#22 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
I think this is another movie like Seas Beneath where John Ford’s time making it was so bad that he couldn’t see the movie itself anymore. Based on a play by Sean O’Casey, The Plough and the Stars was supposed to be a cinematic adaptation of the play as it was and star the original Abbey Theater cast. Well, RKO forced him to hire Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster to lead the film (the rest of the cast mostly being the original theatrical cast), and they cut down on some of the political edges of the end product. I can see how Ford would see this as a dream project fall apart, and how that would be an incredibly difficult thing for him to take. It was a compromised vision. Well, here I am watching the film nearly eighty years later, and all I see is a pretty solid film, reminding me of Howard Hawks’ Today We Live, another film from the 30s by a well-known director that has just gotten lost and discarded but didn’t need to be.
Stanwyck and Foster by the Clitheroes, Nora and Jack. Newlyweds in 1916 Dublin, Nora has been keeping a secret from Jack that the Citizens Army, the army of Irish Socialists fighting English rule in Ireland, had offered him a leadership position, burning the letter brought a couple of weeks ago. She had extracted a promise from him some time before that he was done with the Army and would spend his life working and coming home to her every night. That comes crashing down when a messenger for the army comes to their door, carrying the same message again, and hands it directly to Jack. Jack feels a strong sense of patriotism and duty that forces him to turn against his promise to Nora and run out the door. He goes to a meeting to discuss potential plans for an uprising while Nora stays home, quietly waiting for her husband to either come back or word to come back of his death.
There’s another side to this film, and it’s a small collection of side characters who do end up really well integrated with the central story of Nora and Jack but start the film as largely a distraction. This group is led by Fluther (Barry Fitzgerald), a braggart and drunkard who speaks loudly of how he would join the army if he were younger while scooping up the remains of beer into a single glass and downing it. There’s also Maggie (Una O’Connor), mother to Mollser (Bonita Greenville). Maggie is an older woman who encourages those around her, especially the older men, to join up. Finally there’s Rosie (Erin O’Brien-Moore), a British sympathizer who will loudly sing “Hail Britannia” and curse those who join up with the Army. It’s a motely crew, and they spend most of the early parts of the movie having borderline zany interactions that end with glasses of beer thrown into windows and, after the Easter Rising begins and Dublin descends into anarchy, some looting that honestly just feels wrong tonally.
On the one hand we have Nora fearing for the life of her husband as British troops descend on the post office where the Army has made its headquarters, and on the other we have this group of miscreants comically looting their own city. It’s really my only big problem with the film, but it’s definitely there. Fortunately, after the looting scene, the movie regains the focus it needs.
The revolution has gone terribly (locking themselves up in an urban building with no escape route and no large depot of supplies seems…questionable tactically), and some of the Army’s men (including Jack) retreat to the roofs of the city, moving away from the post office and to snipe at the British troops below. The nighttime scenes look great, especially the shot of the one sniper being shot off the roof. Jack manages to get to his apartment building where all of our characters have gathered to hide from the violence outside as well as mourn the death of Mollser, who has died of consumption. The long scene that follows is a marvelously tense scene as several things that had been previously established all come to a head at once. The core is Nora’s general distaste for Jack’s choice to join up mixed with her immense relief at his return, along with Maggie’s quiet sadness for her daughter, Rosie’s insistence that all of this is wrong, and Fluther’s bluster being diminished in the face of real violence and danger (but not enough to actually calm him completely). Then walk in the British troops, searching for the sniper (Jack) who disappeared off the roof nearby.
There’s sadness, anger, and a complex juggle of the needs of a nation versus the needs of the family at play, and the movie never really comes to a conclusion, staying in the murky emotional reality of the story of a husband and wife in a tumultuous time.
I should also note Barbara Stanwyck. As time has gone on, I’ve grown to really like her as an actress. It really started with Anthony Mann’s The Furies, but combined with her easy sexpot performance in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, I’ve found her a very talented woman from old Hollywood. Here she gives a really terrific performance as a woman constantly on edge and in near total melancholy about the inevitable death (as she sees it) of her husband. But, she can’t really hold the Irish accent at all. It’s off and on (mostly off), and I think that’s what leads to people having called her miscast. She doesn’t sound Irish, but you know what? She plays Nora really well.
The rest of the cast is good, though I find Foster a bit of a non-entity as Jack. The supporting cast, made up of interesting Irish character actors, is alternatively fun and can actually carry some emotional weight when necessary.
This isn’t a hidden masterpiece, there’s too much in the middle section that simply feels off for that, but it comes out as a solid piece of filmmaking. Ford apparently left the production at some point, needing assistants to finish it (probably explains “Assisted by Arthur Shields of the Abbey Theatre” credit under Ford’s name on the film), but the end result is actually pretty solid. Anchored mostly by Stanwyck, this is a good little film that really deserves some reappraisal.