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Case Number 18531: Small Claims Court

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Rocky Road To Dublin

Icarus Films // 1968 // 69 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 17th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan likes Rocky Road to Dublin green ice cream, too.

The Charge

"Hunt the hare and turn her down the rocky road
And all the way to Dublin, Whack fol la de dah!"

The Case

It was the late 1960s: London was swingin', Paris would soon be rioting, and American was into some Summer Loving. Ireland, on the other hand, was still seen by many as a third-world backwater island, a mire of sectarian violence and ignorant Catholic superstition. Arguably this era was the worst it got for the Irish people in the Twentieth century. Although a form of independence had been won earlier in the nineteen hundreds, and prosperity would be the watchword as the Twenty-first century dawned, Ireland in the Sixties and Seventies saw a rash of terrorist violence, poverty, and cultural upheaval. Luckily, out of great change comes great art. Rocky Road to Dublin provides a time-bound snap shot of Irish culture has it hangs in the balance between the Yeatsiean romantic past and the all-too-real violence that was to come. The fact that it languished in obscurity for decades only makes this documentary more powerful as a look at a culture in the midst of change.

In an era where Michael Moore-style polemic pieces proliferate, it can be hard to remember a time when documentaries, well, documented something rather than trying to desperately wave cinematic hands in front of an audience to call attention to a pet plight. In this context, Rocky Road to Dublin owes quite a bit to the British Free Cinema movement of directors like Lindsay Anderson. The film starts with a brief history lesson about Irish independence, where the country was essentially split into natively controlled and British-controlled zones. The film eloquently establishes the emotional price this division entails: it traps the average citizen between wanting more (i.e. a free, united Ireland) and not denigrating all the young men who died to win independence. The film then spends the rest of its running time examining various aspects of Irish culture, from scenes in a pub to the Gaelic athletic clubs that proliferate throughout the country.

Before the first frame even appears, Rocky Road to Dublin is already an important piece of cinema. It was lensed by one of Godard's favorite cameramen, Raoul Coutard, and was screened at the infamously contentious Cannes Film Festival of 1968, which was eventually shut down in solidarity with the students rioting in Paris. The film languished for decades as a bit of trivia until its rediscovery and restoration. Although it likely won't go down as quite as important as other Cannes documentaries (Night and Fog comes to mind), Rocky Road to Dublin is an important film that sheds light not only on the Ireland of the late Sixties, but also on recent examinations of Ireland in the media like Steve McQueen's Hunger.

As an amateur Hibernophile I must admit that there was very little new information to be gleaned from Rocky Road to Dublin. That is to say before watching the film I was aware of the role of the Church, censorship law, Gaelic athletics, and the music and pub culture. In many ways that's the film's strength. Instead of spending time explaining about Irish culture through voiceover or some such, Rocky Road takes us there. We're either put in a position to watch something unfold (like pub culture), or we are shown an interview with someone "on the ground" with expertise in the given subject. So we get fairly lengthy interviews with an Irish censor, a spokesman for the Gaelic athletic association, and even John Huston (who took up Irish citizenship). These interviews and footage are the beating heart of Rocky Road. They allow us a glimpse into a culture that has since been surpassed, and seeing the squat vistas of Sixties Ireland compare to the recent economic development is breathtaking. Ultimately the film succeeds because it imparts a "you are there" feeling for a time that was so crucial to the development of modern Ireland, politically and culturally.

Speaking of culture, I would be remiss if I didn't single out the music used for Rocky Road. I have a soft spot for the Dubliners and their smooth-voiced Luke Kelly. They do the title tune as well as the numerous instrumental pieces that dot the film, and their performance acts as a bridge between the older, more romantic spirit of Ireland and its newer, more politically oriented future.

As a DVD, Rocky Road to Dublin is a solid release that handles the presentation of the film well, although Verdict was sent a check disc so final specs might change. The feature appears to have been shot on 16mm, and it languished in obscurity for decades, so this is not a pristine print. Considering the likely state of available prints, I'm willing to forgive some of the damage and fading I see on this disc. Sound is handled by a stereo track that captures both the music and voices with surprising clarity. My only serious complaint about this disc is the lack of subtitles. There appears to be no attempt by the interviewees to modulate their accents, and, although the sound comes through clearly, it was occasionally hard to decipher some statements.

The only extra is a 27-minute documentary on the making of Rocky Road to Dublin that features new interviews with some of the principals (Raoul Coutard and Peter Lennon, for instance), along with footage from the time of the film's production and release (including the 1968 Cannes screening). It's an interesting look at the film that makes the case for its historical importance, and it's pretty much the only extra that fans of the film could ask for.

On the Web site for Rocky Road to Dublin, Icarus Films prominently display the price for this DVD for institutional customers like schools, and it's easy to see why. Rocky Road to Dublin is an amazing historical documentary that clearly shows where Ireland had been and was about to go. It's the kind of film that makes me wish we had a documentary like this for all kinds of eras in human history.

The Verdict

Rocky Road to Dublin is not guilty, whack fol la de dah!

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Icarus Films
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 69 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Documentary
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Documentary


• IMDb

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