Brendan Behan (1923-1964) was an Irish writer (and IRA member from the age of 16) who drank himself to an early death. The basis for his 1958 autobiography Borstal Boy was his imprisonment from 1939 until 1941 in a British facility for juvenile criminals (the borstal), after having been caught on a self-anointed mission to blow up Liverpool docks. He served two more prison sentences, one in Manchester, the other (for attempted murder) in Irish prisons Mountjoy and the Curragh. He was released more than a decade before the end of his sentence in a general amnesty for IRA prisoners in 1946.
Behan’s breakout play “The Quare Fellow,” first staged in 1954 (and originally titled “The Twisting of Another Rope,” is set in the Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. “Quare” is an Irish pronunciation of “queer” and refers to those condemned to death by hanging. The play has a queer (in the Oscar Wilde) sense prisoner who is reprieved. The movie has one prisoner condemned to death reprieved, but the gay angle is completely effaced
The 1962 screen adaptation directed by Arthur Dreifuss and starred Patrick McGoohan as a new pirson guard, Walter Macken as a veteran one opposed to capital punishment, and Sylvia Syms as the desperate wife of the “quare fellow,” who just happens to be staying in the same house where the new guard is lodged. Their liaison is disreputable in the extreme, if less than any whiff of homosexuality in prison or anywhere else. (In 1962 Otto Preminger was pushing back against the Hollywood Production Code with a homosexual liaison in the past of the Don Murray character in “Advise and Consent,” and included a gay bar scene before the inevitable suicide of the “sullied” character. In the 196 Basil Dearden film “The Victim,” a barrister played by Dirk Bogarde, who was in real life gay, went after blackmailers of homosexuals.)
McGoohan was a major television star of the time, first in “The Prisoner,” then in “Secret Agent” (he later won two Emmies guest-starring on “Columbo”). His part as the fresh from the West Coast warder Thomas Crimmin is underwritten and/or his transformation from a fervent authoritarian to a very reluctant player in the execution drama under the guidance of Regan (Walter Macken) lacks conviction-at both ends of the transformation. I don’t think that McGoohan was much of an actor (check out “Ice Station Zebra”). Macken was primarily a writer rather than an actor, but is the stand-out in the cast.
The incipient widow Kathleen (Sylvia Syms) is supposed to be mercurial, desperate about her husband’s coming execution, so her lightning mood changes were presumably in the script and less arbitrary than they seem.
The critique of capital punishment was watered down on the way to movie theaters, and prison life seemed as cheerful as pub life with a pair of wily old cons drinking rubbing alcohol. The movie was partly shot in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and there are wet exteriors from Dublin as well as recurrent scenes in a pub filled with Irish stereotypes. Peter Hennessy deserves praise for his black-and-white cinematography.
The Kino source material transferred to DVD was not very good and there are no bonus features.
BTW Syms played the Queen Mother to Helen Mirren’s “The Queen” in 2006. And the married Behan’s homosexuality is discussed in Michael O’Sullivan’s 1999 biography.
The then 25-year-old American Shawn Hatosy (Southland, and the villain of the fifth season of Dexter) played the adolescent (aged 16-18) zealot Brendan Behan (1923-1964) in Peter Sheridan’s (2000) adaptation of Behan’s autobiographical 1958 novel Borstal Boy with the longtime ingenu Michael York as the would-be helper of incarcerated (misunderstood) juvenile delinquents.
Behan is a fervent Irish nationalist who goes off half-cocked (before alcohol kept him less cocked than that), visibly nervous at British customs with his suitcase filled with dynamite, and easily nabbed. In a juvenile detention facility in northern England (the borstal of the title), where he considers himself a prisoner of war (as an IRA soldier), in 1939-41, Behan finds himself drawn to the (English) warden’s daughter (Eva Birthistle, “Breakfast on Pluto”) and to a Cockney (English) fellow prisoner, openly gay sailor Charlie Millwall (Danny Dyer, who was 23 when the movie was shooting). The imprisoned boys mount an all-male production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” (by Irish-born gay martyr Oscar Wilde) with some comic ineptness and a passionate kiss.
The movie ends with Behan’s return to Ireland, before he got himself into Irish prison and terminal alcoholism. The fierceness and gusto again were drained from the movie. That an Irish terrorist spent any time with the warden’s daughter defies belief. The heterosexual romance was, again, an addition of screenwriters.
The pace is stately, not an adjective one associated with Behan! It’s impossible to believe that Hatosy’s character had the drive andor the guilt to drink himself to death within a month of his 41st birthday. Not that the book’s Behan lacked sweetness or affection for Charlie…
The countryside (actually County Kildare, not anywhere in England) looks prettier (in color) than the cityscape in black-and-white of “Quare Fellow.” Behan’s writing is effectively neutered in both movies, alas. with heterosexualizing foci (and away from prisoners to guards in “Quare Fellow”_.
There is also a 1970 French tv version of the other major Behan work, “A Hostage,” starring the divine Simone Signoret that I would like to see but am not likely to have any opportunity anytime soon of seeing.
This posting is a second overlap (“Cowboys and Angels” was the first) of my June gay freedom/pride/shame blitz and my extended Bloomsday wad of reviews of Irish books and movies.