Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Near and away

Even though it risks summoning that infernal Disney theme park ride song into my head, I have to say that it’s a small world. After all.

One reason that the world is smaller than it used to be is because of the internet. And social networking sites like Facebook are making it yet smaller. Since I broke down and set up a page, I’ve not only been communicating with relatives and longtime friends, but I’ve been making contact with people I haven’t communicated with in years. And I’ve been contacted by some people I haven’t thought of in years and, in some cases, had completely forgotten they existed. People from old workplaces, from old schools, from my childhood. Many of them have come flooding back into my life, even if only in a virtual way via text messages and digital photos. In an earlier age, those people from my life’s history would have remained history, and I never would have known the rest of their stories. But, because I live in the time I do, I am finding out about old friends’ and acquaintances’ second and third and fourth acts.

What is particularly interesting is to find out how nearly my path has crossed with some of these people’s over the years, without any of us ever knowing it. Some people I knew in California were living in the Seattle area at the same time I was. And some have even visited or actually lived in Ireland. One high school friend to whom I once gave the nickname “Irish person” because her name was Kelly actually spent a few months in Eire and probably passed with a few miles of my house. A woman who was my pre-kindergarten playmate lived for half a year in County Kerry, less than an hour’s drive from the Missus’s house down there.

Another high school classmate has had a sort-of connection to Ireland. She and her husband have lived for years in Montana where, among her many other activities, she has acted in local theater. When a major motion picture crew came to Billings for a location shoot, she got cast as an extra. Her part was, in her own words, a “dancer/whore.” As often happens in these cases, her bit was left on the cutting room floor, but it had to be quite an interesting and exciting experience, since it involved the likes of Ron Howard, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. And as it happens, a little bit of that movie was also filmed near where I am now. And another good bit of it was filmed in an area I know equally well.

The movie, you may have guessed, was Far and Away, which was released in 1992. It was Cruise and Kidman’s first big project together after they were married. They had recently starred together in Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder. It was director Howard’s follow-up to the movies Willow, Parenthood and Backdraft. An emigrant epic, the story was set in the late 19th century and spanned from Ireland to Boston to Oklahoma. When I saw the movie 17 years ago, the story and the locations didn’t mean that much too me. Now, when I see bits of the film, much of it is very familiar. Many of the west of Ireland scenes were filmed in the same general locations as David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, taking advantage of the Dingle Peninsula’s spectacular coastline. But the landlord’s estate was filmed on the other side of the country, at Kilruddery House and Gardens in County Wicklow, south of Dublin. But even when the story moved on to America, filming continued in Ireland. As it not infrequently happens, the filmmakers found that modern Dublin was a better match for a major 19th century U.S. city than the U.S. city itself. Dublin stood in for Boston. When the story moved farther west, ultimately to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893, those scenes were filmed in America. And, while some filming was done in Oklahoma, the bulk of those scenes were filmed in Montana.

As I’ve written before, the locations in County Kerry are well known to me by this point. Reportedly, some filming of the Irish scenes were also done in Connemara, County Galway, not too far from where I am living now. I will have to sit down and watch the whole movie all the way through to see if I can spot the precise place.

Like The Quiet Man, Far and Away is a movie that seems to have a lot of appeal for Irish-Americans. For the Irish themselves, it is a different story. It is pretty much de rigueur to sneer at any Hollywood production that attempts to portray the Irish. And they have a point. Virtually anyone in the world can play an American (because we are, after all, a melting pot), although certain regional characters might be harder to get right for a foreigner than others. But generally, we watch Brits and Australians and other nationalities play Americans on our movie screens and don’t bat an eye or hear anything strange about their dialect-coached accents. But an Irish man or woman will detect an off vowel pronunciation from an actor trying to play Irish immediately. And the body language, if not the body itself, almost always gives away the game as well.

Tom Cruise is frequently mentioned on lists that newspapers love to compile, enumerating the worst Irish accents ever. And, casting of big-budget movies being what they are, much of the principal cast of the movie were American, the Australian Nicole Kidman notwithstanding. Kidman’s parents were played by Hill Street Blues veterans Robert Prosky and Barbara Babcock, and her suitor was played Thomas Gibson, who would go on to the sitcom Dharma & Greg. As usual, the authentic Irish actors were relegated to supporting roles. The local bit players included Colm Meaney, Niall Toibin, Jared Harris (Richard’s son) and acting patriarch Cyril Cusack (father-in-law of Jeremy Irons), in what was nearly his very last role.

While the story told by Howard and his screenwriter Bob Dolman all has a basis in actual history, so many well-known aspects of Irish/American experience are shoe-horned in (the famines, the rebellion, the emigration, the boxing, working on the railroad) that it finally starts to feel clichéd. And the romance seems nearly played more for laughs than for drama.

And, it has to be said, it is a story that would not have been hurt at all by the inclusion of an additional dancer/whore.

Here in Ireland, it is just another day with the Munchkin at school and the Missus and I going about our usual work. But in the States it is Thanksgiving, so let me offer my annual wish for a great Thanksgiving to, as they say here, everyone who knows me.

-S.L., 26 November 2009

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