Friday, August 21, 2009

"Borstal Boy" the movie (2000)

Directed by Peter Sheridan, the movie about an IRA member finding love in a prison is somewhat sentimental. And somewhat unrealistic too, I thought, until I found out that it is "inspired by," though not based on, the autobiography of Brendan Behan, Irish freedom fighter and writer. Behan was from the educated working class. His father read Zola, Maupassant and Galsworthy to him at bedtime; his mother brought the children on literary tours of their city, Dublin. But the only thing we learn from the movie about his background is that his father is a house painter. So when the movie Behan (Shawn Hatosy) put on a barn performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" and start reading and writing poetry, he is the terrorist who discovers his sensitive side.

While the love that develops between Behan and fellow jailbird Charlie Milwall (Danny Dyer) feels overly romanticized, there is something touching in the performance of both young actors. Part of this is due to their unconventional good looks. Part of this is due to the film's focus on the emotions, instead of the flesh. In this film, the face suffers the greatest exposure. A nice touch is in having Milwall thrown into jail for stealing, a habit that leads to the film's denouement. The out gay man is thus perceived to be a thief, someone who takes another's masculinity for his own.

In the film, Milwall dies as a fighting sailor, when the Prince of Wales is sunk by the Japanese (The Singapore connection!). Before he left the Borstal, he had given Behan's chain to Liz (the lovely Eva Birthistle), symbolically blessing their relationship, while dooming himself by giving up the protection of Saint Behan, the patron saint of navigation. Some may see homophobia in this (Brokeback Mountain, anyone?), but I see a noble love. The crucial thing here is that Behan chose Liz over Charlie in the denouement scene, and Milwall's withdrawal from the triangle is a choice in response to that. In any case, Liz does not get Behan either, who returns to Ireland after an early release.

The real Behan might have had more of a relationship with Milwall than the film suggests. I should read his book to find out. Behan also wrote plays, interspersed with songs, dances and direct addresses to the audience. One of these songs is "The Auld Triangle, " which introduces his play The Quare Fellow. (Wiki has the brother Dominic Behan down as the songwriter. Can anyone clear this up?) The prison in the play is based on Mountjoy Prison, along the Royal Canal in Dublin. The triangle was beaten daily to wake the inmates. A lag is an inmate serving a prison sentence of five years or more.

A hungry feeling, came o'er me stealing
And the mice they were squealing in my prison cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Oh to start the morning, the warden bawling
Get up out of bed you, and clean out your cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Oh the screw was peeping and the lag was sleeping
As he lay weeping for his girl Sal
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

On a fine spring evening, the lag lay dreaming
And the seagulls were wheeling high above the wall
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Oh the wind was sighing, and the day was dying
As the lag lay crying in his prision cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal

In the female prison there are seventy women
And I wish it was with them that I did dwell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal


2 comments:

Sam J. Miller said...

can't be helpful on the authorship of the Auld Triangle, but i CAN say that the Pogues did a f*cking AMAZING cover of it, on Red Roses For Me, their best album, for my money.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for the intro to the Pogues.