MRCTV Movie Review: Black 47

Alex Hall | October 12, 2018
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While many history films can be notoriously hit-or-miss with modern audiences, this genre-bending revenge thriller cuts deeply in a way few others do.  Many critics have affectionately dubbed this film "The Irish Braveheart" because it is a historical fiction about a man's quest for vengeance against British occupying forces. Part of what gives this movie such universal appeal with audiences both in Europe and in America is that it clearly has been influenced by the Western/Gunslinger genre. While this film is set during something as niche as a dark chapter of Ireland's history, the story itself as a fast-paced tale of revenge has widespread appeal, which I think was severely underestimated considering it was given only a limited theatrical release here in America.

To briefly summarize the film's setup, it is the year 1847 during the darkest year of the Great Famine, where a disease of the land known as "the Blight" caused potatoes (Ireland's major food crop) to rot within the ground. The problem got exponentially worse when local landlords under the British regime, which has lorded over Ireland for centuries, began evicting people from their houses so that their land could be used for grazing livestock (which were seen as more profitable than tenant farmers). With this backdrop the film's main hero enters, an Irish deserter from the British army who returned after many years of service to find his homeland is unrecognizable and that the colonial rulers he fought for have betrayed his people. When he finds he has nothing left to lose, he begins a rampage tearing through English-occupied Ireland, hunting the landlord responsible for his family's deaths. Set on his trail are a disgraced English policeman who served with him in the colonial wars, and a viciously patriotic British officer.

One feature which will seem foreign to American viewers, but nonetheless intriguing, is how language is portrayed as a cultural weapon pitting colonizers against patriotic rebels. An English landlord refers to Irelands's native language of Gaelic as "aboriginal gibberish," while the film's hero resolves to only speak Gaelic as the film marches on, fully radicalized by his suffering. There are heated debates in Ireland and Scotland currently about the preservation of their indigenous Gaelic languages which have been largely replaced by English.

The film is oriented towards an increasingly nationalistic (as-in anti-British) and rapidly secularizing Ireland, but has scenes that could appeal to a range of ideologies and perspectives. There are plenty of British loyalist characters who are shown as evil, while there are some notable exceptions willing to risk their lives to aid they Irish in their plight. On the other side of that coin, there are plenty of Irish characters who are portrayed as collaborators and traitors here as well, whether as corrupt policemen or relatives who betray their own kin. Scenes where starving Irish are offered soup if they will give up their Catholic faith, or where a landlord happily speculated on the future of an Ireland without Irish people, could easily be interpreted as European populist talking points that wouldn't seem too foreign to Americans familiar with recent shifts in Europe's political conversations.

All in all, this film is a grim and compelling revenge Western set in the darkest chapter of Irish history. It is absolutely worth renting on Amazon or iTunes, or if possible, watching at one of its limited theatrical releases.