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The Fighting Prince of Donegal

The Fighting Prince of Donegal(1966)

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teaser The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)

Although the Disney studio is best known for its classic animated features, the company has long had an affinity for live-action period adventures, particularly those based on popular books or true historical events. In fact, much of the studio's output in the 1950s and 60s consisted of this genre, including tales of legendary pirates and seafarers (Treasure Island, 1950; Kidnapped, 1960), the Revolutionary War (Johnny Tremain, 1957), the American frontier (Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, 1955; The Light in the Forest, 1958), and legends from British history. The latter was a subject the studio frequently went back to, and with the success of the Irish supernatural story Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), Disney decided to turn to that country's history for this picture.

Disney also had something of a penchant for rebels, both real and mythic, fighting against unjust authority, from Tremain to Robin Hood, Rob Roy, and Zorro. So a movie about an Irishman who fought to oust the English from his homeland wasn't out of character.

Hugh O'Donnell, aka Red Hugh, was an Irish nobleman who lived from 1572 to 1602. Heir to the chieftain of one of Ireland's most powerful, independent, and staunchly anti-English clans, he was captured by his enemies as a 15-year-old and held prisoner for four years with the promise that no harm would befall him if the O'Donnells remained passive. His daring escape and near-fatal journey back to his home energized the rebellious Ulster clans, and in 1593 he was made The O'Donnell, Prince of Tir-Connaill, one of the great war chiefs of his land.

As anyone who knows even the slightest details of Irish history is aware, eventually the English did win their fight to control the country, to disastrous effect for its people, and O'Donnell had to flee to Spain, where he hoped to outlive the English monarch Elizabeth I and return home with Spanish military aid. Unfortunately he died there just a year later. Legend has it he was poisoned by English spies, but recent scholarship generally agrees it was an illness that took his life.

Of course, the filmmakers took great liberties with the story, and if you had just crawled out from under a rock, you might think that the Irish were victorious in their struggle and that events such as the Great Famine, mass emigration, and the Troubles never happened. The studio wasn't in the business of historical documentaries, however, so it's not terribly surprising that they turned an essentially tragic episode into a romantic swashbuckler. Nevertheless, they might have tried a little harder to get some Irish-born actors in the principle roles; you don't find one until you get to sixth-billed Richard Leech, but at least McEnery has a last name that speaks of Gaelic ancestry.

This was the actor's sixth feature film. He made his professional stage debut in 1958 at the age of 18. The classical theater is where he's made his greatest mark; he played most of the major roles and quite a few minor ones in his 20 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His first big splash in movies was as the boy who gave Hayley Mills her first screen kiss in Disney's The Moon-Spinners (1964).

The movie wasn't even filmed in Ireland. It was shot at the Pinewood Studios facility at Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire, England, but the director was Dublin-born Michael O'Herlihy (1928-1997), a major television director in the U.S. for most of his career. This was the first historical epic for esteemed English cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson, best known prior to this for a couple of popular Alec Guinness comedies and several Hayley Mills dramas. He went on to shoot the period pieces Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), for which he received an Academy Award nomination, The Prisoner of Zenda (1979), and the Mel Gibson version of The Bounty (1984), as well as the classic children's fantasy Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

The picture received mixed reviews on its release. Some critics found it clichd and historically inaccurate (e.g., the song sung by the cast at the finale, "O'Donnell Aboo," which was not written until the 1840s), while others found it to be harmless fun. It didn't do well at the box office, effectively ending Disney's swashbuckler phase.

John Hurt and David Hemmings were reportedly considered for the lead.

Disney had the film re-edited and run in three parts on the studio's Wonderful World of Color TV series the following year. That version had an additional opening scene featuring Queen Elizabeth I.

Director: Michael O'Herlihy
Producer: Walt Disney
Screenplay: Robert Westerby, based on the book Red Hugh, Prince of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Editing: Peter Boita
Art Direction: Maurice Carter
Original Music: George Bruns
Cast: Peter McEnery (Hugh O'Donnell), Susan Hampshire (Kathleen McSweeney), Tom Adams (Henry O'Neill), Gordon Jackson (Captain Leeds), Norman Wooland (Sir John Perrott)

By Rob Nixon

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