The War of Independence on film: Irish Destiny to Michael Collins

How filmmakers have attempted to balance the demands of entertainment against the sensitivities of politics

History has always supplied cinema with exciting narrative opportunities – with heroes, villains, gunfire, and intrigue. The War of Independence is no exception, and within a few years of the conflict ending, the first Independence film, Irish Destiny, was released. Over the decades, many more were to follow. For their creators the challenge was how to entertain audiences while telling a story that was still raw in the memory. The solution was to distract from the politics with a love story, preferably one that involved a brave fighter and his (inevitably) fearful but adoring love interest. The selection below of War of Independence releases is far from comprehensive, but it gives a sense of how different filmmakers have attempted to balance the demands of entertainment against the sensitivities of politics.

Irish Destiny (George Dewhurst, 1926)

Financed by Dublin doctor Isaac Eppel, who also wrote the screenplay, Irish Destiny was the first feature film produced in the Irish Free State. It was Eppel who hired Englishman George Dewhurst to direct. The cast was largely amateurs and included former Volunteer Kit O'Malley, who also acted as military adviser on the film. The plot includes a daring assault on the Black and Tans and a love affair that is complicated by the meddling of a poteen-distilling informer. Authenticity is added by the inclusion of newsreel footage, notably a vividly tinted scene from the burning of the Custom House. Irish filmgoers loved Irish Destiny, but the British censor insisted the military story be cut and the film renamed An Irish Mother. It failed to find an audience in the United States, leaving Eppel bankrupted.

The Dawn (Tom Cooper, 1936)

The heroics involved in making this film are now nearly as famous as the events depicted on the screen. In a period where Ireland had no film industry of its own, Killarney garage owner Tom Cooper assembled a cast and crew drawn from local enthusiasts to film his story of a fictional Kerry family, the Malones, and their involvement in IRA resistance to the Black and Tans. With no professional equipment and no access to a studio, Cooper succeeded in fashioning a story that included not only the required plot ingredients of a suspected informer, a ruthless enemy, and a daring raid, but also star-crossed lovers and a romantic Killarney backdrop. As Eppels before him discovered, Irish audiences loved to see their history on screen, but audiences elsewhere had moved on to more sophisticated fare.

Beloved Enemy (HC Potter, 1936)

Released in the same year as The Dawn, Hollywood's take on the War of Independence was a predictably glamorous affair. The opening titles may have announced that, "This story is not taken from the pages of history. Rather it is legend inspired by fact and all characters are fictitious", but few of its viewers were fooled. English actor Brian Aherne's romantic rebel Dennis Riordan provided a barely disguised Michael Collins. Co-star Merle Oberon's Lady Helen, meanwhile, bore more than a passing resemblance to Lady Lavery. American audiences found it inexplicable that the central character should die at the end so two versions of Beloved Enemy exist, the original with the offending death scene, a second where our hero recovers in his lover's arms.

Michael Collins (Neil Jordan 1996)

By the time of the 1996 anniversary of the Easter Rising, Ireland at last had a film industry of its own and Neil Jordan's Michael Collins seemed to promise that we could make movies like Hollywood. Liam Neeson's star turn as the Big Fella was matched only by Alan Rickman's villainous de Valera. In a startling casting move, Julia Roberts played Kitty Kiernan, the third member of a love triangle between Collins and Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn). Michael Collins was epic filmmaking in every way, from the shelling of the Four Courts to the Godfather-inspired executions by the "Twelve Apostles". Jordan's take on Irish history was controversial, not least for excluding the Treaty negotiations, but that didn't stop local audiences pouring into cinemas to see it. Michael Collins remains one of the top grossing Irish films of all time.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)

In what seemed like a corrective to Michael Collins' epic ambitions, veteran British director Ken Loach returned the War of Independence to the people of rural Ireland, eschewing the Big Man version of history for the local and communal. Starring Cillian Murphy alongside a cast that mixed professional actors and amateurs, The Wind also highlighted the participation of women in the fight for Independence, if only to acknowledge their ultimate silencing. The UK tabloids were incensed when the film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival of 2006; in Ireland and elsewhere it was a massive hit.

Dr Ruth Barton is Head of School of Creative Arts at Trinity College Dublin