Brian Desmond Hurst (12 February 1895 – 26 September 1986) was a Belfast-born film director. With over 30 films in his filmography, Hurst was Ireland's most prolific film director during the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for Scrooge (released abroad in the United States as A Christmas Carol), a film that frequently tops lists of classic Christmas movies.
Hurst was born Hans Hurst at 23, Ribble Street, Belfast into a working-class family. Hurst attended the New Road School, a public elementary school, on the junction of the Newtownards Road and Hemp Street in East Belfast.
Brian Desmond Hurst's father (Robert, senior) and brother (Robert, junior) were iron-workers in the Harland and Wolff shipyard. In August 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Hurst enlisted as a private in the British Army and changed his name from Hans to Brian soon afterwards. He saw service with the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles at the battle of Chunuk Bair in Gallipoli, the Balkans and the Middle East. At the battle of Chunuk Bair his regiment were "battle virgins when they were thrown into the Turkish machine gun fire for the first time on 10 August 1915". "They had set out a few hours before for the Chunuk Bair with twenty officers and over 700 men. Several stragglers and those who had lost their way returned to base in the hours that lay ahead but by the evening of 10 August the Hampshires and the Rifles had been broken in what amounted to a cruel massacre".
Hurst was interviewed by Punch magazine in 1969 and the article contained Hurst's quote "'I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland' he says, Why for England? 'Because an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners.' Why not against Ireland? 'Because an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen.'" In the same article when commenting about his experiences of fighting at Gallipoli in a Battalion that was from a mixed religious background with recruiting offices in Belfast and Dublin, the article comments "Catholic-Protestant antagonism vanished in this holocaust".
Returning from World War I Hurst found life in Belfast constraining and he took a government grant to emigrate to Canada sometime in 1920. He wanted to follow his artistic ambition and enrolled at the Toronto College of Art. After two years he left and went to France to study art at École des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Early film career
Hurst then moved to Hollywood where he quickly rose from set artwork to film production. Under the expert guidance of John Ford, sometimes claimed to have been Hurst's cousin, he learnt the new skills of set management. Hurst even made one screen appearance as an extra in Ford's Hangman's House (1928) where he briefly appears alongside a college footballer gaining his first break - John Wayne. Hurst's skills, however, were behind the camera where his artist training allowed him to capture faces and expressions with a unique flair. These skills were honed under Ford who remained a lifelong friend. Hurst was with Ford and helped advise him when he brought Hollywood to Ireland when making The Quiet Man (1952).
By 1933 Hurst was ready to return to the UK and settled in Belgravia from the 1930s to his death in 1986 although often returning to Ulster to visit relatives for "a spiritual bath".
His early Irish work is attracting historic interest with John Millington Synge's Riders to the Sea (1935) and the Irish War of Independence love story Ourselves Alone (1936) proving to be historically important. Hurst's Irish Hearts (1934) "is certainly one of the main contenders for the first Irish sound feature film".
Riders to the Sea was shot in Connemara where Hurst used the actors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and "the film reflects the disparity between the two, with the actors delivering their lines in a highly technical manner whilst the camera revels in the bleak, natural beauty of the coastline and sky. Hurst's visuals are invariably compared with those of his mentor, John Ford and the opening shots of Riders... are markedly Fordian in their elementary quality".
Ourselves Alone was banned in Northern Ireland at the time of its release in 1936 although it has now achieved the recognition it deserved and is shown in museums and other public access points in Northern Ireland. It appears to have been misunderstood. At the time Hurst pointed out the original story had been written by a British Army officer and Hurst claimed that the film was 'pro-British'.
Hurst's earliest English films include The Tell-Tale Heart (1934), The Tenth Man (1936) and Glamorous Night (1937).
In 1937 Hurst was retained by Alexander Korda on a project to direct a film about T. E. Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia'). In "Filming TE Lawrence - Korda's Lost Epic" it is noted that "Hurst was a Northern Irishman who could speak Arabic... Hurst was about to leave on a trip to Jerusalem to scout locations when Korda cancelled the trip, saying that the Palestine government refused to permit large gatherings of Arabs and they could not make the film without crowds of Arab extras." The last version of Hurst's screenplay (co-written with Miles Malleson and Duncan Guthrie) dated 4 October 1938 is reprinted in "Filming TE Lawrence Korda's Lost Epic", pages 33 to 127.
On the Night of the Fire is regarded as one of the early examples of British film noir. Released in December 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War and set in Newcastle it charts the slow moral destruction of a barber following his theft of some money. The film critic David Quinlan describes the film as "grim but gripping". Andrew Spicer, in his book European Film Noir, writes: "A riveting psychological study. With its sustained doom-laden atmosphere, Krampf’s expressive cinematography, its adroit mixture of location shooting and Gothic compositions and Ralph Richardson’s wonderful performance as a lower middle class Everyman, On the Night of the Fire clearly shows that an achieved mastery of film noir existed in British cinema".
Hurst then had the distinction of being selected by Alexander Korda to help co-direct Korda's bit for the war effort The Lion Has Wings (1939) featuring Ralph Richardson which was described by one critic as "Hurst's most celebrated film of the 1930s". The historic importance of the film is understood when it is realised that Korda was a close friend of Winston Churchill and had made a promise to Churchill to get this film out within a month of war being declared. The review on imdb.com comments that "This first of its kind in propaganda films of World War II, shows the might of the British Empire and its eagerness to stand up to the oppressors of morality and free will. Crude but effective propaganda cinema that sets the tone for things to come."
The Times, in its obituary of Hurst in 1986, commented that Dangerous Moonlight (1941) was "his best known picture", "a big popular success" which "launched a cycle of pictures with concerti as their theme music" because of its successful utilisation of Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto.
Hurst worked for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War for whom his films included The Call for Arms (1940), Miss Grant Goes to the Door (1940) and his homeland film A Letter From Ulster (1943) where Hurst and Terence Young (as scriptwriter) and his fellow Ulsterman and Assistant Director William MacQuitty created a film "promoting a sense of community" between the people of Northern Ireland and over one hundred thousand troops from the USA based in Northern Ireland at the time. Brian McIlroy explained that "Hurst was able to persuade one Catholic and one Protestant soldier to write letters home, explaining their impressions of their stay. From these letters, Terence Young, the scriptwriter, was able to construct a sequence of activities that revealed the different traditions of Ireland."
An interesting fact about Hurst's The Hundred Pound Window (1944) was that it featured a young Richard Attenborough obtaining his first credited role (playing Tommy Draper).
Hurst's Theirs is the Glory (1946) was possibly the biggest grossing war film in the UK for a decade where he took 200 members of the 1st Airborne back to Arnhem and Oosterbeek to direct and 'remake' their role in the Battle of Arnhem. Every person in the film served with the 1st Airborne or was a civilian from Oosterbeek or Arnhem. You cannot help but wonder whether Hurst was thinking back to his colleagues that he left behind at Gallipoli especially when you watch the moving opening scene featuring 10 men in a Nissen hut preparing for battle and the closing scene featuring only 2 returning. What we do know is that Hurst said "The film is my favourite because of the wonderful experience of working with soldiers and because it is a true documentary reconstruction of the event. I say without modesty it is one of the best war films ever made".
The premier of Theirs is the Glory was on the second anniversary of the battle in September 1946 and was attended by the Prime Minister. King George VI commanded a private screening at Balmoral Castle. Theirs is the Glory and A Bridge Too Far were compared in the battlefields magazine Against All Odds and the comparison is stark and revealing "A Bridge Too Far is a slow moving epic, well worth a viewing with some authentic scenes, but is unconvincing in its portrayal of the battle of Oosterbeek... Theirs is the Glory is the only feature film currently released that accurately portrays the events at Oosterbeek in atmospheric and chronological terms, despite its jerky portrayal of events. This is a film to watch.".
Hurst's post-war career included producing and directing the definitive Christmas film Scrooge (1951) which is the "best of the many screen versions of Dickens's warm-as-mince-pies A Christmas Carol, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge incarnate: his miserly humbuggery is a delight. So is Michael Hordern's ghostly Jacob Marley and the snowy, atmospheric photography of C.M. Pennington-Richards".
Hurst produced Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951) and directed the box office successes Malta Story (1953) featuring Alec Guinness as an RAF pilot helping to defend Malta. "The combination of an A list cast, the portrayal of the iron reliance of the Maltese people, the gallantry of the RAF pilots and a tragic love story were the four components of its success".
Hurst went on to direct Simba (1955) featuring Dirk Bogarde and Donald Sinden and The Black Tent (1956) featuring Donald Pleasence, Anthony Steel and Donald Sinden again.
In 1962, in his late '60s, Hurst returned to John Millington Synge and adapted the script and produced and directed The Playboy of the Western World, his last film.
In the same way that John Ford had mentored Hurst it seems that Hurst was able to mentor and help many leading lights in the film business. Hurst spotted a young Roger Moore in 1945 where he was an extra on the film set of Caesar and Cleopatra in London. He offered him the chance to audition for RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) with his parent's consent and paid his fees. Hurst provided Richard Attenborough with his first credited role (Tommy Draper) in The Hundred Pound Window. The first three scriptwriting roles of later Bond director Terence Young were on the Hurst directed films On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941) and A Letter From Ulster (1942). They worked together again on Theirs is the Glory (1946) and Hungry Hill (1947).
Theirs is the Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film takes Hurst's Battle of Arnhem epic as its centerpiece and chronicles Hurst's ten films on conflict. Released in hardback on 15 September 2016 with almost 400 pages and over 350 images "this book also shows why Hurst was an enigma, but a master of the genre, and at his very best when focusing on the vast canvas of film" (from dust jacket). ISBN 978-1-911096-63-4. Publisher Helion and Company and co-authored by David Truesdale and Allan Esler Smith.
The official legacy website on Brian Desmond Hurst is at http://www.briandesmondhurst.org
He was the subject of an acclaimed memoir, The Empress of Ireland, written by Christopher Robbins, in 2004.
In February 2013 Allan Esler Smith, administrator of the Hurst Estate, made an announcement at the BFI Southbank screening of Hurst's Hungry Hill about Hurst's own personal memoirs as written in 1976/77 by Brian with the assistance of Dr. Stephen Wyatt. Hurst's memoirs run to over 200 pages and were being edited and contextualised and prepared for publication by Smith and Prof Lance Pettitt.
Recognition and honours
- Directors Guild of Great Britain Blue Plaques
On 13 April 2011 the Directors Guild of Great Britain unveiled a blue plaque at Queens Film Theatre in Belfast for Brian Desmond Hurst. At that date the three other film directors bestowed with this honour were Michael Powell, Alexander Mackendrick and David Lean. The plaque was unveiled by the Irish film producer Redmond Morris.
- Ulster History Circle Blue Plaques
On 13 April 2011 the Ulster History Circle unveiled a blue plaque at 23 Ribble Street, East Belfast, his birthplace, to honour Northern Ireland's greatest film director and the plaque was relocated in the Summer of 2016 to the more prominent and nearby Strand Arts Centre and Cinema on 152-154 Holywood Road, Belfast, BT4 1NY.
- Brian Desmond Hurst sound stage, Titanic Studios
On 10 October 2012 the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland officially launched an £8.3m extension to Titanic Studios (originally known as the Paint Hall Studios) at the Titanic Quarter. The addition of two new sound stages will establish Titanic Studios as one of the largest and most modern film and television production sets in Europe. The stages have been named in honour of film directors, Brian Desmond Hurst and William MacQuitty.
Documentaries on Hurst
On 6 August 2011 RTÉ Radio One's Documentary on One series broadcast An Irishman Chained to the Truth, a 40-minute documentary about Brian Desmond Hurst. RTÉ explain "Brian Desmond Hurst was the most prolific Irish film director of the 20th century" and the documentary can be heard again on http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/radio-documentary-irishman-chained-to-the-truth-brian-desmond-hurst.html
The Human Blarney Stone: The Life and Films of Brian Desmond Hurst was released as a 40-minute feature with VCI DVDs 60th Anniversary 'Diamond' edition of Scrooge.
- Hangman's House (1928)
- Arrowsmith (1931)
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1934)
- Irish Hearts (1934)
- Riders to the Sea (1936)
- Ourselves Alone (1936)
- The Tenth Man (1936)
- Sensation (1936)
- Glamorous Night (1937)
- Prison Without Bars (1938)
- On the Night of the Fire (1939)
- The Lion Has Wings (1939)
- A Call For Arms (1940)
- Miss Grant Goes to the Door (1940)
- Dangerous Moonlight (1941)
- A Letter From Ulster (1942)
- Alibi (1942)
- Theirs is the Glory (1946)
- Hungry Hill (1947)
- The Mark of Cain (1947)
- Trottie True (1949)
- Scrooge (1951)
- Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951) as a producer
- Malta Story (1953)
- Simba (1955)
- The Black Tent (1956)
- Dangerous Exile (1957)
- Behind the Mask (1958)
- His and Hers (1961)
- Playboy of the Western World (1962)