The Outsider (1980) is a dark and depressing film about The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the mid-70s. It’s fiction but you could be forgiven if you thought it was a documentary. An American comes to Ireland in order to volunteer to fight with the IRA. He’s naive and ignorant and quickly discovers a complex, shadowy world that doesn’t match his simplistic, foreigner’s view of the conflict.
The movie does a great job of immersing you in a blasted-out urban war zone. The bleak setting magnifies the grim resolve of the characters and you lurch along with them in their grubby, chaotic fight. Neither the Republican nor the Unionist Irish come across as freedom fighters but rather as opportunistic gang-bangers. The enlisted British troops are portrayed sympathetically but their officers are thoroughly cynical. The ordinary citizens caught in the morass are the chief victims. It matters not if they collaborate with one side or the other as everyone is so suspicious of everyone else that you are guilty by association alone. Those who try to stay above the fray find it impossible not to take sides at some point.
The acting overall is very strong and the pace and tension of the (rather weak) story is maintained despite the two-hour length. Unfortunately the lead character (played by Craig Wasson) is unsympathetic. He’s a petty, spoiled whiner who oddly wins over his handlers despite their suspicions of his motives. He’s told by multiple people to “go home” and stay out of a fight he doesn’t have a real stake in but listening is not one of his skills. Perhaps the movie makers wanted to highlight the naivete of Irish-Americans who happily opened their wallets to support Irish “relief” societies that really just funded more guns and bombs for IRA killers.
Both the Irish and their British antagonists seek to manipulate the American for their own propaganda purposes and he eventually realizes he’ll never really be able to fight for the cause he thinks he believes in. He’s motivated, we come to understand, by his disillusionment with his service in Vietnam and by tall tales of rebellion told to him by his Irish immigrant grandfather (a nice cameo from Sterling Hayden). Ultimately our hero gets out of Ireland with the help of a woman he falls for (played by Patricia Quinn) and goes back home to Detroit. Although he’s from a comfortable upper-crust background his cab ride takes him through the ghetto and it’s hard to tell which is worse, the American urban wasteland or the bloodied areas of Belfast. In the end he learns some things he wishes he hadn’t and all he can do is rage helplessly about his lost and shattered illusions.
The occupation of Northern Ireland was a political and military disaster for the UK as well as a long-running humanitarian crisis. The denial of civil liberties and the brutal suppression of dissent practiced by the government at Westminster upon their own citizens and within their own borders is among the most shocking of all the atrocities committed in service of The Crown and The Empire. The Outsider is a stark and unforgiving portrait of that time.