Documentary maker David Mullen writes about this weekend’s RTÉ Documentary on One, Return to Shark Island.
The Shining, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter- they're all well known as cinematic masterpieces, and yet are also famed for their creators' complete disregard for the lives and well-being of the cast and crew. Last year the controversy over actress Maria Schneider's abuse on the set of Last Tango in Paris re-emerged, which reignited the question as to where the line between the pursuit of art and basic human decency should be drawn.
There's a little known Irish story nestled away in the newspaper archives in the National Library, in the folk memory of Achill Island and in the hearts of the families whose lives were torn apart by it.
On these films, the filmmakers' recklessness, arrogance and bravado led to, in the case of The Shining, the bullying and breakdown of Shelley Duvall, in Apocalypse Now a heart-attack on the part of Martin Sheen - and then there was a very near-miss which came close to killing Robert De Niro and a large part of the crew on The Deer Hunter.
Listen to Documentary on One - Return to Shark Island here.
At best, this overstepping of the decency/art line can lead to a mere nervous collapse or serious injury, but at worst this kind of recklessness can have fatal results. But you don't have to look as far as such on-set tragedies as the ones that occurred on the sets of The Twilight Zone and The Crow. There's a little known Irish story nestled away in the newspaper archives in the National Library, in the folk memory of Achill Island and in the hearts of the families whose lives were torn apart by it.
This weekend's Documentary on One - Return to Shark Island (RTÉ Radio 1 Saturday 2pm, repeated Sunday 7.00pm) is the story of how, in 1951, while shooting what might now be called a docu-drama off the coast of Achill Island, a heady combination of unpredictable seas and a struggle of swashbuckling male-egos led to the deaths of all but two of the crew of the film Shark Island. Hugh Falkus, an actor and writer, was a walking Boy's Own adventure- a six foot three wildfowler, Spitfire pilot, POW camp escapee and serial womaniser. When he met Charles Osborne, the daredevil Donegal fisherman hunting for sharks off Achill Island, the bad kind of sparks flew. Though friends, it seems that Falkus' sheer presence drove Osborne to try to prove himself his equal by taking extreme and unnecessary risks and, being one of the film's stars as well as the art director, forcing the crew into dangerous situations.
One of the actors in the film was Claire Mullan, who recalls the danger that Falkus and Osborne seemed to place them all in: "Charles Osborne was very reckless. He would do things like climb up cliffs and expect us to do the same and be too close to the cliff edge and the water and the rocks in the water when we were filming. I was frightened of the whole business."
Claire was 20 at the time, and Shark Island was her first film. It came close to being her last. By a seemingly supernatural stroke of luck, she missed the filming boat on the day of the accident. While they were filming at the treacherous rocks which local fishermen avoided, a twenty-five foot wave struck the boat, leaving the crew of Falkus, Osborne, director Sam Lee, cameraman Bill Brendon and Diana Falkus - Hugh's newlywed wife and screenwriter - fighting for their lives in the water. In another act that cements Falkus' hero credentials, he swam over a mile to shore to get help, almost killing himself in the process. By the time the local fishing fleet scrambled to the rescue, all the victims had perished.
Claire Mullen is my aunt, and 66 years after the accident we return to Achill Island and remember the accident and the people. The accident has stayed with Claire for the 66 years that have passed since Shark Island was filmed.
Can the blame for this accident be placed squarely at Charles Osborne's feet as many people have done - including many locals in Achill, Hugh Falkus' biographer Chris Newton and Claire Mullan? It's not as simple as that. Yes, Osborne, the skipper of the boat, was a fisherman in Achill and, as such, should have known of the dangers of the Daisy Rocks. If he had gone to the Daisy Rocks in the full knowledge of their danger, then he could certainly be called reckless. But then again, it's hard not to believe that Hugh Falkus and Sam Lee did not, at the very least, second the decision to shoot around the rocks. We also need to look at the culture in Achill at the time. Fishermen back then wore tweed jackets, not lifejackets. Most refused to learn how to swim as it would only prolong an inevitable death in the cold, rough Atlantic, should an accident happen. One local source, Sorcha Daly, recalled how her father Joe Sweeney, the well known Achill merchant, used to traverse the rocky, bumpy back roads over towards Keem Bay with a jeep full of dynamite. Health and safety was not something that was well-considered back then.
At best, this overstepping of the decency/art line can lead to a mere nervous collapse or serious injury, but at worst this kind of recklessness can have fatal results.
On the other hand, several people, including Falkus, praised Osborne after the accident for carrying empty oil drums and tractor tyres in his boat to aid with buoyancy in the event of an accident, so he actually deserves some credit in that regard.
One can endlessly debate the causes of the Shark Island disaster and lay blame at specific pairs of feet, but the fact remains that like in most accidents, the 'Swiss cheese factor' came into play. A culture of danger and risk; a game of bravado and ego; an enormous wave- all these things, these holes in the 'Swiss cheese' model, momentarily aligned a produce a tragedy of broken families and a trauma which to this day can never be quite left behind.
Sixty-six years on, pointing fingers is futile. It's the remembering that's important.
Documentary On One: Return to Shark Island, Saturday September 30th @ 2pm, RTÉ Radio 1, with a repeat on Sunday September 24th @ 7pm. Listen to more from Documentary On One here.