The Banned Irish Revolution Film Starring a Real Soldier - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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As a teenager, John Loder witnessed the Easter Rising. Later, he'd act in a banned film about the Troubles.

By Kiran Acharya

When John Lowe was 18 years old, he stood on Moore Lane in Dublin and watched the armed rebels of Ireland’s Easter Rising surrender to the British military. The uprising — a 1916 rebellion by republicans against British rule in Ireland — made the front page of the New York Times for eight consecutive days before ending in defeat when leader Pádraic Pearse issued his unconditional surrender.

Major-General William Lowe

Lowe, a British soldier on leave, had been lassoed into the Irish conflict by his father, General William Lowe, commander of the British forces in Dublin. The Easter Rising was a sudden insurrection in the midst of World War I, and the general co-opted as many men as he could find to suppress the defiance. Lowe marched along with his father as the insurgents were rounded up, led through the streets and taken to be executed at Kilmainham Gaol.

The war would continue to destroy European cities for years to come, and after his eventful visit to Dublin, young Lowe returned to the Western front, where he would survive both the Battle of the Somme and time in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

But John had ambitions beyond those of his military-minded father. After the Treaty of Versailles brought peace in 1919, he began acting as an extra in the nascent German film business. He minimized talk of his wartime past and his visit to Dublin — and changed his surname to Loder to spare his father embarrassment over having an actor in the family.

The discretion paid off. After sailing to America on the SS Île de France, Loder signed with Paramount Studios and in 1929 appeared in The Doctor’s Secret, the company’s first talking picture, as well as Black Waters, the first British-produced talkie to be shown in England.

As an actor, Loder was becoming a marquee name, but his essential Englishness limited the scope of his career in America. He returned to the London studios, playing the heroic investigator in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 thriller, Sabotage.

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Ruth Chatterton and John Loder in ‘The Doctor’s Secret’ (1929)

But one film, largely forgotten today, brought Loder face-to-face with the controversial Irish history he had witnessed as a boy. In 1916 the Easter Rising had been suppressed within a week, but in the hostile years that followed, the rebels’ goal of Irish independence gained widespread — and violently contested — support.

Ourselves Alone features Loder as a British army captain in Ireland during the early days of what would become a generations-long conflict. The British government had divided Ireland in 1921, imposing a border around the northeastern portion known today as Northern Ireland. (And after 100 years in existence, Northern Ireland’s status as a country, province or region is still disputed by politicians, citizens and militias from all sides.)

Loder’s film, released in 1936, was seen by authorities in Northern Ireland as Irish Republican propaganda. It was immediately banned under the Civil Authorities Act, a contentious censorial power used to preserve law and order, close bars, prevent gatherings and protect civilians from the supposed corrupting influence of actors on the silver screen.

“It’s the only case I’ve heard of Stormont and central government banning a film,” says Hugh Odling-Smee, manager of Film Hub Northern Ireland. “Film would usually have come under council or local authority legislation. So, for example, when they banned Frankenstein in Belfast, it was a council decision. The same for Last Tango in Paris later on.”

Released in America as River of Unrest, the film was directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, a Northern Irishman who had fought at Gallipoli before studying moviemaking in Hollywood under John Ford. “Hurst is a fascinating figure, and sadly neglected,” says Odling-Smee. “He really did have an impact. He had a distinct and individualistic style. Some people have described him as ‘Belfast’s first bohemian.'”

Hurst was brought on board to rescue Loder and Ourselves Alone from confused direction, accepting the poisoned chalice of trying to bring balance to a film that had fallen into a bitter tangle of political and historical arguments. It was based on a play, The Trouble, co-written by James Dudley Sturrock, who as a former British intelligence officer had taken part in deadly raids on the IRA in a bloody period of attack and counterattack in 1920. Loder’s history, too, was called into question. Nobody could be sure whose side the film was on.

Hurst improved much of the dialogue and sketched almost 300 drawings on the script, one opposite every shot. His cut of the film emphasized love, with John Lodge’s Irish police inspector assuming blame for a shooting that allows Loder’s English captain and Antoinette Cellier’s Maureen to have a future together.

Alfred Hitchcock Dines With Friends, ca. 1935

Alfred Hitchcock (far left) with John Loder (far right).

When Ourselves Alone opened in England, Loder’s name was in lights above the London Pavilion alongside co-star Lodge, who decades later would become governor of Connecticut. Loder married Hedy Lamarr, celebrated at the time as the most beautiful woman in the world, who would be central to inventing the frequency-hopping spread spectrum, a technology used in legacy WiFi and Bluetooth today. 

Loder continued to make films until 1971 while political violence in Northern Ireland escalated to its peak in 1972. More than 500 people died, and more than half of those civilians. Loder didn’t speak openly about his experience of the Easter Rising until publishing his memoir in 1977. He recalled seeing priests risking their lives in the Dublin crossfire to administer the last rites to the dead, and remembered Pádraic Pearse as “a poet and a schoolteacher,” calm and composed even as he faced execution for his ideals. 

Nobody at that time could have predicted the misery and irreversible loss of life that would consume Ireland’s political future. But the last line spoken in Ourselves Alone holds an enduring if bittersweet truth.

“A miracle in Ireland,” says John Lodge, lighting a cigarette and staring beyond the lens. “Two people out of three who are going to be happy.”

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