CinÉireann / Issue 9 33
In its own way, Black ’47 finds Feeney weaponising the myth of the western against those who have historically cultivated it for their own benefit. Coneely desires to accompany the posse to keep a record of events, so the tale might later be told in full. As in Bone Tomahawk, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, Black ’47 transforms the western into a horror story. The film owes a lot to the western genre in terms of storytelling and construction, but Lance Daly borrows several of his key cues from horror cinema.
Feeney’s murders are presented as grotesque and horrific. Often coded as ironic, they occasionally feel like audition tapes for the Saw franchise; he decapitates a rent collector and places a pig’s head atop his body, he drowns an enforcement agent in the grain stolen from the native Irish, he hangs a judge from the courthouse, he ensures that Lord Kilmichael dies by British guns. These murders are not presented as heroic or triumphant, but unsettling and monstrous.
More than that, Daly shoots the film in a heavily desaturated manner, with even his well-fed British characters having an eerie white pallour. Even the distinctive green of the Irish countryside is rendered closer to a ghastly grey. The only colour that doesn’t get lost in this desaturation is that on the uniforms of the British soldiers. In the world of Black ’47, red still shines through.
The native Irish who populate the edges of the narrative feel almost like the undead, evoking shuffling zombies as they stagger and crouch, drifting mindlessly after wagons of grain in the hope that they might find some sustenance. In its own way, Black ’47 is as much a post-apocalyptic Irish horror as The Cured. When Daly shoots wide establishing shots in the style of John Ford, they do not reveal a vast and limitless frontier. Instead, they suggest a landscape crisscrossed with boundary walls that suggest still-recent scars and crumbling stone cottages that are a reminder of the dispossessed indigenous population.
Black ’47 suggests its own interpretation of the central place that land holds within the Irish horror landscape. Black ’47 suggests that the Irish desire to assert control and ownership over land is about more than just a rejection of the usurpation of that land by the British Crown. Instead, Black ’47 suggests that Irish anxieties about land are more fundamental than that, and tied to a mistrust of the soil itself.
Black ’47 opens with a teaser providing back story for the character of Hannah, depicting his murder of a suspect in his custody and explaining his disgraced status at the start of the tale. However, the first image after the title card is that of a human skull protruding from a puddle on a dirty road.
In Black ’47, the earth rejects even the dead.
Black ’47 has been described as “a potato western”, in contrast to the “spaghetti western” genre popularised by Sergio Leone during the sixties. The Great Famine has left an undeniable mark on Irish culture and history, but remains relatively unexplored in terms of Irish culture and art. In fact, Black ’47 is perhaps the highest profile exploration of the era.
Because there was no state registration of birth, deaths and marriages during or before the Great Famine, it will always be impossible to properly qualify the impact of the crisis upon the nation. It is estimated that the population of the island dropped from eight million to six million during the crisis, whether due to death or emigration. However, the consequences might have been even more dramatic in the longer term. By 1900, fifty years after the famine, the island’s population was only four-and-a-half million, only slightly more than half what it had been before the tragedy.
The cultural legacy of the Great Famine was one of death and desertion. The mass emigration of the Irish people from the island to the far reaches of the globe was in many ways a direct result of this horror. Even in an abstract way, the Great Famine served to fracture the relationship that existed between the Irish and the land which they considered to be home.
Of course, the Great Famine fractured that relationship in a more direct way as well. The potato blight that caused so much of the horror was a direct betrayal of the Irish people by the land on which they worked. Feeney’s sister-in-law discusses the first-hand horror of the blight, particularly the way in which the soil that had provided sustenance seemed to turn on its inhabitants. “The potatoes turned to dust in our hands,” she explains.