Review

For Pazz, I bring you a movie so rare, so obscure, I can’t even find more than a few minutes of film on the internet to showcase.  But I think it’s a film worth remembering.  Disney’s 1966 semi- historical movie “The Fighting Prince of Donegal”, starring Peter McEnery, Susan Hampshire, Tom Adams and Gordon Jackson.  Directed by Michael O’Herlihy, it is a film based on the adventures of “Red Hugh” O’Donnell (1572-1602), son of King Hugh Roe of Tir Connaill.

Not to go off into a tangent, I will give credit to people born after 1990 that, although they never had the first hand pleasure of enjoying some of the greatest movies, TV shows and rock bands of the 1960s and 70s, they also never had to grow up in a time when Disney was incredibly cornball.  With film titles like “Herbie the Love Bug”, “The Shaggy D.A.”, and “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again”…..Disney was so family friendly at the time it was disgusting, and sadly most of these films do not hold up over time.  Try watching “The Boatniks” without rolling your eyes, I ****ing dare you.

“Fighting Prince” was one of those few films that everyone could enjoy, but was a notch above the plethora of animal heavy characterized films and cheesy made-for-kids fluff from Disney.  To be fair to Disney, I can appreciate some of those goofball films like “The Cat from Outer Space”, but Disney didn’t start growing balls in its long history until 1979’s “The Black Hole”, where you could tell they manned up and took off the kid gloves by giving Anthony Perkins the most gruesome onscreen Disney death at the metallic claws of the dreaded robot Maximillian.

Until that Earth shattering “Holy ****!” moment in Disney history, there was “Fighting Prince”, which gave us some serious food for thought in a squeaky clean package.  McEnery stars as the young Red Hugh O’Donnell, destined to unite the Irish clans against Oppressive English occupation.  Sort of a 1960s “Braveheart”, It begins with young Hugh inheriting his kingdom on the death of his father in 1587.   Politics of the time being what they are, he is pressured to wage war with the English, but prefers to negotiate from a position of strength.  He is subsequently kidnapped by the English Viceroy to be a political hostage at Dublin Castle.  He escapes, is captured but escapes again and mounts a climactic showdown at the Occupied O’Donnell castle held by the main villain, Captain Leeds (played by Gordon Jackson).

In between all the intrigues and action, the cast is rounded out by enthusiastic love interest Kathleen McSweeney (Susan Hampshire), The gruff but lovable elder McSweeney (Andrew Keir) and friend/rival Henry O’Neill (Tom Adams).  There is also plenty of the Three Irish “B”s: Beer, Brawling and Bagpipes.

The movie opened to mixed reviews and did not do well at the box office.  Some called it a watered down history, others thought it was a fun adventure.  For me, personally, it is another underrated film that had a deep impact upon my childhood.  It is a film with a darker subtext when you look past the clean costumes, sets, comedic moments, and playful music soundtrack.  There’s English-Irish bigotry, ugly war, off-screen indignity towards women, prison brutality, the unseen effects of occupation by a hostile superior nation, etc.

Much of the film’s darker qualities are exemplified in the main villain, Captain Leeds.  Though Dublin Castle is home to the sympathetic Viceroy (Norman Wooland), who tries to be understanding of Hugh’s naturally rebellious tendencies, it is run by the cruel iron hand of Guard Captain Leeds.  Leeds is a bitter, spiteful man with hostility and hatred for the Irish, and provokes much of the action in the film.  When the Viceroy is away on a trip to London, Leeds takes great glee in his power over the Irish, spurning Lord McSweeney’s offer of a treaty and forcing Kathleen to be searched when she begs to see the imprisoned Hugh O’Donnell, squeezing in every ounce of contempt he can upon a people of which he seems to almost irrationally disapprove.

Hugh’s second escape leads the English on a chase across the country side, forcing Leeds to take Donegal by force, holding Kathleen and Hugh’s mother (played by Marie Kean) prisoner in one of the castle towers.  Hugh unites the clans and boldly takes the film into its exciting third act with an assault on the castle.  A very satisfying film the whole family can enjoy for its fun adventure, but a mature film that holds a lot of sobering social issues.  Plus, plenty of beer, brawling and bagpipes.

My only complaint about this film is the music.  Apart from the enjoyable traditional Irish tunes of this movie, Disney films of the 1960s and 70s tend to have a hokey orchestral display, with circus clowning oboes and flutes. While it’s not an annoying feature, Disney soundtracks of this era sound like different variations of “Peter and the Wolf”.  Perhaps I’m just spoiled by the more grand approaches by Hans Zimmer and John Williams.  Still, I do love the rendition of “O’Donnell Aboo” led by Andrew Keir and the cast at the end of the film.

The film, like Braveheart, is heavily altered history, since Prince Hugh died in exile (some believe poisoned by a double agent at the young age of 30), having almost defeated the English in a string of victories, but took a crushing loss at the battle of Kinsale in 1602.  Probably the only historically true notes presented are his two escapes from Dublin Castle and his friendship with O’Neill.  But that is what the movie industry is for.  To take an ugly reality and make it something more inspiring and spiritually beautiful.  Taking the film with a grain of salt when looking at real Hugh’s struggles, I still enjoy it for what it is.  An Adventure with a protagonist who perseveres with greater human qualities and wisdom, an underdog to root for. McEnery fills the role of Hero very well, Jackson is a great villain, etc.  Good cast, great action and a thrilling battle at the end.  There’s a good balance of comedy and serious moments to pull us in and give us levity at the right moments.  A shame this film is so very obscure.  I could only remember snippets of the film, and the song at the end.  It took a lot of research to find it on DVD to become re-aquainted with it.

If you love period history pieces, play lots of Skyrim, or enjoy collecting rare movies, this one can be found on DVD at Amazon.com.  It is a film worth remembering and enjoying.



About the Author

Jon Hodges
Jon Hodges
Jonathan has enjoyed doing community theater since 1989, and has been involved with shows in Van Wert, Wapakoneta, Waynesfield and Fostoria as well as Lima Encore. He is a judge for the Northwest Ohio Film Festival. Jon feels that the human imagination is one of the greatest adventures to share, and it is always fascinating to see others bring something to life. The second greatest adventure to share is a good dose of chocolate.