“You cannot hold the process to ransom any longer, so end the violence, and end it now.”
– Tony Blair, voice heard over the opening credits (quoted in Newsweek: “Peace Isn’t Impossible”)
“I am convinced that the time is right finally to put the past behind us and meet the deep thirst of the people of Northern Ireland for peace, normality and prosperity.”
– Tony Blair (Address, May 16, 1997)
Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer (1997) is a morally complex tale of redemption, simply told, through a series of tiny yet bold, precarious yet solid steps toward a hopeful, lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Its protagonist, having spent fourteen years in Maze Prison for connections to the Provisional Irish Republican Army and, of course, not naming names, is quite the idealist.
The film’s opening credit sequence, backed by the aptly-titled song “In the Shadow of a Gun” by Gavin Friday, introduces us to boxer Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis), world-weary but with a newfound resolve, returning to the world with an enlightened vision for the future. Well, solitary confinement has a way of bringing focus to the senses and the mind, and if anyone ever needed to come to their senses, it was the opposing forces during the height of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
This enlightened vision seems to be shared by Joe Hamill (Brian Cox), the IRA representative who is in not-so-secret negotiations with the British to affect a hopefully lasting change in Northern Ireland. At least having the conversation and being willing to concede certain key issues could get things moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, one such key issue which the British seemingly refuse to consider is the release of IRA political prisoners. This the IRA cannot abide.
This notion of learning to combat hatred of “the enemy” with love and understanding for the sake of the greater good goes back a long time, recalling particularly Nelson Mandela’s struggle to achieve peace in South Africa by becoming their president and forgiving those who put him in prison for decades. On the cinematic front, this kind of spiritual shift reminds me of Edward Norton’s character in Tony Kaye’s American History X (1998). Spurred into neo-Nazism thanks to the racism of his father and the mentorship of a local neo-Nazi leader (Stacy Keach), a young man (Norton) viciously kills an African-American youth and goes to prison. There, he learns to respect and even like his African-American co-worker in the laundry room. Upon release from prison, the Edward Norton character leaves the neo-Nazi movement, only to find that it might be too late for his younger brother (Edward Furlong) if he doesn’t impart his newfound wisdom.
Danny’s newfound sense of peace and understanding is reflected too in the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement of 1998, the first two portions of the Declaration of Support of which read:
- “We, the participants in the multi-party negotiations, believe that the agreement we have negotiated offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning.
- The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”
Joe’s daughter is Maggie (Emily Watson, fresh from her Oscar-nominated feature debut in Breaking the Waves), Danny’s childhood sweetheart who married his best friend when Danny went to prison. Now, with a husband who is an IRA prisoner and Danny suddenly back in her life, Maggie is conflicted about her feelings. As we see during the opening sequence, to so much as dance with an IRA prisoner’s wife is considered taboo. Certainly then, Danny’s feelings for Maggie and hers for him are off the table, as it were. That being said, Maggie represents the promise of a peaceful and prosperous future for Danny, despite being, as he says, “a dangerous fuckin’ woman.” Of course, he is referring to the potential backlash from the IRA for going near a prisoner’s wife – regardless of the fact that her marriage has, as she says, been over since before her son Liam was even born. This sort of sentiment means nothing to the IRA. Indeed, one can imagine the Mafia adopting a similar attitude.
As a major thrust in his striving for peace and prosperity for the future, Danny gets the idea to reopen the Holy Family Boxing Club. Significantly, the grand re-opening acts a sort of second memorial service to honor those that have died in their neighborhood over the years. The trouble begins, however, when Danny advertises the club as “non-sectarian,” meaning it will allow Catholics and Protestants to be together. The notion of a non-sectarian boxing club, with Danny being aided by former trainer Ike Weir (Ken Stott), goes profoundly against the grain of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, particularly that of militant/fanatic IRA lieutenant Harry (Gerard McSorley).
The reopening of the boxing club to both Catholic and Protestant citizens is just one example of Danny’s willingness to forgive, if not exactly forget, the blood-soaked past. Unfortunately, this notion of forgiving and forgetting does not work for Harry, the IRA lieutenant. In a bar when he first discovers the advertisement for the “non-sectarian” boxing club, he asks what “non-sectarian” means. This is not because he doesn’t know what it means, but because he does not believe such a thing is possible. He mentions Jews, Muslims and Arabs as well, suggesting that the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland is yet another blood feud that likewise shows no sign of stopping.
However, if someone has something you need, you look past your differences in order to accept it as a gift. Faced with just such a dilemma, Ike replaces boxing gear that barely works by taking a donation from the ill-fated Reggie Bell, a.k.a. “Community Relations,” a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is both a symbol of the direction Northern Ireland could be moving in – one of peace and a certain amount of reconciliation – and of the type of thing that “sets off” the IRA when it comes to their short tempers and lack of concession in this conflict. They just don’t seem to know when they’ve won. Indeed, the senseless bombing of the “Community Relations” officer – essentially a “police liaison” between the boxing club and the Protestant majority – for nothing more than donating the boxing gear to the club, seems to represent the beginning of the end of the peace process. At the least, that appears to be Harry’s intention.
The idea of the Irish Republicans (at least those within the Provisional IRA) being almost addicted to conflict, ravaged by decades if not a century of hatred, has been suggested before in this course. I was reminded of the priest’s plea to Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) in which he says, sarcastically, “Sure, what would Ulster be if it wasn’t turning itself to shit.” The implication is that the concept of Northern Irish identity has become so rooted in violence and hatred that without one, any sense of the other might be lost forever.
If the film’s soul is in the idea of moving on and achieving peace in our time, then the film’s heart is in the relationship between Danny and Maggie, a tentative rekindling of a potential romance long-since all but forgotten. As Danny says, “I’ve lived with your face in silence for fourteen years,” suggesting that even in prison he never forgot about her or put aside the idea of coming back to her, even as she married his best friend, had a child and was abandoned yet again by a man sent to prison.
In the end, the Provisional IRA, without any real enemy left to speak of, turns on themselves. Harry and his goons plan to take Danny to a tunnel in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Belfast and shoot him in the back of the head. Aggravated by the idea of being “sold out” to the British, Harry is out for blood and is willing to kill one of his own to achieve it. Sheridan’s ending (the DVD apparently offers an alternative) tantalizingly suggests that this sort of militant fanaticism is a thing of the past, and that Danny’s way of adopting a more peaceful posture is the key to the future.
As strong as the film is for the most part, there are some things that seem less than clear. What are we to make, for example, of the killing of Harry in place of Danny, acknowledging that it comes after many claims by Joe’s underling that he’s “out of control”? Harry is quoted as saying that “the only thing they respond to is violence,” meaning that the only way to get the attention of the British is with senseless, if pointed, bloodshed. Is the killing of Harry, then, meant to show that the only way to maintain peace is to extricate those who would have things otherwise? Is the audience meant to be comforted by the fact that the ostensible villain of the piece is dead in the end, paving the way for a prosperous future?
I am not so certain that Harry’s death works as anything other than a plot device. The sudden shift of the gun from the back of Danny’s head to the side of Harry’s and the subsequent pulling of the trigger may provide the de facto happy ending the film seems to seek – Danny and Maggie driving away, striving for a peaceful future – but what does it mean for the film’s seeming nobility of purpose? Unfortunately, it seems to be contradicting its own message, in a sense suggesting that violence begets violence and that the only way to achieve an everlasting peace is to eradicate the turbulent elements getting in the way.
Another interesting thing that the film never precisely explores is, in what ways do Nationalism and Unionism factor into Danny’s decisions? Does he want Northern Ireland to be independent and leave the United Kingdom, and the British troops to abandon the land? Or does he want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom with the British troops in place? His only concerns seem to be with his love of Maggie and his general disdain for the bloodshed thus far. He wants the violence to end, but where does that leave the country as is? Where would such a resolution leave a country like Iraq or Afghanistan? If simply just abandoned by the outsiders who came in and took control, would those countries thrive or implode?
I’m asking these questions because I’m genuinely uncertain where Danny’s loyalties lie. He has a somewhat foul-mouthed rant to Maggie against Joe that seems more resentful of the time he spent in prison on Joe’s behalf, rather than being specifically “for” or “against” any particular belief system. As for the rest, it’s left a bit unclear.
It is worth noting that the film, while idealistic and hopeful at heart, made in the wake of the ceasefire agreed to by the IRA on July 20, 1997, and set in Belfast, convincingly recreated though it may be, was filmed in the very safe city of Dublin (just like John Forte’s Mad About Mambo!). This suggests that though the peace process is well underway, it is a process and, given that, the filmmakers are still a ways off from being able to make films in Belfast about Belfast without fear of protest, threats or violence. Still, the idea behind the film’s sentiment rings true.
Films like The Boxer, popular entertainments though they may be, nevertheless can ennoble filmmaking with their abilities to explore serious issues, ripped-from-the-headlines, and bring a level of understanding to them. At the least, this film certainly does that.
Note: Written for Bill Tate’s Northern Irish Cinema course at Portland State University (my first term) fall 2009.