THE BALLAD OF DAN DONNELLY
Format: Feature Film
Historical / Biography / Fantasy / Drama / Boxing
The life and legend of Dan Donnelly, the Irish prize fighter who helped restore the pride of a nation crushed by defeat.
"AS TRUE A STORY AS EVER YOU DID HEAR..."
On the windswept plains of the Curragh, not far from Dublin, an old stone monument stands defiantly opposite the largest British Military camp in Ireland. It is 1915, a turbulent time for the Irish. A bitter storm is brewing. The strains of lively music lead us to a small nearby pub. Inside a group of people are taking shelter, an American tourist and several young Irish army recruits about to depart for the frontlines of World War One
The landlord is hanging a display case on the wall, to the surprise of his guests, the display case contains a mummified arm. The landlord boasts that the arm is a national treasure that’s travelled the width and breadth of Ireland and has finally come home. He goes on to explain that it once belonged to Sir Dan Donnelly, the great prize-fighter who became Ireland’s first heavyweight champion, almost a hundred years ago this very night.
Just then the front door blows open, stirring an old man from his slumber and causing one of the regulars to exclaim out loud, that the owner of the arm has returned. But the old man calmly suggests that the landlord pull their latest guest a drink.
He explains that Dan loved two things in life, a pint of the landlord’s finest and a good story. Now that he has everyone’s attention, he bids the guests to come closer and begins to tell the story of “Buffing Dan”, the “King of the Curragh”, whose mighty right arm, once shook the world…
In the wake of a failed, bloody rebellion, Ireland in the early 1800's is a defeated nation living under English rule. Poverty and crime are rife. Two rival gangs, the Liberty Boys and the Ormond Boys are waging war on the streets of Dublin and it is on these mean streets, that a young, mild mannered and gentle natured Dan Donnelly, learns his first tough lessons in the art of self-defence.
One night as he tries to protect a young woman from three burley sailors he is left badly beaten. When he is taken to a doctor, his parents are initially told that his right arm is so badly mangled, that it will have to be amputated. But at the behest of his mother, the doctor agrees to and try fix the broken bones.
As he lies in bed recovering, his father tells him the story of Nuada of The Silver Arm – the ancient king who after losing an arm in battle had a new one fashioned from silver. It made him stronger than before. Inspired, Dan looks down at his arm and slowly, painfully curls his fingers into a fist…
Thirteen years later, in a private Gentlemen’s Club, in London. Captain William Kelly, an Irish aristocratic sports mad, race-horse trainer, takes exception to the boasts of an English boxer by the name of Tom Hall a proponent of the new scientific approach to the sport, claiming there are no better boxers than the English and pouring scorn on the courage of the Irish.
Kelly resolves to find a fighting Irishman to prove the English boxer wrong. His search takes him to the slums of Dublin, where he hears stories of a young man named Donnelly who is earning a reputation as a skilled street brawler with a deadly right arm.
But, as Kelly will soon find out, as gifted a brawler as Dan is, he proclaims himself a “man of peace”, for whom fighting is always something to avoid if possible. In truth, he is a man who seeks only to indulge in his two vices, drinking and chasing women, recklessly spending what little money he earns as a carpenter’s apprentice in doing so. Fate has other ideas for Dan Donnelly however, and he is provoked into fighting the self-appointed boxing Champion of Dublin who is jealous of Dan’s reputation as a brawler.
Amongst the large crowd that gather to watch this match is Kelly, and after witnessing Dan beat his opponent, he is convinced beyond doubt that he has found his man. However, he has a hard time convincing Dan. It is only when Kelly mentions the good money to be earned by fighters in the prize ring that Dan finally agrees.
Dan moves into a cottage owned by Kelly, converted into a training camp to begin preparations in earnest, under the guidance of a “Captain Barclay” – one of the foremost boxing trainers of his day. But getting Dan to take his training seriously proves to be a frustrating process for Barclay, as Dan, who shows little enthusiasm for his training, repeatedly sneaks out to indulge in drinking sprees in the local taverns.
After a few weeks of forced training, Kelly, impatient to prove his point and hearing that Tom Hall is touring Ireland, makes the decision that Dan is ready to be tested in the ring, despite Barclay’s misgivings.
The two fighters meet at the Curragh, in a place called Belcher's Hollow, a natural amphitheatre regularly used for big prize fights. A crowd of about 20,000 have come to watch. To the surprise of Barclay and the English spectators, it is Dan who finally emerges as the bloodied victor. The crowd go wild and Dan is proclaimed Champion of Ireland and a conquering hero.
It is Dan’s intention however to turn his back on fighting for good and to use his prize money to make a new life for himself and finally settle down with his childhood sweetheart, Rebecca.
However, Dan, swept up in the nationwide excitement of his victory, splashes out his winnings on an week long drinking binge. On the last night of this binge, he is approached by American prize-fighter, Tom Molineaux, who proclaims himself the “True World Champion” and demands Dan fight him for the title. But Molineaux, an ex-slave who won his freedom in the ring, is no longer the champ he was, but a broken man, drunk, reeking of cheap whiskey. When Dan turns him down, he is enraged and swings for him, only to lose balance and fall over. The discovery of Molineaux’s identity, is a sobering moment for Dan and finally puts an end to the celebrations. When he wakes up the following morning, it is to the realisation that he is now broke.
Meanwhile, when news of Hall’s defeat reaches London, the British prize fighting patrons are red faced and determined to put the Irish back in their place. They decide to send their best fighter, the reigning English champion, the formidable George Cooper, to Ireland, to issue a challenge to Dan.
Dan, having spent all his prize money, has no choice but to agree to the match. But as preparations begin, he has a surprise ally in his corner, Tom Molineaux, the man who fought his way to freedom has an axe to grind with the English.
As all of Ireland once again gets swept up in the excitement of the upcoming match between England and Ireland, it soon becomes apparent to both Dan and Captain Kelly that this is no longer just fight for the title of World Heavyweight Champion, it is a symbol of the fight for Ireland’s freedom. And all of the country, it seems, has united behind him.
And so, in the Autumn 1815, while Ireland is at its weakest and England having won a recent victory at Waterloo, has never seemed stronger, the reluctant brawler Dan Donnelly and the British champion George Cooper meet to do battle at the Curragh, in front of a crowd of over 30,000 spectators…
This is the story of the rise and fall of one of Ireland's greatest folk heroes and of the arm that gave the most powerful nation on earth a bloodied nose, and restored hope to a defeated nation.
VISUAL REFERENCE / MOOD BOARD
HOW WE'LL BRING OLD DUBLIN TO LIFE
To create the look and feel of late 18th - early 19th century Dublin and Ireland, we’ll be sourcing historic locations, potentially utilizing open air museums and employing techniques such as miniatures and digital matte paintings.
Matte painting techniques are something we very familiar with, having utilized these techniques on every film we have worked on. Above a scene from UNLIMITED
Below examples of our previous work with matte shots and miniatures.
The Irish have a long tradition reaching back thousands of years of recording their stories in song. Dan’s own deeds are remembered in a ballad and so it seems fitting to use this medium creatively to help tell our story.
Irish music is unique, we want to reflect that musical culture in the soundscape of the film by mixing a contemporary score with traditional / rebel songs. Our intentions are to work closely with Irish musicians, to create something that sounds authentic to the story.
One idea we’d like to explore is to use the popular ballad “Danny Boy”, for the obvious association with the name of our hero. Although the lyrics were written in 1913, the tune belongs to the much older "Londonderry Air", which was almost certainly known at the time Dan was alive.
Also, in 1915 -the year our story opens, Ernestine Schumann-Heink produced the first recording of "Danny Boy".
Below is an example of an orchestral version by legendary Hollywood composer John Williams:
The above example really encapsulates the classic Hollywood epic sound we want in the music score.