Brian Desmond Hurst: The Human Blarney Stone and his Adaptation of The Playboy of the Western World

May 25, 2021

By Caitlin Smith

I was delighted to learn that Network have remastered the long-lost and long unseen final film of Brian Desmond Hurst, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ (1962). It bookends Hurst’s long and lavish film career and deserves to be seen again, and it is fantastic that it coincides with our newly released book Hurst on Film.

Brian Desmond Hurst remains Northern Ireland’s greatest film director and Ireland’s most prolific director of the 20th century, albeit he is more widely known for his UK war films and his big box office successes like Scrooge, Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Malta Story.

Hurst’s story is amazing. He came from a working class family in East Belfast having lost both his parents at an early age. He enlisted and fought in Gallipoli in 1915, where his Royal Irish Rifles battalion was virtually wiped out in one day. He travelled the world spending five years in art colleges and then working as John Ford’s personal assistant in Hollywood, learning the craft of film. He enjoyed a wealth of a career in film, eventually settling in Belgravia where he lived the most lavish of lifestyles. Hurst directed over 30 films, over four decades, across three continents. He will always be remembered across the world of film for the Christmas classic Scrooge (1951- released in the USA as A Christmas Carol), which he both directed and produced.

I have spent the past year, throughout the lockdowns, focusing my time on searching through the Hurst archives and gathering content for the newly published book Hurst on Film. As Hurst’s 3x Great Niece, I wanted to delve into my family connection and find out more about Brian’s fascinating story. He was undoubtedly inspired at the start of his career by Irish playwright Synge and other inspiring writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Hurst’s films bought many plays and books by his favourite writers to life. Learning a thing or two from Brian, my starting point was meeting with the brilliant writer for stage, TV and radio Stephen Wyatt, who had worked with Brian for well over a year in the 1970’s to set down Brian’s own memoirs. Poor Stephen had almost given up hope of ever seeing the earliest of his writing being published – it’s taken nearly 45 years but good things can sometimes happen with the benefit of time and technology.

We selected the parts of Hurst’s unpublished memoirs that tie in with the original scripts, press clippings and film stills that are held by the Hurst Estate, and then just focused on walking the reader through the life of Brian and his film art. It involved many long months of selecting and scanning the key images and press clippings from Brian’s own scrap books on each and every film – even the ones he had started or written the screenplay for, but did not get to complete – like Lawrence of Arabia. The words and images then had to be ordered and merged in a captivating way, and this was the part I really enjoyed – I wanted to make the book a visual treat. The words and images can now walk you through Brian Desmond Hurst’s amazing and sometimes scandalous life in his own words, and what he saw with his own eyes as director.

As I was aware that Hurst’s passion was for the visual art of film, I wanted to make this book as visually captivating as possible, using his films’ art to speak for itself at all times. In particular, The Playboy of the Western World section of Hurst on Film is full of absolutely stunning stills of Siobhan McKenna, Gary Raymond and the beautiful Irish scenery – I think the stills capture his painterly eye. The film is visually stunning and now ready for you to order through Network on both DVD and Blu-ray. There is fascinating behind the scenes photography of Hurst in action, directing this film, surrounded by cast, crew and 1960’s film equipment. Throughout the whole book, you can ‘hear’ Brian Desmond Hurst commentating on his own films and filmmaking from the silent era in Hollywood during the 1920’s, to the vibrancy of and colour of the 1960’s. I have tried to do his film art justice by bringing his memoirs to life visually, flooding the 621 pages of the book with over 1,000 images.

The Playboy of the Western World was Hurst’s last film he ever directed. It uses a play by John Millington Synge, a writer who also created Riders to the Sea (1935), one of Hurst’s earliest films. Hurst’s memoirs end with an epilogue and very final words as follows – “I was perhaps somewhat profuse in my thanks, so she said to me, in the pure language of Synge: ‘Ah sure, ‘tis nothing at all, sir. Wouldn’t I like a light myself and I travelling the road?’”. Hurst had a real connection to this writer and Hurst really had ‘travelled the road’. The casting for The Playboy is really interesting, as he selected Irish actress Siobhan McKenna to play the lead (who he had pitched to John Ford for The Quiet Man after appearing in Hurst’s Hungry Hill in 1947) and many actors from The Abbey Theatre in Dublin also star in the film. I noticed Abbey actors popping up all the time in Brian’s films, showing his loyalty to the theatre and the one who appears often is Maire O’Neill, who was, of course, Synge’s fiancée. As The Playboy’s heritage, from the writing, to the actors, to the setting, is all Irish, I feel it grounds Brian Desmond Hurst back to his roots and that is why I chose a production scene from The Playboy as the cover photograph for Hurst on Film. It is very appropriate and timely that it has been remastered by Network, to add to their growing Hurst catalogue. It is all the more appropriate, as The Playboy never had a full UK and Ireland release, to the disappointment of Brian and Michael Killanin, who was, both producer and Hurst’s long-standing great friend, and it had only a handful of screenings in the US, which disappointed John Ford. So after nearly 45 years, Hurst on Film springs to life in book form and after nearly 60 years, Hurst’s adaptation of The Playboy of the Western World can be seen again in brand-new high definition.

By the way, the film has the most beautiful soundtrack by Sean O Riada, described as “a wildly unconventional and exciting treatment of traditional Irish music.” Brian, of course, had a hand in developing the soundtrack.

Network’s new release also includes a lovely new interview with Gary Raymond (the Playboy who takes us back 60 years). He clearly enjoyed working with Brian and Siobhan, and this shines brightly in his fascinating interview.

Sit back, relax and enjoy Brian Desmond Hurst’s final film in a long, amazing and sometimes unbelievable career.

Hurst on Film by Brian Desmond Hurst and curated by Caitlin Smith and Stephen Wyatt, was published in April 2021 and is available on Amazon UK in paperback, 621 pages. Kindle version to follow soon.

Order Hurst on Film

Order The Playboy of the Western World [Blu-ray/DVD]

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