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Captain Boycott (1947)


Old Jack has a weakness for those British movies of the the mid twentieth Century. Still in black and white, telling stories with warm caricature and earnestness, and before telly came to gobble up their purpose and style… They’re a fascinating glimpse into a different world’s view of itself and its past. They go by at a modern clip with no lack of courage in the topics they cover. They are things of workaday beauty.

And here’s one of the best. Young Steve threw a Lockdown-friendly, properly sanitised copy of the DVD in through my window. Old Jack here keeps it open in case that bastard squirrel that spits used nuts at me dares to venture in. My boy’s selection is a story of the Land War in Ireland. It’s set in the late 1800s. Landlords are bleeding dry their tenant farmers. Said farmers skulk away, starving, bitter and angry when evicted for not paying the ever-escalating rents. Some turn to violence. Others…well…as the entry of his surname into the English language reveals…act with cleverness against one landlord in particular: Captain Boycott.

Leading the farmers – variably, given their tendency to row – is Stewart Granger as Hugh Davin. He lives with his Ma – who is feistier than her son and given to eulogising the feist of his Pa. Granger has a lovely horse he’s been training. And he has a man’s flopsome hair of the time and what may well be a nice, beige cardigan. Oh – and an accent. He’s Irishish. I assume the ladies adored him.

The plot begins with new arrivals in town: the Killains come in by carriage. Sharing the space is a sack of corn that tips open. Out slides a gun, leading Miss Ann Killain to put it back and tie the sack with a ribbon…just in time for Granger to turn up and grab his post (the sack) early.

Back at his farm, Granger twigs the ribbon, the gun and the action of Miss Killain. And heads off to a town party to flirt with her. He barely gets going when she defends him against the landlord-serving police…connection properly made. Sort of. Old Jack here wasn’t particularly convinced by the Davin-Killain chemistry, mostly because Granger is doing suave and Kathleen Ryan as Ann is doing primly uptight. Really. Very uptight. Which is a bit rich given the social transgression she’s about to march into with her Pa. And a bit of a surprise given how actually Irish Ryan was in real life.

The battle in mayo is those evictions. Captain Boycott – played by the pompously endearing Cecil Parker – has a git working for him: the equally endearing (and two years off Bob Cratchit) Mervyn Johns. They force up rent, force out farmers, then pass the properties on to new tenants. The film highlights two evictions and, you know what, they’re honestly shocking. Battering rams are used to knock down the doors and – where greater destruction is required – down come the walls and up go the flames. Horrible. The families being dragged out is almost the least of things.

And – yep – the Killains transgress by taking the cottage of Eviction 1. They’re desperate. It was done to them in their previous life. And…nope…still wrong. Awkward for the nascent love affair…

Robert Donat as Parnell. With beard.

At the half way point, the real history lesson of this hugely entertaining film is landed by…oh yes…Robert Donat! And – as ever – he is glorious. Here in a spit and a tickle and his fifteenth film, he plays the smartest of smart Irishmen, Charles Stewart Parnell. He is touring Ireland, pushing for home rule, as all of the cast pitch up to listen. Donat does his speechifying thing – mixing passion with logic with an interesting beard. Shun your landlord, he says. All of you, from farmhands to butlers to laundrymaids – all of you. These landlords and their vulnerable finances will soon feel the pain…and that will get the rents addressed! You need a Donat to land a point like that, and Captain Boycott swivels to his agenda…

There’s another voice running through the film… Sure, you get the sexy energies of Granger, a moment’s political smartness from Donat, but the vicar – the glorious – Alastair Sim – mixes guile with faith and a steady tone. He is all you want a wise old dog-collared owl to be: nudging the villagers towards standing their ground, finding their political leader, and doing the deeds they do at the races. He nearly, but not quite, winks at the audience whilst being a grown-up to the howling children. And it is his sonorous, beautiful voice that nails history and ends the thing…

Oh – go watch it. How the locals react to the Killains. How Granger and Ryan get it on – or don’t… How the tenants turn on Boycott and change the English language… All these hows are there for you to bask in for a couple of hours on a quiet Lockdown day (or not, assuming this unending Boxing Day of the soul is history…). Of course, Boycott is a cad manipulated by Johns for some petty wins: not least getting his hands on Granger’s horse. But you’ll find out when they get to those races…it is a lively finale.

Old Jack loved this film. Of its time, but rich with spark, comedy and comfort. And a history lesson. Now, that’s always good.

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