Entertainment

Brian Desmond Hurst, the north's greatest 'forgotten' film director

New exhibition Film as Art at the Ulster Museum centres on Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst, who made Christmas classic Scrooge, worked with greats like John Ford, John Wayne and Oliver Reed, and gave James Bond legend Roger Moore his start in acting. Jane Hardy speaks to Hurst's great-great nephew Allan Esler Smith, who has curated this exhibition of Hurst movie posters, press clippings and more...

Allan Esler Smith at the exhibition about his great great uncle Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum.Picture by Hugh Russell.
Allan Esler Smith at the exhibition about his great great uncle Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum.Picture by Hugh Russell. Allan Esler Smith at the exhibition about his great great uncle Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum.Picture by Hugh Russell.
Brian Desmond Hurst
Brian Desmond Hurst Brian Desmond Hurst

IS BRIAN Desmond Hurst (1895-1986) Northern Ireland's greatest underrated film director? Pace Kenneth Branagh, where the second adjective doesn't apply, the answer is yes, because when you tour the Ulster Museum's exhibition of the artwork surrounding Hurst's films, you get a sense of cinematic genius.

He directed one of the best Second World War films, Malta Story (1953), which featured a young Alec Guinness at the beginning of his career. In fact, he produced as many war films as Michael Powell, which drew on his own experience as a First World War veteran.

He directed Terry Thomas in a 1961 comedy His and Hers: while it might not have succeeded at the box office for various reasons, it still featured elements of the Carry On cast, plus Oliver Reed and Francesca Annis. Hurst noted that it was wise to get Terry Thomas' lines done before lunch as "he was partial to white wine".

Allan Esler Smith at the exhibition about his great great uncle Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum.Picture by Hugh Russell.
Allan Esler Smith at the exhibition about his great great uncle Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum.Picture by Hugh Russell. Allan Esler Smith at the exhibition about his great great uncle Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum.Picture by Hugh Russell.

His great-great nephew, Allan Esler Smith, who has curated the new exhibition, recalls his first viewing of a Brian Desmond Hurst movie.

"Sitting around the TV with the family watching Scrooge with Alistair Sim, which was released as A Christmas Carol in the USA, I realised we had a great film director in the family," he says.

Smith (59), whose daughter Caitlin Smith co-authored the book Hurst on Film 1928-1970 which inspired the exhibition, notes that Hurst directed over 30 films in a long career, across three continents.

The director worked on propaganda shorts for the Government and was an innovator, using people playing themselves in the 1942 movie A Letter from Ulster. This is showing at the Ulster Museum as an accompaniment to the exhibition and has an emotive realism that remains totally fresh.

As Smith says, Hurst produced this in response to rumours coming from Nazi sources in the Republic that relations between locals and the US 34 'Red Bull' infantry division were poor and that American soldiers were beating up the Northern Irish men.

A Letter From Ulster (1942) directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Two American GIs get directions from a local after getting lost near Tynan in Armagh
A Letter From Ulster (1942) directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Two American GIs get directions from a local after getting lost near Tynan in Armagh A Letter From Ulster (1942) directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Two American GIs get directions from a local after getting lost near Tynan in Armagh

"As if anybody could," was the director's response, but the film cleverly reveals the newcomers' vulnerability via their correspondence with those back home. Scriptwriter Terence Young worked on letters Hurst had gained from one Protestant and one Catholic soldier.

A chartered accountant by profession, Smith says that he enjoys the challenge of promoting Hurst, although there is an issue: "He was overlooked, I think, in part because people said he was a 'nancy boy'.

"He definitely lived a flamboyant and essentially gay life in Belgravia, although he was bisexual. As a student, I was given the keys to his three-storey London town house to use whenever I wanted.

"I would turn up to see the man we knew simply as 'Uncle Brian' be sent out the back door to the wine shop on the Knightsbridge Road for bottles of his favourite red wine, after which we'd have Hollywood stories."

Allan Esler Smith. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Allan Esler Smith. Picture by Hugh Russell. Allan Esler Smith. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Known for his tall tales within the family, Hurst cut a dashing figure on his visits home. Yet the evidence behind what might have seemed like celebrity hype actually stacked up.

"He would burst across from Belgravia a couple of times a year. At Christmas, dressed as Santa, he'd bear gifts for me and my sister which kind of made you think.

"She'd have a piece of jewellery from one of Brian's friends who was a Saudi Arabian prince. I'd get a gift passed through from his friend and protégé Terence Young, who went on to direct Bond movies, including Dr No and From Russia with Love, which I'd seen.

"This was the circuit he moved in."

And imported with attendant glitz to Bangor in the 1970s – quite a tough time for Smith and his siblings.

"We were the other end of the street."

The Film as Art exhibition on Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum. Picture by Hugh Russell.
The Film as Art exhibition on Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum. Picture by Hugh Russell. The Film as Art exhibition on Brian Desmond Hurst at the Ulster Museum. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Smith adds: "I'm involved with forensic accountancy, financial numbers that make up a jigsaw, but here there is an artistic jigsaw."

In researching his great-great-uncle's life, Smith has uncovered the real CV, including the fact that Hurst was an extra working on a 1928 John Ford silent movie set in Co Wicklow, Hangman's House, next to a young John Wayne.

"There were lots of names being dropped and you always wondered if this was fact or fiction. But I found out that he did act with him."

Bette Davis popped into see Brian Desmond Hurst and Alistair Sim whilst filming Scrooge in 1951
Bette Davis popped into see Brian Desmond Hurst and Alistair Sim whilst filming Scrooge in 1951 Bette Davis popped into see Brian Desmond Hurst and Alistair Sim whilst filming Scrooge in 1951

He discovered that Hurst had paid for Roger Moore to attend the prestigious drama college, Rada, in London: "Brian talent-spotted him, used him as an extra in his film Trottie True, and wanted to help."

The story of Hurst's dramatic life began in east Belfast. Born Hans Hurst into a shipyard worker's family, he was orphaned at 16 and ended up a linen worker. Bored with his lot, he decided to join up at the start of the First World War, and served at Gallipoli.

Hurst on Film 1928-1970, the 600-page book that inspired the exhibition, includes 1,000 images. It will be available in e-book format for just £1.49 during the exhibition so students and film fans can access it.
Hurst on Film 1928-1970, the 600-page book that inspired the exhibition, includes 1,000 images. It will be available in e-book format for just £1.49 during the exhibition so students and film fans can access it. Hurst on Film 1928-1970, the 600-page book that inspired the exhibition, includes 1,000 images. It will be available in e-book format for just £1.49 during the exhibition so students and film fans can access it.

Reinvention was part of Hurst's DNA, and although he deserted after being injured in the Great War, he managed to escape the bullet in the back and re-entered the war under another name, Brian – and five years younger.After that, he became part of the bohemian set in Europe, then America, where he bumped into director John Ford, who taught him about sets. Hurst later advised him on The Quiet Man.

John Ford and Brian Desmond Hurst on the set of Hurst’s Dangerous Exile in 1957. From the Hollywood silents until Ford’s death in 1973 they remained the greatest of friends.
John Ford and Brian Desmond Hurst on the set of Hurst’s Dangerous Exile in 1957. From the Hollywood silents until Ford’s death in 1973 they remained the greatest of friends. John Ford and Brian Desmond Hurst on the set of Hurst’s Dangerous Exile in 1957. From the Hollywood silents until Ford’s death in 1973 they remained the greatest of friends.

Questions of identity and storytelling run through Hurst's life and work. That includes the British-Irish question, with Hurst writing in Punch in 1970: "I'd fight for England against anybody except Ireland". He converted to Catholicism in middle-age.

Hurst's cinematic range is phenomenal: he produced an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story The Tell-Tale Heart (1934), so scary it was banned by some cinemas at the time. He produced a short of Synge's Riders to the Sea and directed an early noir film, 1939's On the Night of the Fire (AKA The Fugitive) with Ralph Richardson.

'Film as art' was Hurst's mantra and he wanted the genre to be acknowledged properly. Yet, he did gain recognition during a long career.

Smith recalls attending Hurst's 90th birthday party, given by Bafta: "I wondered what to expect, but it was impressive, with Alec Guinness, Terence Young and UTV founder William MacQuitty there indicating the respect they felt."

Brian Desmond Hurst and Sir Alec Guinness and Brian’s 90th birthday at Bafta, February 12 1985. Alec Guinness starred in Hurst’s 1953 film Malta Story alongside Jack Hawkins.
Brian Desmond Hurst and Sir Alec Guinness and Brian’s 90th birthday at Bafta, February 12 1985. Alec Guinness starred in Hurst’s 1953 film Malta Story alongside Jack Hawkins. Brian Desmond Hurst and Sir Alec Guinness and Brian’s 90th birthday at Bafta, February 12 1985. Alec Guinness starred in Hurst’s 1953 film Malta Story alongside Jack Hawkins.

The narrative arc of the film director's life came to an end with a slightly empty final set. His closing scene was memorable, with Hurst dying at 91 while waiting for a friend to bring a second bottle of Champagne.

The house where paintings by Jack Butler Yeats and even a Picasso had hung was found empty. Smith says Brian wasn't interested in the money.

"He had a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, but everything he had, he gave away. He didn't care about material wealth".

His legacy is his films, and John Ford once said: "I told Frank Capra, 'It's a good thing Brian went back to Britain. He could have given us out here a run for the money.'"

Of course, Brian Desmond Hurst's life would itself provide the material for a cracking movie, as Smith realises.

"I think his life will make a film, it's just a question of when," adding that there are rumours that Mr Branagh might be circling.

:: Film as Art: Brian Desmond Hurst, Film Director is at the Ulster Museum until January. A Letter from Ulster is being shown through the summer. More information at ulstermuseum.org. At 2.30pm on Thursday August 24, join curator of Modern History, Tríona White Hamilton, on a tour of the Film as Art exhibition in the Belfast Room. Allan Esler Smith will also speak about the launch of the book Hurst on Film 1928 -1970 and why Hurst had a passion for war films, in the Lecture Theatre. This event will conclude with a screening of A Letter from Ulster, Hurst’s only film made on his home soil in Northern Ireland and most likely Northern Ireland’s first full documentary. No booking is required.