Film Review: Play It Again Son!

Film Review: Play It Again Son!

YOU ARE THE ENEMY WITHIN,” proclaims a gun-wielding Sean South to a crew of kneeling, gobsmacked filmmakers in Tommy Conlon’s Play it Again Son!

After dismissing the cowering cameramen as “artists and bohemians”, South holds them beneath the point of his revolver and castigates them as “cinema’s pernicious vanguard”.

Firing shots from his angry weapon, he declares: “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Play it Again Son! is a witty short film that cleverly fuses comedy with commentary about the nature of ideology and its hostility towards artistic expression.

Leitrim-born Conlon wrote, produced and directed the movie himself, his first effort at filmmaking.

Formerly chief sportswriter with The Sunday Independent, Conlon created Play it Again Son! to illuminate a side of Sean South that’s mostly unknown.

Smartly overlapping fact with fantasy, Conlon’s narrative exposes South for his Catholic extremism and vociferous anti-Semitism.

Earlier this January, Conlon told Mike Dwane of The Limerick Leader newspaper that he became intrigued by South after a dissident Republican commemoration in his honour.

A spokesman at the event effectively reinstated South’s view that any Irish citizen who’d served in the British forces was a “legitimate target”.

This view was particularly controversial in the 1950s, when Irish nationalists (South included) commended the Nazis for having fought the British, despite many Irish nationals having fought in WWII. Conlon looked into South’s history and found a “conservative zealot” and “anti-Semite”, whose fevered concerns extended to the nefarious lairs of Hollywood.

In Conlon’s film, South is convincingly played by Limerick actor Pius McGrath.

Although an unlikely focus for romantics, South became a noted Republican figure after his bloody death in a border gun battle at New Year in 1957. Though the subject of a famous rebel song, he remains an odd heroic icon — dour, grim-faced and bespectacled.

His myopia, it seems, meant he couldn’t see much value in film, as either art or entertainment. His vehement opposition to Hollywood’s influence in Ireland is the heart of Conlon’s movie, which quotes from letters South published in The Limerick Leader in 1956, shortly before he died.

Whatever else South might have been he was certainly an eloquent correspondent. In Play it Again Son! he is seated at his typewriter issuing pithy jeremiads about the corruption of Irish society.

American cinema is a “Judeo-masonic conspiracy”, he intones.

A member of the extreme movement Maria Duce, South prophesises demons coming for Ireland’s soul from every quarter.

His letters to The Limerick Leader inveigh against “communist” film stars like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin. “This list is by no means complete,” he warns, continuing to insist Irish life is “incompatible… with those traitors who’ve sold themselves to atheistic communism”.

It should be recalled that the 1950s saw conservative opinion at its most neurotic over communism.

Irish-American senator Joseph McCarthy oversaw the infamous House of Un-American Activities Committee and brought Hollywood under strict scrutiny.

However, while many leading studio bosses were Jewish, they were never communist and neither was Cagney nor Bogart. Robeson and Chaplin were both accused of being communists and consequently ostracised. South erroneously named Groucho and Harpo Marx as communists, but perhaps he mistook them for their namesake Karl.

Conlon’s is no flattering portrait of either South or the Republican movement and IRA characters have undergone several transformations in cinema. The tormented Victor McLaglen in The Informer (1935), the hunted James Mason in Odd Man Out (1947), the conflicted Stephen Rea in The Crying Game (1992), the crazy-eyed David Wilmot in Shadow Dancer (2012). Characterisation often shifts from terrorist to freedom fighter to fanatic.

Yet while some features in Play it Again Son! relate specifically to Irish Republican history, others have more current wider significance. Conlon counteracts the frantic sermonising of South — “He who is not with Christ is against Christ” — with the native wisdom of Bishop Quigley.

Played with enjoyably wry tones by veteran Jim Queally, the good bishop questions the irrational South and his dogmatic fulminations.

“Who is this unfortunate creature?” he asks. On learning that South is a young firebrand in his twenties, he wearily observes: “In every generation the barbarian’s born anew.”

Meanwhile, to promote his bleak idealism, South is having a film made of himself. “We must use the new medium of the masses to spread our truth,” he reasons, blissfully blind to his double standard.

These elements in the narrative might be fictional but they portray realities we’re all now witnessing.

It’s not over-reaching to see parallels between Conlon’s script and the actions of fanatical ideologues in Islamic fundamentalism. Isis and Al-Qaida using modern technology to parade their mediaeval ethos echoes South’s own hypocrisy.

It’s also simple to see the symbolic similarity between South intimidating media people with violence and the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris and elsewhere. “I read about Isis ordering one business to take down a western movie poster,” Conlon tells me, explaining why he wanted his film to express some “contemporary relevance”.

Play it Again Son! undoubtedly reflects upon ideological issues from both past and present.

Look out for it at film festivals throughout 2015. It comes recommended.