John Huston: ‘An t-Éireannach’?

TG4’s 1996 Irish language documentary John Huston: An t-Éireannach makes a powerful statement in its title — it claims Huston is an Irishman. Since Huston was born and raised in The United States (his grandfather left Armagh for Canada prior to the Great Famine), this label is not technically true. But while Huston did eventually earn Irish citizenship, this documentary title not only implies that he viewed himself as Irish, but that the Irish accepted him as such. From watching Brian Reddin’s documentary, I suggest that Huston was accepted as “An t-Éireannach” by some not because he lived in Ireland and gained citizenship, but because he contributed to the cultural landscape of the Irish film industry. Yet despite the documentary’s title, I believe that Reddin raises questions about Huston’s Irish assimilation and whether or not he is an Irish filmmaker.

The documentary details both Huston’s private and professional life in Ireland, but primarily focuses on his filmmaking endeavours. After shooting films like Moby Dick, The List of Adrian Messenger, and Casino Royale on location in Eire, Huston took a keen interest in the non-existent Irish film industry. Through the narration and interviews with experts like journalist Louis Marcus, the film applauds Huston for bringing Taoiseach Jack Lynch to Ardmore Studios and convincing him to fund a committee to create a thriving industry. The narrator, who throughout the film shows clear partiality and affection towards the director, labels Huston’s intervention as a “turning point.” Even though the resulting committee did not actually foster the creation of a thriving industry, the film argues that this was a crucial moment in Irish creative history because the Irish government finally began to fund cinematic efforts. Thus, film was legitimized as an art form. Furthermore, Huston is not deemed as “An t-Éireannach” simply because he made films in Ireland, but because he made it possible for other Irish filmmakers to do the same.

Another reason Huston is defined as “An t-Éireannach” was his desire to promote Irish literary arts. The documentary spends a significant amount of time discussing his final film The Dead, an adaptation of James Joyce’s story of the same name from The Dubliners. Reddin details how Huston hired Irish cast and crew, and how moved he was when he heard “The Lass of Aughrim.” By spending such a long time on describing the making of this particular film, the documentary presents Huston as someone who loved Irish literature and music and wanted to use his platform to promote this culture. This is corroborated when a tearful Anjelica tells the interviewer that the film “was his love letter to Ireland … to those people … to that place.”

However, despite establishing Huston’s impact on Irish film, the documentary also hints that contributing to an artistic Irish culture might not be enough to become an “An t-Éireannach.” Reddin’s choice to produce an Irish language documentary about Huston, when Huston did not know the language, admittedly shows an attempt to convey that Huston has been accepted as an Irishman. Many of Huston’s Irish colleagues, neighbours, journalists, and employees who are interviewed support this view. Yet, Reddin significantly uses a few interviewees who do not speak Irish, most notably Anjelica Huston. When Anjelica speaks in English about their time in Ireland, her words mark a sharp dissimilitude to the rest of the interviewees. This is especially noticeable since her words are edited next to other Irish interviews or the narration. Thus, Anjelica is othered as American. For example, after Anjelica notes that she was “somewhat of an oddity” in her Catholic school, the film cuts to her classmate Ann Fahys saying in Irish that “Anjelica’s life was different than ours.” Therefore, despite Huston’s contention in a television interview that his “children are Irish in their way of thinking and their way of speaking and living,” this editing proves that the Huston’s think, speak, and live differently than the Irish.

John Huston: An t-Éireannach has given me a lot of think about in terms of my research, since it complicates Huston’s legacy as an Irish-American filmmaker. On one hand, because of Huston’s cultural contributions to Ireland, some in this documentary view him as an Irish filmmaker. I will note that the film does not give Anjelica this distinction, despite the fact that she directed her Irish film Agnes Browne (based on The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll) only a few years before this documentary. On the other hand, there are those who think that his experience as a privileged Irish-American makes him “other” from the Irish. I’m more inclined to agree with the latter. Thus, I don’t think artistic contributions are enough to rebrand someone’s cultural identity.

Works Cited

John Huston: An t-Éireannach. Directed by Brian Reddin, interviews with Anjelica Huston, Louis Marcus, and Ann Fahys, TG4, 1996.

John Huston: An t-Éireannach.” Youtube,  uploaded by TG Faisnéis, 2 Nov 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4R33szCs3M&ab_channel=TGFaisn%C3%A9is

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