Director Hurst’s wartime movie told of welcome here for US troops
It was the one and only time Belfast-born movie-maker Brian Desmond Hurst filmed in his native city.
To coincide with the arrival of American troops in Northern Ireland on January 26, 1942, to prepare to enter battle in North Africa and across Europe, the east Belfast man was commissioned to make a documentary on their stay.
Though mainly a war documentary on behalf of the Ministry of Information, A Letter from Ulster also had a tourism slant, promoting different places around Northern Ireland as seen through the eyes of a couple of troops.
And Hurst’s young protégé who wrote the script for the film, Terence Young, went on to become a leading light in the film industry, directing three James Bond films, including the first two films in the series, Dr No and From Russia with Love, as well as Thunderball.
Hurst’s nephew Allan Esler Smith, the administrator of his estate, has compiled a book with his daughter Caitlin, Hurst on Film, and is campaigning to have a permanent exhibition in the city to honour the director, whose movies include Scrooge and Theirs is the Glory.
Ahead of the 80th anniversary of the US troops disembarking at Belfast’s Dufferin Quay, Smith spoke about the significance of a Letter from Ulster and the special place it holds in Hurst’s substantial body of work.
“A Letter from Ulster was the only film where Hurst returned to film in Belfast where he was born, educated and left to fight with the Royal Irish Rifles in the First World War,” said Smith.
“When the American soldiers arrived in Northern Ireland during the Second World War, German spies in Dublin spread rumours that the troops were beating up local men and stealing their girlfriends.
“The Ministry of Information commissioned Hurst to make a documentary promoting a sense of community.
“The basis of the documentary was following two soldiers around the place as they gathered up material to write letters home. The documentary, A Letter from Ulster, was mainly about the war but also contained some tourist information.”
The script for the documentary was written by a young Irish man and friend of Hurst’s, Terence Young.
He later went on to become a famous director, working on the Audrey Hepburn thrillers Wait Until Dark and Bloodline and the Charles Bronson films Cold Sweat and Red Sun as well as the James Bond trilogy.
The assistant director of A Letter from Ulster was William MacQuitty, who later produced the Titanic film A Night to Remember and who helped set up UTV.
“The point of the documentary was to show that the American troops and the locals were getting on fine,” said Smith, who has remastered the documentary.
“The soldiers visited St Mary’s Church in Belfast, Carrickfergus Castle, Strabane, Derry and Cultra and wrote home about their experiences.”
The footage also shows them straying across the border towards Glaslough but being turned back, at their barracks at Tynan Abbey and undertaking tank and artillery exercises across Northern Ireland.
In 2012, retired General John W Vessey, who was based in Northern Ireland in 1942, recalled the Sperrins as “an excellent training ground”, which prepared them for “the battles that lay ahead in North Africa and especially in the Italian mountains”.
Ahead of a 70th anniversary screening of A Letter from Ulster 10 years ago, the retired general wrote of his love for Omagh, where he was posted.
“I loved that town and the friendship and warmth extended to us was outstanding — it was a home from home,” he said.
“I send my thanks to Northern Ireland for the hospitality you extended to me and my 300,000 fellow countrymen during the Second World War.
“I hope that watching A Letter from Ulster will give you an insight into the welcome we received, the training we undertook and some of our R&R.
“I have been fortunate in my military career and seen many places throughout the world. I can say without hesitation that I have never been treated better as a soldier anywhere in the world than in Omagh.”
A Letter from Ulster can be viewed on YouTube