On John Ford’s classic, ‘The Informer’, based on Liam O’Flaherty’s novel
Do you know what the trees say when the axe comes into the forest? Look! The handle is one of us!
It must be difficult for a British audience to fully appreciate a phenomenon not within its experience or history: the ingrained fear that occupied peoples have of the informer within their midst. Thus, whilst the informer within the Resistance was a constant theme in post-war French literature and cinema, in Britain it was the personal betrayal associated with infidelity – as reflected in ‘The End of the Affair’ or ‘Brief Encounter’ – which fascinated minds (notwithstanding cinema depicting the brave and the glorious). Even Burgess and Philby, for all the damage they later inflicted, hardly created the same widespread neurosis and demoralisation among the public as did the Judas within, say, the ranks of the Maquis and its supporters.
Ireland’s long history as a subjugated nation of its near neighbour, England, can be explained in large part to the actions of informers who have subverted attempted national revivals and uprisings. Understandably, Ireland reserved its greatest repugnance not for the enemy but for one of its own.
It is, therefore, one of the great triumphs of John Ford’s 1935 classic, ‘The Informer’, that the viewer is moved from outrage to comprehension and finally to sympathy for the brute Gypo Nolan who betrays his mentor and best friend, Frankie McPhillip. It is also quite an accomplishment that this shift in emotional response is achieved without sacrifice to the integrity of the rebel cause or criticism of their methods.
The film’s setting, Ireland in 1920 when the IRA and the British are at war, was especially important to Ford. In 1921 he visited Galway (where his parents were born) after his cousins, the Thorntons, one of whom was in the IRA, were burned out of their home by the Black and Tans. Ford became a strong supporter of Irish republicans and when he returned to Ireland in 1952 to make ‘The Quiet Man’ it was no coincidence that the hero (John Wayne) took Ford’s Irish Christian name of Sean and his rebel cousin’s name of Thornton.
Ironically, the Irish struggle was not uppermost in the mind of another rebel, Liam O’Flaherty, from whose novel, ‘The Informer’, Dudley Nichols created the screenplay. O’Flaherty laughed at the critics who spoke authoritatively about his realism and the inside knowledge of the IRA that at last had been supplied by his novel. He said that whatever ‘facts’ were used in the book (which was written in England in 1925) he had “taken from happenings in a Saxon town, during the sporadic Communist insurrection of about nineteen twenty-two or three.”
In the book, Gypo and Frankie are members of a Revolutionary Cell expelled from the Organisation for being drunk and carrying out the unsanctioned assassination of a right-wing farmers’ spokesperson. Their war is not against Britain but a shaky, post-colonial native government. In the film, however, Ford characteristically turns back the clock so that Britain is still in occupation, still the enemy, but as a backdrop to the power play within the IRA from which Gypo has been dismissed for endangering the organisation. Six months earlier, we learn, the IRA had captured a British Auxiliary who killed one of its men. Gypo was given the job of executing him. But when he took the soldier outside and he begged for his life, Gypo couldn’t shoot him. “Not in cold blood,” he says. The soldier swore he’d desert and Gypo let him go. This humanitarian act resulted in Gypo being ostracised, impoverished and, arguably, becoming unhinged.
The film opens to the sound of military music and with menacing silhouettes against a foggy medium: Gypo avoiding a patrol of soldiers, bayonets at the ready; Gypo slowly walking towards the same soldiers who are now marching to a quasi-funeral tattoo; Gypo being accused by and surrendering to be-shawled, old women. Then, after this nightmarish prefiguration, the hulk of Gypo emerges in the present, alone, onto a dimly-lit street where before him is a poster of a wanted man, Frankie McPhillip. Gypo the outcast, penniless and homeless, is at first struck by the £20 bounty and from his expression we suspect the monstrous idea that momentarily prowls inside his head. But he fondly pats the image of his old comrade and then tears down the poster and tosses it away.
The poster is blown by the wind and, like temptation calling, follows Gypo down the street, unravelling and wrapping itself around his leg. Again, he kicks it off. It then blows around the corner and sticks to the ankle of his girlfriend, Katie, whom in the distance, a few moments later, Gypo sees, is prostituting herself. Gypo crosses the street and beats up the dandy who is propositioning Katie. At first she reassures Gypo that he is the only one for her, then she upbraids him.
“Saint Gypo! …Your fine principles. I can’t afford them.”
Gypo appears helpless, his manhood neutered. Katie brings his attention to a poster in a window: ‘£10 to America’, it says. ‘Information within.’
“Twenty pounds, and the world is ours,” says Katie. Gypo immediately attacks the unwitting Eve for saying what Adam is thinking.
Later, Gypo is eating in a soup kitchen when he is startled by the sudden appearance of Frankie, who has been on the run and living rough in the hills. As the fugitive sits down Gypo can see superimposed below his comrade’s face the £20 reward. He asks Gypo what is it that’s wrong and hears about Gypo’s dismissal. Frankie is back in Dublin to see his family and asks Gypo if it is safe to go to the house. Gypo assures him. Frankie goes home to see his widowed mother and sister.
‘Information within.’ ‘Information within,’ gnaws at Gypo.
Temptation is given opportunity with tragic consequences. Gypo slinks into the barracks and informs.
The soldiers raid the McPhillip’s, Frankie is shot dead escaping, and Gypo leaves the barracks by the backdoor with his blood money. The rest of the film depicts Gypo on a roll, attempting to drown his conscience in whiskey, followed by a herd of scavengers who declare him ‘King’ as they eat and drink his money. On one occasion Gypo visits the McPhillip wakehouse and sits on the floor like a big, blubbering child. He is genuinely unable to connect the body in the coffin to his earlier action, until he jumps up and coins spill from his pocket. Flustered, he brings even more attention to himself, though because he was Frankie’s close friend he is considered above suspicion. Above suspicion by all except Bartley, a cunning IRA lieutenant who has sussed out Gypo and insists he is the informer.
From then until his courtmartial Gypo is shadowed by the IRA who collect the indisputable evidence that will damn him. His journey through the night -”It’s a fine night, the finest night of my life!” he raves to the heavens – is a voyage of self-discovery, a journey through remorse, forgiveness and expiation.
The film for all its dark atmosphere, its expressionist lighting, style and symbolism, owes much for its success to the consummate acting of Victor McLaglen as the slow-witted Gypo, a drunken giant.
McLaglen is superb as the muddled, uncomprehending traitor, whom when confronted with the enormity of his crime, flounders, stumbles, dimly begins to see the evil in his betrayal, and can only cry: “I didn’t know what I was doin’. I declare to God, I didn’t know what I was doin’…”
According to one account Ford kept McLaglen drunk or suffering from a hangover for three weeks to capture the groping confusion of Gypo on screen. McLaglen, Ford, Nichols and Max Steiner (best score), all won Oscars for ‘The Informer’, which a reluctant RKO had been badgered by Ford into filming.
Dudley Nichols recalled: “I had just completed a script for de Mille, when Ford and Cliff Reid [a producer at RKO] called me with enthusiasm. They had obtained approval to film ‘The Informer’, against much studio resistance… I wrote the script at white heat in a phenomenally short time, and there never was another draft…”
The film was completed, but after the preview the RKO head looked disgruntled and said, “We should never have made it!” Ford and Nichols walked out from the premier past glum faces, and were heading for the nearest bar to drown their sorrows when Dudley Diggs, another producer, stopped them with outstretched arms and tears in his eyes. It was not a box office success during its original release but after the 1935 Academy Awards was rebooked into theatres and attracted a sizeable audience. A contemporary critic, Theodore Huff, said that many consider it the greatest talking picture ever made in America.
In terms of aesthetics (and aside from some of the melodrama) it is by far the best film (and the earliest) depicting the Irish Troubles. Neil Jordan’s recent biopic ‘Michael Collins’ was received in Ireland as a powerful, moving and provocative film (forcing a reassessment of Collins), and dealt with that tragic period on a grand scale.
Yet ‘Michael Collins’ cannot match ‘The Informer’ for pathos, psychological insight or drama. Ford could squeeze from McLaglen – to a degree that Liam Neeson could not evoke – the quintessence of those bleak times, the desperation, the hardship, the alienation, the incestuous fear and panic. Tragically, those bleak times have been revisited on the nationalist community in Belfast and Derry over the past twenty-five years as a result of the conflict which broke out afresh in 1969.
Aside from arguments over the rights and wrongs of political violence in the present context, or whether today’s IRA are the true legatees of traditional Irish republicanism, the informer emerged once again as a principal character, often as a coward, sometimes as pathetic figure. Throughout the present Troubles it is estimated that the IRA shot dead sixty people whom it accused of secretly working for the British army or the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and banished from Ireland hundreds of others who were discovered before they could cause major damage or who availed of IRA amnesties.
Who were these informers? The young lad across the street who was caught on a burglary and was promised he would not be charged if he spied on certain neighbours. The husband discovered having an affair with another man’s wife and who was blackmailed into also reporting on the movements of republican suspects. In one case, where an IRA arms dump was discovered in the home of two sympathisers, the RUC arrested both husband and wife and threatened to charge the woman. The RUC dropped the threat in return for the husband joining the IRA and sabotaging operations. He did so. The IRA eventually flushed him out and killed him, dumping his body on a border road.
Besides those entrapped, and those weak IRA members who were recruited after police interrogation, others inform for money and begin to enjoy the danger as well as the rewards. According to the late head of the RUC Special Branch, Ian Phoenix (who died in a Chinook helicopter crash in 1994), he met no one who informed out of conviction.
Because of informers I myself have spent several spells in jail. In 1972 when the risk of internment was high I used to avoid the British army at every opportunity. On one particular night I went out with Carmel McShane on our first date. I took her to a dance, just off the Falls Road. We were on the floor when British soldiers surrounded the hall and burst through the doors. They separated the men from the women.
Over the next two hours the males were taken outside and put up against a wall where a spotlight fixed to a saracen armoured car was trained on us. From behind the hatch in the vehicle I heard a soldier shout, “No!” regarding the fella in front of me. When it was my turn he seemed to be consulting someone within, then shouted, “Yes!”
Although I knew I was going to jail, Carmel injected some farce into the situation when, quite seriously, she bawled at me: “Hey you! How am I supposed to get home!”
I never did find out. Nor did I find out who was in the back of the saracen, guiding the soldier. But he was one of us. I was sent to Long Kesh Camp where I was interned without charge or trial for fourteen months.
In 1991 I was convicted of “aiding and abetting the unlawful imprisonment” sixteen months earlier of IRA informer Sandy Lynch and sentenced to eight years, even though I never met the man. At the trial Lynch admitted that he had even informed on his own brother. According to the ‘Sunday Times’ he received £100,000 after I and my co-accused were convicted.
Gypo Nolan was ashamed of what he had done and begged forgiveness. Sandy Lynch took the money and, for all his faults, thankfully melded into anonymity somewhere in his adopted home, England.
However, in the past year there has emerged a new phenomenon: the informer as marketable commodity, chat-show guest and lecturer. Recently, two former IRA men, noted for their palpable egos, Eamonn Collins (who broke under interrogation and became a ‘supergrass’ for a short time) and Martin McGartland, have published books about life inside the IRA. A third, Sean O’Callaghan (who had a 500-year sentence reduced to 8 years for a number of killings and bombings carried out before he became an informer), is in the process of writing his story. O’Callaghan has debated a Congress representative in Washington, appeared on prime time television and contributes opinion pieces on ‘Gerry Adams’ innermost thoughts’ to various British newspapers.
Collins was involved in five killings. In one, he set up for assassination a customs officer colleague, who was a soldier in the UDR, contributed money to the floral tribute for the dead man, and attended his funeral to see if he could spot any other potential targets. When he was eventually arrested he agreed to betray his IRA comrades on condition that he was not charged with anything. When that failed he then agreed to turn supergrass in return for a reduced sentence. Collins could inflict suffering but when the chips were down he couldn’t endure it himself. It is the gloating, almost prurient way Collins details his activities in ‘Killing Rage’ that completely undermines his claim to any aspiring moral purpose.
Martin McGartland is less articulate, but just as bereft of any humility. He is presently suing the police because he doesn’t feel he was rewarded generously enough for his life as a snitch. (He takes exception to being called an informer and insists on being referred to as ‘an agent’.) McGartland, in calling his book ‘Fifty Dead Men Walking’, meaning he saved fifty lives, fails to appreciate that in US prison slang on death row, from where he or his publisher derived the paraphrase, fifty dead men walking would actually be fifty dead men.
Gypo Nolan, for all his fictional incarnation, towers above, in a very real sense, those today who have little measure of guilt and for whom thirty pieces of silver was not enough.
In John Ford’s ‘The Informer’ we have a work of art representing the bits of a man’s life or a man’s life in bits. Gypo Nolan commits the foulest crime possible against his better, fellow apostle, the apostle who remained faithful to the cause, before his capture and at the point of death. Morally exhausted, Gypo drinks this man’s blood, trawls through the depths of depravity, and attempts but fails to outwit fate in the form of summary justice. The truth dawns on him, literally at first light, and he is remorseful, receiving forgiveness from the one person who matters, Frankie McPhillip’s mother. Like a scene from Calvary, she is kneeling before a large cross when the mortally wounded Gypo bursts into the chapel and receives her absolution. Gypo the informer, is raised from the pit of corruption to become, once again, Gypo the man.