Hurst, Brian Desmond (1895–1986), film director, was born Hans Moore Hawthorn Hurst in east Belfast on 12 February 1895, seventh child (of five sons and three daughters) of Robert Hurst, shipyard metalworker, and his first wife, Esther (née Hawthorn). The family moved between Belfast and Govan shipyards depending on the availability of work.
Hurst's childhood was traumatic; his mother died in childbirth with her eighth child in 1899 when he was aged three. In 1900 Robert Hurst married Margaret Shilliday (née Wright), who had a daughter by her first marriage; they had three sons and Margaret favoured her own children by both marriages over Esther's. (Hurst's eldest sister, Patricia (1882–1963), later a capable businesswoman, acted as a substitute mother figure.) Robert Hurst reacted to the strain of heavy labour, intermittent employment and family responsibilities by alternating periods of sobriety and affection with intense drinking bouts. Hurst coped by developing a fantasy image consisting only of his father's better side. In adulthood Hurst created a highly developed fictitious account (drawing on plot elements of his own films and reproduced in many sources) of his father as a country doctor who sent him to public school. This exemplified his ability to transform painful memories by incorporating them into fantasies which he saw in Wildean style both as displays of creative power and as expressing a deeper truth – that Robert Hurst really had loved and suffered for his family. Robert Hurst died in 1911 and Margaret a year later.
Hurst attended the New Road school on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, while taking casual work to help support the family; at age 13 he was sent to weave tablecloths in a linen factory on Bloomfield Street. (Three elder brothers worked in the shipyard; craft restrictions limited the number of sons who could take up their father's trade.) In 1912 Hurst signed the Ulster Covenant.
First world war experiences
In August 1914 on the outbreak of war Hurst joined the 6th Royal Irish Rifles – partly to get away from Belfast – and later changed his name from the painfully Germanic 'Hans' to 'Brian'. By chance, he entered the recruiting office when recruits were being taken for the 10th (Irish) Division, so that instead of joining the 36th (Ulster) Division and going to the Somme, he trained with a unit that included numerous Irish catholics. Hurst was sent to Gallipoli with his battalion in August 1915. Within a few days of landing, over half the battalion – men with whom Hurst had trained for a year – became casualties; unburied or semi-interred corpses became a commonplace sight, and in the confined Allied territory on the peninsula, dysentery and related diseases were epidemic. 'Catholic-Protestant division vanished in this holocaust', Hurst recalled in a 1969 interview.
Hurst participated in hand-to-hand fighting at the battle of Chunuk Bair, received a bayonet wound in the arm, and was evacuated to Cairo suffering from dysentery and jaundice in addition to the infected bayonet wound. While convalescing, Hurst, fully accepted his bisexuality. After a lengthy convalescence Hurst was discharged but re-enlisted in a logistical corps (motivated by a sense of solidarity with his fellow soldiers) and remained in the eastern Mediterranean for the remainder of the war. He derived from these experiences a sense of the frailty of life and determination to enjoy it while it lasted, and identification with a romanticised Irishness and with the cross-class, homosocial world of the military.
Artistic training and entry into films
Hurst returned to Belfast at the end of the war and studied journalism (he wished to study art but the course was full); two teachers encouraged his sympathy for Irish nationalism and the Celtic literary revival. As Belfast grew increasingly violent, he took out a government emigration grant and moved to Canada, where he worked on laying out a golf course, saved money, and enrolled at the Toronto School of Fine Arts. He adopted the middle name 'Desmond' (with its association with the quasi-regal mediaeval Geraldines, to mark his self-reinvention as a heroic figure of the Irish revival. Similarly, his name 'Brian' came to be associated with the kingly Brian Boru (qv).) After two-years' study he moved to Paris for a year at the École des Beaux Arts, and met Irish writers including James Joyce (qv) and Liam O'Flaherty (qv).
Hurst then worked as a stage designer and mural painter in New York before travelling across America, ending in Los Angeles, where he socialised in film and artistic circles. His paintings (mildly reminiscent of Modigliani and Aubrey Beardsley, and including a portrait of St Bridget (qv)) caught the attention of John Ford (qv). Ford employed Hurst as a scene designer and then as a 'gofer' (production assistant), allowing him to acquire the technical skills for his later career as a director. He appears in a minor role in Ford's 1928 silent film Hangman's house, and was to be a strongly visual director influenced by Ford's adaptation of German expressionist film technique. Hurst and Ford maintained a lifelong friendship based on hero-worship by Hurst and slightly mocking affection from Ford; Ford called Hurst his cousin and this was taken literally by many contemporaries. Hurst assisted Ford's adaptation of The informer (1935) by introducing Ford to O'Flaherty, and helped in choosing locations for The quiet man (1952). In his unpublished autobiography, Hurst states that one reason for his belief in an afterlife is that he cannot accept that the genius of John Ford ceased to exist at death.
In 1933 Hurst returned to Britain because of visa restrictions. With the assistance of the wealthy Lancashire catholic landowner Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton (one of several possible originals for Evelyn Waugh's Sebastian Flyte, and a friend of W. B. Yeats (qv)), Hurst became a director of 'quota quickies' (cheaply made British films sold to cinema exhibitors to fulfil a statutory requirement to show a quota of British-made films). His first film, the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The tell-tale heart (1934; US title, Bucket of blood), made a small profit and attracted critical praise for its visual styling.
Clifton Hurst Productions then produced Irish hearts (1935; US title. Norah O'Neale), a romance set among nurses and medical students, based on a novel by James Johnston Abraham (qv). This film, of which only fragments survive, was almost certainly the first Irish fiction picture with sound; contemporary reviews stress its appeal to the tourist market, with Irish music and locations shot in Irish beauty spots. (The Ulster Tourist Authority expressed some interest in backing it after reports that it would be partly filmed in Northern Ireland.) It was followed in 1935 by an adaptation of the play Riders to the sea by J. M. Synge (qv), financed by the singer Gracie Fields, employing Abbey actors (notably Sara Allgood (qv) as Maurya) and filmed partly on location in Renvyle, Co. Galway. Although location shooting was limited by weather conditions, the film is well regarded by critics who note its strong visual debt to Ford and Jack B. Yeats (qv), but it was seen as 'arty' and failed to find an American distributor.
Throughout his career Hurst took an interest in the possibility of developing an Irish film industry. In 1936, after the success of his film Ourselves alone (see below), there were reports that Hurst would make a film in Ireland featuring John McCormack (qv). Hurst and Lord Killanin (qv) gave press interviews about their plans to establish an Irish film company, to make a movie set in the 1916 rising, and to film a romantic melodrama in the style of The colleen bawn by Dion Boucicault (qv). The Bank of Ireland, however, refused to lend £100,000 for these projects, and an attempt to secure funding from the Fianna Fáil government was not helped when Hurst responded to an official's remark that he was from 'the six counties' by asserting his pride in Ulster. Meanwhile, Hurst turned to British studio productions.
Into the mainstream
After his first three films Hurst risked being seen as 'arty' and commercially unsuccessful. He offset this impression through his recruitment by British International Pictures (BIP) to direct Ourselves alone (1936; US title, River of unrest), a drama set in the Irish war of independence in which an RIC officer and a British army major are rivals for the love of a woman from a 'big house' family (whose brother, unknown to her, is an IRA leader). Hurst extensively storyboarded the script before calling in, to rework it, Denis Johnston (qv), who shared his interest in the potential for Irish film and had worked on Riders to the sea; however, their personalities were antithetical and Johnston later disowned both the film and Hurst. The title refers to the isolation of the crown forces amid a hostile population whose solidarity has Fordian overtones, and the doomed Anglo-Irish IRA leader is a chivalrous idealist, but the overarching theme is of a tragic conflict between honourable combatants. Ourselves alone was denounced in Dublin as pro-British (though it drew good audiences); in Northern Ireland it was denounced as pro-Sinn Féin and banned by the Stormont government, despite Hurst's appeals to his Belfast origins and military service.
Hurst rapidly established a reputation as a competent studio director, directing five further studio films by 1939. Pre-eminent among these is On the night of the fire (1939; US title, The fugitive), the first British example of film noir, with a powerful performance by Ralph Richardson as a sympathetically portrayed Newcastle clerk progressively entrapped by the consequences of a theft. Hurst's reputation for professionalism and script-rewriting led, for much of his career, to his rescuing films which had gotten into difficulties, without being formally credited; notable examples are Gabriel Pascal's extravagant 1945 version of the play Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw (qv), starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh (on which Hurst detected the talent of the young Roger Moore – appearing as an extra – whom he subsequently assisted through the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), and the 1951 adaptation of Tom Brown's schooldays, credited to Gordon Parry (Hurst was listed as producer but claimed to have directed three-quarters of the film). This leaves ambiguity about the exact number of films he directed, but he was certainly the most prolific Irish director of the twentieth century. He enjoyed considerable financial success as a director, and spent his earnings lavishly on an art collection, on high living, and on numerous casual acts of generosity.
Romanticism, sexuality and religious belief
On his return to Britain from America, Hurst settled in the Belgravia area of central London, where he lived for the rest of his life. He participated in London's bohemian scene – particularly its homosexual subculture, in which the exalted and famous (some of whom also participated in Hurst's films) mixed with uncertain young men and with working-class associates – and completed a Wildean reinvention as aesthete and raconteur.
His delight in fabrication and selective disclosure never became complete fantasy; he maintained contact with surviving relatives in Northern Ireland, and his lifelong support for the Labour party reflected memories of childhood hardship as well as dislike of bourgeois respectability. He was always open about his sexuality (he claimed to have told the devoutly methodist film magnate J. Arthur Rank, one of his principal employers: 'I am as God made me'), and it is remarkable that he was never prosecuted under the then existing homosexuality laws. Denying any contradiction between his sexuality and his religious allegiances, he maintained that damnation was only incurred for cruelty and unkindness rather than for sexual misconduct.
From the 1920s Hurst regarded himself as a catholic, although he was not formally received until late 1947 or early 1948 at the Carmelite priory at Aylesford in Kent. He received communion in anglican churches when it suited him and had a fascination with the occult and extrasensory perception (he cultivated a reputation for possessing the evil eye, apparently deriving from his intense visual concentration and a certain mischievous voyeurism). Nevertheless, his commitment to catholicism went deeper than aesthetic attraction or an assertion of Irishness; he admired the 'little way' of childlike love advocated by the Carmelite mystic St Therese of Lisieux (1873–97) and was a regular visitor and generous donor to Aylesford, presenting the priory with several valuable artworks.
Second world war
In 1937–8 the producer Alexander Korda (then dominating BIP) recruited Hurst to direct a film on the life of T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), for which Hurst's war experience and knowledge of Arabic would have been useful. The project was abandoned, however, due to the Arab revolt in Palestine and government fears that it would cause diplomatic complications with Turkey. Elements of the story of Lawrence are visible in some of Hurst's later films, and he maintained his Arab interests through the bohemian milieu of the international settlement in Tangier.
In 1939 Hurst was one of three co-directors (with Michael Powell and Adrian Brunel) of The lion has wings, a propaganda film hurriedly prepared by Korda on the outbreak of the second world war. Hurst was then recruited by the government's Central Film Unit (CFU) as one of several directors producing short propaganda films to maintain morale at the height of the fear of German invasion; his 1940 contributions were the five-minute shorts Miss Grant goes to the door (depicting two women capturing a German fifth columnist) and The call for arms (depicting hard-driving female munitions workers, with an Irish character in a secondary role). Hurst later cooperated with the apprentice film producer William MacQuitty (qv) on A letter from Ulster (1942) a longer short film for the CFU depicting American GIs training in Northern Ireland and visiting local sights. Irish involvement in the British war effort is also emphasised in the wildly popular Dangerous moonlight (1941; US title, Suicide squadron), a lush melodrama in which Anton Walbrook stars as an exiled Polish pianist and composer (loosely modelled on Frédéric Chopin) who is also a trained pilot; he fights heroically in the battle of Britain alongside an Irish pilot who serves as his confidant.
Hurst's personal favourite among his own films was Theirs is the glory (1946), a dramatic reconstruction of the battle of Arnhem on its site, employing paratroopers and civilians who had experienced the battle. Its documentary style (complete with newsreel-style voice-over recorded by a journalist accompanying the troops) contrasts with the romanticism of Dangerous moonlight, but it also emphasises the Irish role in the conflict: a group of 'everyman' soldiers introduced at the start of the film and killed off in its course includes men from both northern and southern Ireland, and in the last scene their names are repeated as the camera pans over their empty beds at the base. Hurst was motivated by a sense of affinity between the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem (and the Dutch civilians who assisted them) and his comrades at Gallipoli, and wished to ensure that their experiences were not airbrushed from history as an embarrassing defeat (as he felt had happened to Gallipoli). Prime Minister Clement Attlee attended the premiere; several high-profile screenings assisted the Airborne Forces fund, and Theirs is the glory became the highest-grossing war film for a decade. The film led to Hurst's becoming an official adviser to the reviving Dutch film industry in 1952.
Post-war film career
Hurst continued his directing career in the late 1940s and 1950s with considerable success. His best-known film is Scrooge (1951; US title, A Christmas carol), part of a cycle of Dickens adaptations produced by the British film industry in the immediate post-war years which emphasised Victorian urban bleakness rather than cosy nostalgia and implicitly endorsed contemporary social reform. (Hurst's film has been described as 'a thank-you letter to the welfare state'.) Scrooge (which features a leading character more insecure and vulnerable than Dickens's flintier original, deeply scarred by the deaths in childbirth of a mother and sister) is generally regarded as the best film version of A Christmas carol. Hurst deployed his skills in handling light and shadow to give scope to Alastair Sim's performance while allowing space for the supporting performers. Also noteworthy are the powerful Malta story (1953), starring Alec Guinness, which celebrates the resistance of Malta's military garrison and civilian population to Axis attacks during the war, and colourful ventures in Technicolor with the light-hearted 1949 musical Trottie True (US title, The gay lady) and The black tent (1956), produced by MacQuitty and filmed on location in Libya. A cherished but unfulfilled 1950s project reflecting Hurst's aesthetic tastes was 'The last romantic', on the life of the castle-building Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845–86).
For Simba (1955), a film depicting the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya, the stars (Dirk Bogarde and Virginia McKenna, whose conspicuous lack of sexual chemistry exasperated Hurst and audiences alike) remained safely in England while Hurst was sent to Kenya with a crew to secure location footage (using stand-ins). Hurst antagonised the colonial authorities by comparing their repression of the Mau Mau to the activities of the Black and Tans in Ireland. The finished film emphasises the violence of the Mau Mau, but a covert Irish analogy may be visible in the portrayal of colonial policemen interrogating impassively unresponsive natives and, like the crown forces in Ourselves alone, dashing reactively through a landscape of hidden watchers and signallers.
Hurst's career went into decline from the late 1950s, reflecting his ageing and the displacement of his preferred style by a more naturalist aesthetic; such films as the Terry-Thomas comedy His and hers (1961) and the medical drama Behind the mask (1958) are not highly regarded, though the latter featured the first film appearance of Vanessa Redgrave.
Later Irish films
Hurst returned to Ireland for Hungry Hill (1947), a multi-generational drama, filmed on location in the Beara peninsula of west Cork, about a feud between nineteenth-century landowners operating a copper mine and a peasant family with their own claims to the land. He told interviewers of his desire to develop an Irish film industry, stating that he held options on The demi-gods by James Stephens (qv) (a never-made project in which Hurst and Ford seem to have been particularly interested; Hurst's script survives and is held by his estate), Liam O'Flaherty's Famine, and The shadow of a gunman by Sean O'Casey (qv). Hungry Hill attracted some hostile Irish comment; the pro-Fianna Fáil Irish Press denounced Hurst's previous Irish films as stage-Irish fabrications, and accused him of exploiting the famine for a commercial drama and taking excessive interest in big houses. (While Hurst was indeed fond of Anglo-Irish society, the famine and big house elements were dictated by Daphne du Maurier's original novel, as was the baggy story structure.) The film is noteworthy for supporting performances by Abbey and Gate actors, including F. J. McCormick (qv) and the newcomers Dan O'Herlihy (qv) and Dermot Walsh (1924–2002).
In 1954 Hurst was initially assigned to direct the Rank-distributed film Jacqueline (released 1956), set among east Belfast shipyard workers; it is not clear why he was replaced as director by Roy Baker, but it represents an interesting might-have-been. In 1952–5, Hurst joined Ford, Killanin, Michael Scott (qv), and the actor Tyrone Power (1914–58) to form the Four Provinces production company, which aimed to capitalise on the success of Ford's The quiet man. Its only productions were Ford's portmanteau film The rising of the moon (1957) and Hurst's long-planned adaptation of The playboy of the western world (1962), neither profitable. In 1954 Killanin and Hurst headed an Irish government commission on film-making in Ireland which contributed to the establishment of Ardmore Studios that year.
The playboy was filmed in Inch, Co. Kerry, with Siobhán McKenna (qv) as Pegeen Mike (in 1951 Hurst and Killanin unsuccessfully tried to organise a London staging for her Irish-language production of Shaw's Saint Joan), the newcomer Gary Raymond as Christy Mahon, and a score by Seán Ó Riada (qv). Despite ravishing Technicolor scenery and its status as a record of McKenna's performance, the film does not have a high critical reputation and the leads are seen as mismatched. Hurst continued to seek film work (in 1966 the Indian producer Umesh Malik sought to make a film about Kubla Khan at Ardmore Studios with Hurst as director) but The playboy was his last film.
Last years and subsequent reputation
Hurst's last years were spent in increasingly straitened but still bohemian London circles, working intermittently from the late 1970s on an autobiography and pitching a film project on Herod the Great; these were attempts to keep up his sense of purpose and to keep in touch with old acquaintances in the film world. His 80th birthday was marked by a celebration at the British Film Institute. He died in the Delaware Nursing Home off the Harrow Road in London on 26 September 1986; his ashes were scattered by the son of his older brother Robert on Robert's grave in Belfast City Cemetery.
In the years before and after his death, Hurst's reputation went into eclipse, but from the beginning of the twenty-first century he attracted renewed attention. In 2004, Christopher Robbins, who knew Hurst in the last years of his life, published a memoir, The empress of Ireland (though its selective use of Hurst's unpublished memoir, then held on open access in the BFI Library, attracted some criticism). Hurst's grand-nephew Allan Esler Smith took out letters of administration for Hurst's estate (Hurst died intestate) and promoted Hurst's reputation (notably through an official website and a Youtube channel), and encouraged the re-examination of his work. Several films were released on DVD, including Theirs was the glory, The black tent, Behind the mask, Simba, Trottie True and Malta story). A sixtieth anniversary DVD edition of Scrooge in 2011 included a forty-minute documentary by Smith, The human blarney stone, and on 6 August 2011 RTÉ Radio 1 broadcast Smith's radio documentary An Irishman chained to the truth (title taken from the opening sentence of Hurst's memoir). In April 2011, blue plaques in Hurst's memory were unveiled in Belfast at his birthplace (by the Ulster History Circle) and the Queen's Film Theatre (by the Directors' Guild of Great Britain). In 2012, new sound stages at the Titanic film studios in east Belfast were named after Hurst and MacQuitty.
In a twenty-first century Ireland, north and south, where fluid identities were regarded more favourably than in previous decades and where increasing attention was given to audio-visual culture, Hurst has attracted increasing attention. By the end of 2013 a critical edition of Hurst's memoir (annotated by Pettit and Smith) was under way, and a major Hurst retrospective was planned at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. The ongoing reassessment of his work, though not yet complete, has reaffirmed his significance to Irish cultural history.