Directed by Denis Johnston and based on Frank O’Connor’s acclaimed short story, the film conveys the ambivalent feelings among a group of IRA men who are ordered to kill two British soldiers they’ve been holding captive. (O’Connor’s story later inspired Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game.)
The narrative is set in 1921, during the War of Independence, when radical ideas floated all across Europe. Unsettling psychological conflicts emerge within the characters, as the IRA men form genuine respect for their prisoners, while the soldiers develop more enthusiasm for the populist cause of their captors than the mission of their commanders.
O’Connor’s tale has been called an indictment of the futility of war and it implies that the rank-and-file combatants in any conflict share more in common with each other than their leaders prefer them to think.
Movies themed on troubled Irish nationalism were popular during the 1930s, John Ford’s atmospheric The Informer (1935) the most noted, drawing an Oscar-winning performance from Victor McLaglen. Ford’s film was taken from Liam O’Flaherty’s novel and O’Flaherty shared with O’Connor a deep disappointment that 1920s Republicanism had lost out to 1930s Catholic conservatism.
Guests of the Nation features Barry Fitzgerald and the young Cyril Cusack. It has been preserved by the Irish Film Institute and has a new orchestral score by Niall Byrne. It is revived as part of the Barbican’s Silent Film and Live Music series and marks Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It offers a glimpse into our political and cinematic history.
Guests of the Nation screens at the Barbican, London, this Sunday (April 14) at 4pm.