Nora Clitheroe (Barbara Stanwyck) knows that rebellion against Britain is brewing in her home country of Ireland. Rather than feeling hopeful for the country’s future, she’s worried. Her husband, Jack (Preston Foster), has been called to service in the Citizen’s Army of Ireland, and she fears he will die fighting, just as her father did.
Jack shares none of his wife’s worries, and when he learns he’s been made a commandant in the Citizen’s Army, he readily takes on the cause by joining a rally. A declaration of Irish sovereignty is signed, and so begins an uprising.
John Ford directs 1937’s The Plough and the Stars. The film is based on the play of the same name by Sean O’Casey.
John Ford is one of classic Hollywood’s most prolific and respected directors. In one of the era’s great creative tragedies, Ford only worked with Barbara Stanwyck once, on this film about Ireland’s fight for independence. Imagine what could have been, had Stanwyck been cast in one of Ford’s Westerns! She was fantastic in that genre, and Ford’s Westerns are some of his best films.
But, I digress. What we’ve got here is an interesting (if flawed) look at the tensions emerging not only within a country, but within a marriage, brought on by rebellion and revolution. Nora and Jack aren’t exactly on opposite sides of the conflict, she more concerned with his safety than with the purpose of his armed service, but the division between their opinions still runs deep.
The film carries some dated ideas — it’s a woman’s nature to love, and a man’s nature to fight, for example, according to Nora. There’s also far too much reliance on those old stereotypes of Irish people as drinkers and fighters.
For its faults, the film does have several redemptive qualities. I didn’t find the accent attempts too distracting, which is somewhat of a positive. The performances are quite good, and the story told well enough that I didn’t find myself losing interest at any point. There is some beautiful photography to be enjoyed here, too, especially in those tense sniper scenes.
The best part of the film, though, is Stanwyck. And perhaps I’m saying that because I’m a “Fanwyck” (Did I just coin a new term there?), but I genuinely think her performance is the film’s strongest asset. Even in the film’s most melodramatic moments she comes across as sincere, and as is true of many of her performances, she packs a major emotional punch.
For today’s viewers, the film will certainly appeal most to Stanwyck fans, as an illustration of the point she was at in her career. She was really hitting her stride as an actress by 1937, with roles like Baby Face and The Miracle Woman under her belt, though of course many of her greatest performances were still ahead of her. Even in her earliest roles she was a magnetic presence, but by the mid-1930s she had begun to secure her power, confidence, and style on-screen. The Plough and the Stars illustrates this nicely, when viewed as a piece of her particular career.