International best selling novelist “Jack Higgins” (author of thrillers such as PAY THE DEVIL, SHEBA, EXOCET and STORM WARNING) ... doesn’t exists. He’s one of the many pseudonyms of UK-based writer Harry Patterson. Born in 1929 in Newcastle upon Tyne in Great Britain, Patterson would spend a considerable part of his formative childhood years living amongst the political and religious troubles of Belfast, Ireland. He’d serve in the British Army (including time on the East German border during the Cold War of the 1950s), then return to England to study sociology, teach, then begin writing novels in 1959 - mostly disposable he-man pulp thrillers penned under the names “James Graham”, “Hugh Marlowe” and even “Martin Fallon”. As a former British soldier raised in Ireland, his predilection for “viewing both sides of the Troubles” found ventilation in a number of thrillers written as “Higgins” in the early 1970s, among them THE SAVAGE DAY (1972) and A PRAYER FOR THE DYING (1973) - where his “Martin Fallon” nom de guerre would take narrative center stage. These eventually would lead to his international breakthrough best seller THE EAGLE HAS LANDED in 1975.
play THE EAGLE HAS LANDED - "Main Title" (L. Schifrin)
THE EAGLE HAS LANDED (1975 - novel / 1976 - film)
A whale of a fanciful WWII adventure tale, EAGLE is a multi-character thriller featuring (amongst historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler) a fictional German war hero, “Kurt Steiner”- assigned the undercover task of kidnapping Prime Minister Churchill from a quiet English country town, and an exiled IRA operative named “Liam Devlin” who assists him.
*note - We promise we’ll return to A PRAYER FOR THE DYING momentarily, but this minor detour into “EAGLE-land" is essential to an understanding/appreciaton of Higgins' British/Irish thematics.
A tenuous “unholy alliance” did in actuality exists between certain factions of the IRA and Germany’s “Abwehr” (intelligence gathering agency) during WWII, and Higgins doesn’t shy away from the fact. He makes it clear however the “partnership” was mostly a failed fiasco for Germany because they mistook the IRA as “militant mad bombers” rather than recognized them as a military machine with a fixed purpose. This is exemplified in a scene from EAGLE the novel wherein Devlin is brought to Col. Max Radl (designer of the Churchill kidnap plot) and an offer to assist Germany is made:
Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin (1976)
“Strange, Mr. Devlin, you obviously resent us and I had presumed it was the English you hated.”
“The English?” Devlin laughed. “Sure and they’re just like your mother-in-law. Something you put up with. No, I don’t hate the English - it’s the bloody British Empire I hate.”
“So, you wish to see Ireland free?”
“Yes.” Devlin helped himself to another of the Russian cigarettes.
“Then would you accept that from your point of view the best way of achieving that aim would be for Germany to win this war?”
“And pigs might fly one of these days,” Devlin told him, “but I doubt it.”
Michael Caine as EAGLE leader Kurt Steiner
The worldwide success of THE EAGLE HAS LANDED (as well as the 1976 film version starring Michael Caine as Steiner, Robert Duvall as Radl, and Donald Sutherland as Devlin) would allow Higgins the luxury of creating not one but two very popular recurring Irish characters - EAGLE’s Liam Devlin, then later the popular Sean Dillon, to function as his none-too-subtle mouthpiece alter/egos commenting on the increasingly ironic nature of the conflict/relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. After EAGLE, Devlin returned in TOUCH THE DEVIL (1982 - where he’s kidnapped by British Intelligence and forced to hunt down a KGB assassin), CONFESSIONAL (1985 - where he goes after a Russian hit man taking out both Mi:6 and IRA targets), and the long awaited sequel novel THE EAGLE HAS FLOWN (1991 - wherein Devlin undertakes the rescue of his “Churchill Kidnapping” co-conspirator from THE EAGLE HAS LANDED - Kurt Steiner, who’s now imprisoned in England; Devlin unaware the whole time that it’s all a British Intel plot to capture him!).
After having sent Devlin on his fair share of assignments, Sean Dillon (who began as Devlin’s protégé) would take center stage in EYE OF THE STORM (aka MIDNIGHT MAN - 1992). In EYE Dillon is a straight-ahead former IRA soldier turned assassin for hire in the classic DAY OF THE JACKAL mode. He’s done jobs for the PLO, Israelis, Red Brigade, and KGB; and in EYE OF THE STORM is hired by a group of Iraqis to bomb the British Prime Minster’s estate at 10 Downing Street. The operation fails, then in the next novel THUNDER POINT (1993) Dillon is offered a chance by an emissary of the Prime Minister to have his record expunged if he’ll work for the Crown. Hence as a man with an IRA past who would come to work with “the Prime Minister’s Private army” (to date in nineteen novels including A DEVIL IS WAITING - 2012) Dillon became the perfect “bridge” character to examine and address both sides of the “Northern Ireland question”.
All of the Devlin/Dillon novels are thrilling old school pulp adventures in the cliffhanger serial mode of Alistair MacLean’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and WHERE EAGLES DARE. Higgins even acknowledges his indebtedness to MacLean. And for this reason (their huge entertainment value) they were able to bluntly address the Troubles while cinematic depictions such as CAL and HENNESSY were, during the same era, relegated to obscurity. With Higgins-mania at it‘s zenith in the mid 1980s, English producer Peter Snell felt the time was right to re-introduce to the world one of Higgins’ earlier tales cut from the similar cloth of socio-political themes combined with old style thriller. It would be an adaptation of one of the authors’s more personal works - 1973’s A PRAYER FOR THE DYING: the one where the main character bore Higgins’ alter-ego writing pseudonym “Martin Fallon”.
play "The New World" (J. Horner)
Producer Peter Snell
Born and educated in Canada, Peter Snell eventually moved to England to pursue his lifelong career love - the movie business. After producing a number of popular films including SOME MAY LIVE (1967), SUBTERFUGE (1968), and a pair of Charlton Heston Shakespeare adaptations - JULIUS CAESAR (1969) and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (1972), he was appointed Head of Production, then Managing Director of British Lion, one of the U.K.’s oldest and most respected production companies with classics such as Sir Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN (1949) to it’s credit. Under Snell’s tenure British Lion would give the world the legendary cult classics DON’T LOOK NOW from iconic director Nicholas Roeg, as well as Robert Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN - both in 1973. When British Lion was sold to EMI for the value of it’s film library, Snell returned to the role of independent producer on (interestingly enough) HENNESSY; the Alistair MacLean arctic adventure BEAR ISLAND, and MOTHER LODE starring and directed by Snell’s frequent collaborator Charlton Heston. It was during this phase he shepherded the (what would become) “troubled production depicting the Troubles” - A PRAYER FOR THE DYING.
Rourke as Fallon
First to sign onto PRAYER was Mickey Rourke in the lead as Fallon. Beginning his big screen career with smaller roles in films such as Steven Spielberg’s 1941 and Lawrence Kasdan’s BODY HEAT, the early 1980s catapulted Rourke to international star status with critically acclaimed performances in hits such as DINER, RUMBLE FISH, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, YEAR OF THE DRAGON, 9 ½ WEEKS, ANGEL HEART and BARFLY. In fact at the time his worldwide box office popularity was at such an apex, for A PRAYER OF DYING he was paid £1 million “play or pay”. Snell rounded out his impressive trio of leads with the additions of Bob Hoskins (THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, BRAZIL, MONA LISA) as Father Da Costa, and the legendary Alan Bates (GEORGY GIRL, ZORBA THE GREEK, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN) in a change of pace as East End mob boss Jack Meehan. Cast in pertinent supporting roles were up and comers Sammi Davis (HOPE AND GLORY) as Da Costa’s blind niece Anna, with whom Fallon begins to fall in love; Allison Doody (A VIEW TO A KILL, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE) as IRA operative Siobahn; and Liam Neeson (EXCALIBER, THE BOUNTY, THE MISSION) as Docherty, Fallon’s best friend and former IRA comrade sent to London to bring Fallon home or execute him.
Hodges and Rourke on set - 1986
Originally attached as director was Franc Roddam (QUADROPHENIA - 1979, THE BRIDE - 1985, K2 - 1991), who eventually parted with Snell during pre-production over the eponymous “creative differences”. Mike Hodges then stepped in. Known for an eclectic slate of films including the 1972 comedy thriller PULP, 1974’s Michael Crichton adaptation THE TERMINAL MAN, and the cult hit FLASH GORDON (1980), Hodges’ most lauded film at the time was the original 1971 Michael Caine mob enforcer actioner GET CARTER. With only five weeks of prep time before filming was to commence, Hodges took the gamble as he was an admirer of Rourke’s talents. What he didn’t know at the time was that Rourke had also gone to bat for him. “What the producers didn’t tell me were all the conditions of the contract with Mickey”, Hodges stated in a2010 interview, “He had approval on director – thankfully Nic Roeg (who had directed DON’T LOOK NOW for Snell - ed.) (also) had put a good word in for me”. Principal photography commenced on September 22, 1986 and ran through November of the same year.
Ever the method performer perfectionist, Rourke threw himself headlong into the Fallon character. First up was perfecting the Northern Irish accent. At the time of the film’s release more than a few American critics found fault with Rourke’s linguistic endeavors, Leonard Maltin for one calling it “dubious”. But to more discerning ears recognizing the vast difference between the more cinematically popular Southern Irish brogue, it was spot on; this due to the dialect couching of former University of Ulster Linguistics lecturer Brendan Gunn. Gunn’s work with Rourke on PRAYER was impressive enough to launch a career where he’d in time become one of the most sought after dialect couches in the business with films like MOLL FLANDERS, MICHAEL COLLINS, THE JACKAL, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE DEVIL’S OWN, SNATCH, THE ILLUSTIONIST and ALBERT NOBBS among his many credits. On Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 B.C., Gunn would even create a number of prehistoric languages specifically for the film. Gunn was impressed with Rourke’s dedication, as was director Hodges.
Rourke also wanted an actual IRA tattoo on his left forearm, a bit of “method” leading to a pair of (for lack of a better term) “sticky situations”. First - while on the streets of Belfast one warm day, Rourke removed his shirt, and a local guide informed him he’d best put it back on lest he risk offending local residents. For they were on Shankill Road, home to some of the most violent UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) bombings in Belfast’s history, as well as being ground zero for an infamous series of late-night kidnappings, tortures and throat slashings throughout the 1970s and 80s of numerous Catholic (and Protestant) civilians by the extremist “Shankill Butchers”. Secondly - as Hodges recalled concerning the tattoo, “We suggested he have a harmless transfer but Mickey insisted on the real thing. (and) Sadly it went septic”. The infection proved to be harbinger of things to come.
UVF mural: Shankill Road
FALL FROM GRACE
Hodges’ and Rourke’s original intent was for the film to unfold in a non-linear, almost “stream of consciousness” manner akin to John Boorman’s POINT BLANK (1967 - a stylistic precursor of sorts to Hodges’ GET CARTER) and Sergio Leone’s original cut of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984). But apparently Snell and the film’s American distributor - The Samuel Goldwyn Company, felt this approach slackened the film’s dramatic thrust, as they insisted on a re-edit with which Hodges was none-too- pleased. In a 2006 e-mail interview the director cited the contrast in narrative approaches:
“The whole feeling was different. There were “flash backs” to the (film’s opening school bus) killing…and a flash-forward to the collapse of the cross after the bomb goes off (as premonition) when he (Fallon) first walks into the church. The crap about the priest being ex-SAS was minimal in my version. But, more seriously, the pacing of my film was destroyed, and the sound track decimated”.
Hodges’ editorial approach was in some respects more faithful to the execution of the narrative structure of Higgin’s original novel - itself (and novels in general) being more “internal” and reflective of the main character’s perception of events surrounding him. As such it was fashioned and intended more as an independent film whereas the Snell/Goldwyn version would become more “immediate“, “brisk” and “external”, befitting a project with more commercial aspirations.
Samuel Goldwyn Jr.
American distribution for A PRAYER FOR THE DYING was handled by The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Founded by Sam Goldwyn Jr. (son of legendary MGM studio icon - the original Sam Goldwyn), The Goldwyn Company began as the distributor of international “art house” productions.
But with the securing of rights to films produced by his late father (GUYS AND DOLLS, SOUTH PACIFIC, OKLAHOMA and the MGM TV series FLIPPER among them) the junior Goldwyn’s fledgling studio quickly became a “major” independent at the same time Snell’s United Lion in England was doing the same. During the mid 1980s Goldwyn’s company even branched into original productions with films such as the family oriented THE GOLDEN SEAL (1983) and animated THE CARE BEARS MOVIE (1985). As such both Goldwyn and Snell were desirous of a larger international release platform for A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, and they felt a more linear narrative structure was the direction in which to proceed.