commentary link to or at least reference the legal case brought by survivors of the detention camps against the UK Government tracked from the high court 2011 until 2016? This section is frustrating since the analysis of some well-observed points is not carried through or is left hanging, particularly concerning Hurst’s views on British colonialism, nor is the Euro-centrism of the script challenged (pages 324, 325, and 329).
Christine Geraghty’s analysis of the liberal shortcomings of the film appears to be misconstrued as a point conferring merit on Hurst (page 331) when she is exposing the film’s limitations. Copy edit errors have crept in to the text too in this section, with ‘queue word’ rather than ‘cue’ (page 327) being used and also Geraghty’s book is misattributed to “Hove: Psychology Press, 2000” rather than ‘Routledge, 2000’, in both footnote 41 (page 320) and in the bibliography (page 345).
Stepping back from such detail, however, Hurst’s work is being slowly brought to greater attention following the appearance of Christopher Robins’ biographical memoir account of his friendship with Hurst (2004), Ruth Barton’s inclusion of Hurst’s work in her Irish National Cinema (2004) and by the doggedly persistent work of Esler Smith as the official biographer of Hurst and executor of the Hurst Estate.
Credit where it is due: the Hurst estate has developed an official legacy website briandesmondhurst.com, Esler Smith has written pamphlets, successfully pressed for the re-release of back catalogue films on DVD, ensured Hurst’s work has been screened again at the BFI in London and co-authored the current volume under review. He is also preparing an authorised version of Hurst’s memoir Travelling the Road, a project co-edited with the current reviewer.
Readers should note, then, that I write as interested party, working to throw greater light on the complexities of Hurst’s life, on Irish auto/biography and, perhaps most importantly, a proper evaluation of his wider contribution to British cinema and to Irish cultural history through his films.
Emphasis and structure
Even allowing that the book comes from specialist military history publisher, the volume under review is lopsided in emphasis and its structuring rationale isn’t always clear. Somewhat randomly a ‘filmography’ appears at the end of Chapter 8 (page 202) – a list of Hurst film titles and his credited roles – but the commentary sections of later chapters all contain title and production details that clutter the page and obscure any analysis that might be happening. Surely better to de-clutter and have this appear separately as ‘end matter’?
An “Epilogue on conflict on film” (page 337) appears unexpectedly at the end of Chapter 10. Why is it here when we have had Gallipoli examined back in Chapter 9? Although Hurst didn’t make a film on that conflict his Travelling the Road memoir has a stunning chapter on his first-hand experience as an infantryman in the Royal Irish Rifles and this is materially very important WWI testimony.
In Chapter 8 and elsewhere in the volume Esler Smith generously acknowledges the research of this reviewer yet omits to cite peer-reviewed entries published in Ireland and Britain’s “national” biographical dictionaries (Maume DIB, 2013; Pettitt ODNB, 2012). These, I suggest, offer more nuanced, critically searching interpretations of Hurst’s life that reflect on memoir material about Gallipoli and other matters of his personal life not referred to by Esler Smith, presumably deemed irrelevant to his ‘conflict’ films.
Theirs is the Glory (2016) has undoubtedly unearthed new material on Hurst’s life – not least the revelation that Hurst was a deserter (July 1917) who, allegedly, then re-enlisted under another assumed name. The authors have also done an excellent job in compiling a rich visual and archival resource of Hurst film ephemera for a selection of his work. But they have fallen short in terms of articulating an argument for Hurst’s imaginative engagement in ‘war films’ beyond that as a former serving soldier he might have a heightened level of empathy for the subject matter derived from his own participatory witness.
Theirs is the Glory: Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film, David Truesdale and Allan Esler Smith. Foreword by Sir Roger Moore. Solihull: Helion & Company, 2016. 353pp. Illustrated. Col/Monochrome. ISBN: 978-1-911096-63-4. Lance Pettitt is an associate lecturer in film at Birkbeck, University of London.