Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (Walt Disney Productions, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

As part of our St. Patrick’s Day celebration last night Charles and I ran a 1966 movie with the intriguing title The Fighting Prince of Donegal, made by Walt Disney Productions during the last year of Walt Disney’s actual life — though it’s highly unlikely Disney himself had anything to do with this project other than green-lighting it. It was one of the live-action swashbucklers Disney started cranking out in the early 1950’s when he, like the other Hollywood studio heads, realized that Great Britain had instituted a law called “frozen funds” by which foreign companies were prohibited from exporting the money they’d made in the U.K. The idea — which was originally thought up in the 1930’s by Hjalmar Schacht, the finance minister of Adolf Hitler’s government in Germany (and the only one of the bigwigs in the Nazi regime who was not convicted of war crimes after World War II) — was it would force the foreign companies to invest their capital in the U.K. and produce something which they could then export and make money on in the rest of the world. Until the British government forced him to, Disney had never made a completely live-action movie (though he’d been obsessed with combining live action and animation ever since his early days in Kansas City in the 1920’s making the Alice in Cartoonland series), but he soon found out that these mini-epics were an important profit center for his enterprise. As long as he kept the costs down and hired only “B”-list or totally unknown actors (and thereby profited from the excellent training ground offered by the British stage, which consistently produces the best actors in the world who perform in English), he could make money on these cheapies. I recorded this from Turner Classic Movies last Sunday, when they were doing a marathon devoted to Disney in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including episodes of the Wonderful World of Color TV show as well as some of the live-action epics (or not-so-epics) from the studio’s British production wing, including one called Darby O’Gill and the Little People that, like this one, went heavy on the “Irishicity” and would therefore have been suitable for their marathon of movies about Ireland (or Irish-Americans) on St. Patrick’s Day.

One reason I was interested in watching The Fighting Prince of Donegal was the title; I’d just read Ken Moloney’s book The Secret History of the I.R.A. (about the Irish Republican Army from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, when it finally abandoned its armed struggle against the British occupation of the Six Counties in Northern Ireland and signed a peace deal — it’s a fascinating book but also a depressing one, since much of it is simply an account of one tit-for-tat massacre of Irish nationalists and Catholics by British-aligned Protestants, inevitably succeeded by another massacre in the other direction) and the map of Ireland he helpfully provided showed how pivotal Donegal was in Irish politics because, while geographically it’s part of Northern Ireland, politically it’s part of the Republic of Eire rather than the British-occupied Ulster. This geographical proximity made Donegal a key staging ground for I.R.A. armed attacks and a convenient hiding place for I.R.A. fighters looking to get out of Dodge — though one of Moloney’s points was that just how welcome the I.R.A.’s members were in the Republic depended largely on how Irish politics were going; Ireland’s own elections see-sawed between nationalist parties relatively sympathetic to the I.R.A.’s aims (if not always its tactics!) and parties more concerned with maintaining good relations with the U.K. who not only made the I.R.A. unwelcome but sent Ireland’s own secret police, the Garda, after them. But as you might expect, The Fighting Prince of Donegal depicts a much earlier time in Irish history and its long-standing struggle with the Brits: it’s set in 1587, the year before the Spanish Armada attacked England (or tried to) and was beaten back, at a time in which the English in general and Queen Elizabeth I in particular were deathly afraid that there’d be an alliance between Catholic Ireland and Catholic Spain that would catch Protestant (sort-of) England in a military vise and lead to the downfall of Elizabeth’s monarchy and the takeover of England by Spain, perhaps with Mary, Queen of Scots or some other Catholic from the British Isles as a puppet ruler. Based on a novel by Robert T. Reilley called Red Hugh, Prince of Donegal, this film stars Peter McEnery as Hugh O’Donnell, who in the opening scene inherits the throne of County Donegal and the leadership of the O’Donnell clan upon the death of his father Hugh Roe O’Donnell. The Irish, in the middle of a resistance movement against the attempts of the English to occupy their country and thereby neutralize it as a possible Spanish ally, hail Red Hugh’s accession to the throne of Donegal as the fulfillment of an old prophecy that he will be the leader to free Ireland. Hugh insists that only if Ireland’s various clans can unite and form a single army will it be able to challenge the English, and he personally would rather negotiate with them than fight.

Despite the addition of the word “Fighting Prince” in Disney’s title (the film was scripted by Robert Westerby and directed by Michael O’Herlihy, whose name certainly sounds Irish), surprisingly little actual fighting happens in this movie; it’s mostly Red Hugh and his allies, including his girlfriend Kathleen McSweeney (Susan Hampshire), her father and his friend Henry O’Neill (Tom Adams) — depicted as such a creepy opportunist and womanizer I was expecting a plot twist that O’Neill was going to betray Hugh and turn out to be an English agent (actually this was about the only cliché of this sort of movie Westerby and O’Herlihy avoided) — continually falling for the most stupid and obvious English traps imaginable, getting themselves incarcerated and having to figure out not only how to escape (which seems ridiculously easy) but how to make it through miles of British-occupied territory to make it back to Donegal and continue the revolution. For something that’s presented as a swashbuckler, there isn’t even much swordfighting; McEnery — who looks marvelously delectable in his medieval duds but comes off more like he should be singing lead with Herman’s Hermits than starring in an action-adventure movie — first gets to wrestle Tom Adams in a pub (naturally, this being Ireland — or at least Hollywood’s version of Ireland — there’s a lot of drinking in this film), then is forced to fight a fellow inmate of a English prison with a quarter-staff, but the only real action scene occurs in the final reel. The English have captured and occupied Donegal Castle (represented by a matte painting of such obvious phoniness that Charles and I, who’d just been to the ConDor presentations by Robert Welch, grandson of MGM effects-master Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie, on the matte work and other special effects in the films The Wizard of Oz and Forbidden Planet, couldn’t help but chuckle — at one point Charles joked, “You want to escape from the English prison? Just cut a hole in the matte painting and walk out through it!”) and Hugh, acting on his knowledge of the castle’s geography, figures out a way to breach the walls with a primitive bomb and re-take it. The Fighting Prince of Donegal was one of those frustrating mediocre movies that was reasonably entertaining as it stands but could have been a good deal better — though what it really needed was to have been made by Warner Bros. in the 1930’s with Errol Flynn as Hugh, Olivia De Havilland as Kathleen, Basil Rathbone as the vicious British governor Captain Leeds, Claude Rains as Kathleen’s father, Michael Curtiz directing and Erich Wolfgang Korngold composing. Now that would have been a movie for the ages!