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Archival dialogues

Our film aspires to historical reliability but there is an inevitable tension between the dramatic film and the scholarly historiography it draws upon. There is now a lively debate amongst historians and  culture and film-studies scholars about the  contribution of the ‘history film’ to our understanding of the past involving both a recognition of ‘cinema’s unequalled ability to re-create the past in a sensual, mimetic form’ (Burgoyne, 2007) and, more contentiously, the implication of critical analysis of the history film for our understanding of traditional historical writing. As Robert Rosenstone (2009) argues: ‘If we continue to look at the screen long enough, and if we begin to take what happens there seriously . . . the experience may raise in our minds this question: does not history in the written word also smack of the artificial, the spurious and the concocted?’.

In our film, characters have been conflated, dialogue has been imagined, and incidents have been invented. Complex historical issues and political debates have been condensed into emblematic scenes which, given the screen time available, can merely hint at the complexity of the issues involved. Rosenstone has identified the use of fictive techniques by film-makers such as compression (several characters become one), condensation (where a number of events are conflated), displacement of events (moving an incident from one time or location to another) and alteration (where a character expresses the sentiments of another). And we are guilty of all these in The Enigma of Frank Ryan. However, Rosenstone is anxious to move the debate out of the arena of banal value judgements about the historical accuracy of film as a medium.  As he argues, ‘the responsibility of the film maker should be less to traditional “historical accuracy” than to finding ways of expressing and inciting emotional awareness of past events’.

For scholarly historians – whose approach to the past involves the careful evaluation of empirical evidence – the fact-based drama genre (like the historical novel) represents a real challenge. Is it, for example, legitimate to depict scenes for which there is no evidence, particularly if the viewer cannot be expected to know which events have been invented? At what point does the dramatic licence necessary to tell a story through the medium of film fatally compromise the film’s value as an engagement with history? Is it sufficient to remain true to the essence of Ryan’s story, while altering the details?

This section of our website makes explicit some of the ways our film departs from the historical record by exploring several specific issues. By juxtaposing clips of the film with historical commentary and select archival documents, we hope to demonstrate the tensions between film and history, and illustrate how these have been addressed by the film-making team – historian Fearghal McGarry (FMcG) and film-maker Desmond Bell (DB).

‘film might have its own specific way of telling the past …. that is different from what we normally expect to find on the page’

Robert Rosenstone