32 CinÉireann / Issue 9
If American horror often reflects the anxieties of settlers trying to assert ownership, Irish horror often taps into the anxieties of original inhabitants trying to assert control of land that has only recent been returned to them. With that in mind, it makes sense that an Irish approach to the very American genre of the western should adopt a perspective that is diametrically opposed to the original colonial narrative.
Black ’47 is far from the only example of a postcolonial nation repurposing and deconstructing the archetypal western narrative. Earlier this year, Sweet Country attempted something similar. Sweet Country was an Australian western, a rich subset of the genre including beloved films like The Proposition or Ned Kelly. However, what made Sweet Country so interesting was the way in which the film filtered the western through the eyes of the Aboriginal population, right down to a story told in a fractured and disjointed manner that consciously evoked Aboriginal concepts of dreamtime.
Black ’47 takes the familiar tropes of the western and offers a decidedly Celtic spin on them. This is obvious in every aspect of the production. Brian Byrne’s score evokes the beautiful and powerful work of Ennio Morricone, but interspaced with a more distinctly Irish uilleann pipe aesthetic; the familiar drum beat of the western repurposed as the sound of a bodhrán. At one point, the camera follows its riders into a small western town, the camera sweeping around them to reveal a hanging body as an illustration of what passes for justice in this lawless part of the world. Stephen Rea plays the native Irish character Conneely who accompanies the British lawmen, a Gaelic version of the familiar Native American archetype embodied by Tonto.
Writers Pierce Ryan, PJ Dillon, Eugene O'Brien and Lance Daly understand the context within which an Irish western exists, as a prism and a reflection of the genre’s distinctly American roots. It is a tale of colonialism, of genocide, of the attempted ethnic cleansing of a landscape in order to make room for those perceived to be its rightful owners. At one point in the script, the British landlord Kilmichael observes to Pope, “There are some who long for the day when a Gaelic Irishman will be as rare in Ireland as a redskin on the island of Manhattan.” He somewhat unconvincingly adds, “Still, it brings me no pleasure.”
As if to solidify this broader historical context, Kilmichael dismisses Gaelic as the island’s “aboriginal tongue.” Although it is technically and historically accurate to describe the language as such, the word “Aboriginal” is most heavily associated by contemporary audiences with the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Australia, who were subject to even more brutal oppression and ethnic cleansing than the native Irish.
Black ’47 returns time and again to the idea of retributive violence visited upon colonial oppressors as a form of a historical dramatic irony, similar to the revenge fantasies that underpin Django Unchained. The lead character in Black ’47, Feeney, is not so much an individual as a force of will. He is a consequence of empire. He is a man who took the king’s shilling to serve abroad, and who was implicitly changed by his experiences serving the empire in Afghanistan. He returns to what was once his home, and wreaks a terrible vengeance upon those who have oppressed his people. Witnessing his murder of the local rent collector, his former colleague Hannah notes that Feeney has adopted the methods of those he fought in Afghanistan. He is bringing a foreign war home with him.
There is a strange and enchanting dream-like quality to Black ’47, enhanced by Lance Daly’s direction. At one point in the film, Feeney converses with Hannah. The two talk late at night, with Feeney emerging from (and disappearing into) the darkness. There is no real sense of whether this is a conversation that really took place, or whether Hannah’s imagination has conjured it from nothing. There is something appealing in that ambiguity.
In that conversation, Feeney reflects that he is simply visiting upon his oppressors the same violence that they have readily inflicted upon others. “When I kill, they call it murder,” he tells Hannah. “When they kill, they call it war, provenance, justice.” The use of the word “provenance” conjures up the myth of the American West, and the underlying assumption that this land rightfully belongs to the colonising forces. In this conversation, Feeney boasts of his desire to turn the weapons of the colonial forces back upon them. “Go home English. You’ve no business here.”