THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS (John Ford, 1936)

John Ford’s streamlined version of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars is full of a rich, provocative ambivalence.
     Despite wife Nora’s pleas, Jack Clitheroe continues with his dangerous activities against British rule of Ireland as a member of the Irish Citizen Army (that is, Irish Republican Army). It is 1916 in Dublin, during the First World War and at the time of the ill-fated Easter Rebellion.
     There’s no question that Ford—to family, Sean Aloysius O’Fearna—wholeheartedly identified with the Irish cause of independence. It’s worth noting that each British soldier in the film is portrayed as a soulless thing, and one soldier claiming to be socialist is mocked for setting aside the ideal of equality in favor of adhering to nationalistic duty. Ay, but there’s the rub, for Jack and his compatriots are also wedded to a notion of duty—an issue that becomes especially complex in Ford’s Fort Apache (1948). If British suppression of Irish freedom is the larger tragedy in The Plough and the Stars, the smaller, more immediate tragedy is Mollser Gogan’s consumptive illness and eventual death, the result of poverty. What good is freedom, one soul asks, without economic freedom? The child’s death also is laid at Britain’s door, but not there only; Mollser and her mother, Maggie (Una O’Connor, wrenching in the film’s most brilliant performance), who works at and lives in the boarding house that apparently the Clitheroes own and run, might have drawn more substantial help from the Clitheroes earlier on. How ironic that Jack’s gun ends up hidden in Mollser’s coffin, saving Jack from a British firing squad. Symbolically, Mollser’s cause is inextricably bound to Ireland’s future.
     Sensitively acted all-around by a blend of Hollywood, including Barbara Stanwyck, and Abbey Theatre players.

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