Beloved Enemy: Hollywoods first homage to Michael Collins

Long before Neil Jordan brought Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Michael Collins to cinemas, Brian Aherne lit up the screen as the Irish freedom fighter, Dennis Riordan. The Riordan character was undoubtedly based on Michael Collins, performing many feats which whether real or imaginary, had been attributed to Collins. Riordan had been in Dublin Castle, nobody knew what he looked like, he cycled a bike around Dublin while other characters spoke of the £10,000 price on his head, he frequently escaped the most calculated traps, and he eventually signed a peace treaty which he described as signing his death warrant. It was little wonder that at least one British publication commented on his ‘Michael Collinsish role.’[1] Beloved Enemy’s story was originally written by an American journalist, John Balderston. The film’s intro makes it clear that ‘this story is not taken from the pages of history. Rather, it is legend inspired by fact and all the characters are fictional.’

The film was well received by critics in the United Kingdom, and while Irish critics were disturbed by its historical inaccuracies, they welcomed its entertainment value.[2] In Belfast it was greeted by a near riot when an organised mob ‘hissed and sang “Kick the Pope” while others shouted “Up the Rebels”’[3] It ran in Dublin’s cinema’s through the latter half of October 1937 with additional screenings arranged at some outlets. Politically it seems to have had an indifferent reception. It was advertised in the Fianna Fáil government run Irish Press and no mention of the film either for or against arose in Dáil Eireann debates.[4]

The ‘Michael Collinsish’ role played by Irish American actor Brian Aherne was certainly an exaggeration of the real Collins. It was even an exaggeration of the societal exaggeration of Collins. In the early stages of the film Riordan uses his role as Chief of Staff to explicitly forbid an ambush on the ‘diplomatic representative of another country.’ This of course is more of a Hollywood idealised representation of the IRA’s Chief of Staff than it was a portrait of Collins himself. Already, we see that Riordan is unsure that he can control his men, and when an arms convoy that they were to ambush is delayed at the ‘North Wall’ he fears that they will ambush the diplomat Lord Atleigh and his daughter Lady Helen. What follows comes directly from the legend of Collins when Riordan rides directly into the ambush position disrupting the field of fire and effectively neutering the ambush before it began. His showing up at this moment results in his being arrested and brought back to what is presumably the Vice Regal lodge where Atleigh (whose office is never revealed, but who acts like a Home Office Minister) is staying. When asked his name, Riordan shows the audience his Collins like hubris by simply giving his real name and laughing at the coincidence that he shares it with such a well- known rebel. The authorities enjoy the joke and release Riordan. It’s a moment of light relief and a moment that audiences reared on real and imaginary tales of Collins’s doings would instantly have recognised the inspiration behind the fictional character.

Riordan’s scuppering of the ambush brings him into contact with Lady Helen for the first time, and there the story takes a stronger turn towards fiction. Lady Helen becomes the love interest for Riordan. But she is nothing like Kitty Kiernan. She is, perhaps, a little more like Hazel Lavery who was frequently (even in the 1930s) rumoured to have participated in an extra-marital affair with Collins.[5] Like Lavery, Lady Helen has a title and is at the centre of English society. Throughout the film she is a Unionist and a peacemaker announcing in her first scene that Ireland and Britain are ‘one nation divided by a strip of water.’ We are told that Lady Helen served as a Red Cross nurse during the First World War, and her second meeting with Riordan is a result of her escorting an injured boy to his home after a minor accident. In so doing she exhibits a kindness that is not reciprocated by the native population. Later she persuades Riordan to sign a peace treaty by asking whether the Irish people would want death over a few words in a treaty. And after she has intervened and swayed Riordan towards a pro-treaty stance, a republican character bemoans Riordan’s compromising nature and refers to her as ‘the woman who did what all their men could not do.’ All of this chimes with the Lavery legend that wasn’t widely published until decades after Beloved Enemy but had been rumoured for some time.[6] Snatches of these rumours may have inspired the Lady Helen character and indeed the central plot itself. The inclusion of this story in this popular film itself may have perpetuated the rumours regarding the real life Collins even further. Love across a social or political divide is a very common theme in various dramatic media and Beloved Enemy makes no pretence to be a historical depiction of anything, instead merely playing to a well-known trope.

The main anti-treaty character in the film is an IRA commander known as Callaghan. He does little to explain his opposition to the treaty confiding in well-worn clichés about honour and oath. Callaghan is not an easily deciphered representative of any real character but may be a product of Balderston’s understanding of anti-treaty republicanism. There is no doubt that these anti-treaty forces serve as the film’s villains in its final act. At this point Riordan appears in a military uniform for the first time. Like Collins, the fictional character is making a public transition from gunman to soldier in the aftermath of a negotiated settlement. In contrast with this fine upstanding soldier, resplendent in the glow of a streetlamp defending the treaty to cheering crowds, the republican gunman literally emerges from the darkness of a street corner, preceded by his shadow, and guns the hero down. And what happens next, depends on which of the two separate endings the viewer sees.

When originally screened in New York, and later in London, Riordan died at the hands of the Republican gunman.[7] However subsequent versions of the film saw Riordan recuperating in the arms of Lady Helen. When she voices her hopes for their future together, Riordan closes his eyes and appears to have passed away. Lady Helen calls his name, Riordan opens his eyes again and calmly states ‘I’m not going to die. A good Irishman never does what is expected of him’ before turning and mischievously looking at the camera. Such an ending sheds some light on the real life Irish perception that such a death was possibly not befitting the legend of the man. The manifestation of many conspiracy theories over the years surrounding the death of Collins supports this. Whether or not any such theories have any truth, they reveal a reluctance on the part of the Irish population to accept a simple death for Collins.[8]

Like every film or artistic product, Beloved Enemy is a product of its time. The writing, acting, and cinematography are not what a twenty-first century audience is used to. Yet the story is a captivating one. This may be because one watches it with an understanding of what the ‘real’ story is and seeks to compare it with the history that inspired it. It is interesting to see how 1930s Hollywood interpreted the Collins legend and the Irish War of Independence and sold their interpretation to audiences all over the English-speaking world. To that end, the film’s intro makes it clear that neither the English nor the Irish belligerents are stereotypical bad guys and men on both sides died ‘bravely for what they believed was right.’ While the film fails to make any attempt to understand the republican anti-treaty perspective, its ability to find a respect for both the Irish rebels and their enemy puts it somewhat ahead of its time. Beloved Enemy is both a historical curiosity and a worthwhile ninety minutes of entertainment. If, as one suspects, it never really aimed to be any more than the latter, it achieved that aim in some considerable style.

[1] Portsmouth Evening News, 27 March 1937.

[2] Evening Herald, 16 October 1937.

[3] Cork Examiner, 25 September 1937.

[4] Evening Herald, 13 October 1937. Irish Press, 27 October 1937. This essay may be amended as soon as official censorship records become available in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic. The Dáil debates were searched by title and star.

[5] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, Arrow Books, London, 1991, pp288-292

[6] Ibid. Meda Ryan, Michael Collins and the Women Who Spied for Ireland, Mercier Press, Cork, 2006, in Irish Independent, 16 July 2006.

[7] Irish Independent, 27 January 1937.

[8] Anne Dolan & William Murphy, Michael Collins: The Man and the Revolution, Collins Press, Cork, 2018, pp246-250.

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