Film Review of The Enigma of Frank Ryan
Directed by Des Bell
Starring: Dara Devaney, Barry Barnes, Mia Gallagher, Frankie McCafferty
Frank Ryan is a figure who consistently inspires comment and interest despite the rather small role he played in Irish history. Famous left-republican leader and Gaelic scholar in the 1920s and 1930s, Ryan led the Irish who fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco during the Spanish Civil War until his capture in March 1938. The abiding interest however, concerns the question of what Ryan, famous anti-fascist leader, was doing in Nazi Germany during the Second World War? This is the central question the aptly titled ‘The Enigma of Frank Ryan’ seeks to address.
The narrative of the film situates itself around Ryan’s time in Berlin, where, through flashbacks, Ryan examines his previous life in Ireland and Spain. Combining dramatic reconstructions sliced with real archival footage, the film overall is an interesting and enjoyable one. From certain newspaper headlines previewing the film I had the impression that Ryan’s life would be dealt with in simplistic black and white terms – Frank Ryan, Nazi collaborator, end of story. However, upon viewing, I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. The director Desmond Bell has avoided the easy route of sensationalism, and has instead provided a nuanced portrait of Ryan’s time in Berlin.
Released from Burgos jail into the hands of the Nazis in July 1940, Ryan found himself seemingly a free man in Berlin. Bell does well in portraying the ambiguities of Ryan’s situation. Initially, Ryan does not know what interest the Nazis have in him until he is brought to a meeting with Seán Russell, IRA Chief-of-Staff. Russell, a purely military man, is in Germany to seek assistance for the IRA from the Nazis – my enemy’s enemy is my friend – and wants to bring Ryan back to Ireland with him. Ryan chastises Russell for seeking help from the Nazis, but accepts his offer of a trip home to Ireland via U-boat when Russell assures him that he is only offering Ryan a way home, nothing more. Nevertheless, when Russell dies en-route, Ryan decides to return to Berlin. Here the Nazis keep him in order to use him in the event of an invasion of Ireland – by Britain or Germany. Ryan is therefore not a prisoner, but nor is he simply free to do as he pleases. Yet Ryan is never shown as collaborating with the Nazis. He never acknowledges the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting, refuses to be used for a propaganda broadcast to Ireland, and seeks answers to the purpose of the concentration camps. Although there is no evidence for any of this, nor is there any real evidence that Ryan directly assisted the Nazis, and Bell uses his artistic license well to develop scenarios which appear balanced, and assist in portraying the confusing and complicated situation Ryan found himself in.
Despite this, the same standards are not applied to the rest of the film. Ryan’s life in Ireland and Spain is incredibly condensed and abounds with unnecessary historical inaccuracies. This is to the detriment of the film as a whole, which appears rushed and sloppy. No real effort is made to develop the character of anyone other than Ryan, and coupled with bad acting, ensures that everyone comes off as one-dimensional caricatures. It is to be expected in a biographical film that certain parts of a person’s life must take precedence over others. It is also reasonable that a director should be able to change aspects of the history in order to develop the plot. For instance, the relationship/conflict between Ryan and Russell looms larger in the film than it did in real life. In my opinion, this is a valid reworking in order to prepare the audience for their encounter in Germany, and so assists in telling the overall story. Similarly, although it would have been better if more attention was paid to the reasons behind Ryan’s disillusionment with the IRA and the development of Republican Congress, it is reasonable that this is condensed in order that more time is devoted to examining his life in Germany. What is unacceptable however, are inaccuracies where none need exist. There are small mistakes, such as incorrectly dating the Eucharistic Congress to 1934 instead of 1932 which can be forgiven. The main inaccuracies concern Ryan’s time in Spain, by far the weakest part of the film. Not only are Ryan’s fellow International Brigaders reduced to a status commensurable with those of unthinking puppets, there are so many inaccuracies here that a historian could be forgiven for thinking that the makers of the film took no more than a cursory glance at the material concerning Spain. To give two small examples; we see Ryan walking over the Pyrenees in December 1936 when in fact he was driven over and we see Rosamund Jacob pleading with Ryan when he is home in Ireland in May 1937 not to go back, saying the International Brigades are being disbanded – this was not announced until the end of September 1938. We also see the bust-up between the British and Irish at their base, as well as the battle of Jarama, grossly oversimplified when the reality would have provided a much more entertaining and believable film. The Blueshirts never appear, and General O’Duffy, who led some 700 Irishmen on the side of Franco, is only once casually mentioned by Ryan, when no reference has previously been made to explain him and what he represented. We are consequently faced with the most serious fault that no real attempt is made to explain why Ryan left to fight in Spain in the first place. My concern is that someone watching this film with no knowledge of the context would get the impression that Ryan left simply because he was hot-headed and needed to be in the middle of any fight going.
Having said this, the film is worth seeing, and Bell is to be congratulated for bringing Ryan’s story to the screen. One cannot help but feel however that a chance has been missed to provide an entertaining as well as an accurate and educational account of Ryan’s life.