David Puttnam’s tale of an Irish childhood – adapted by Colin Welland from a Louis Pergaud novel filmed by Yves Robert in 1962 – is no romantic vision of rosy-cheeked innocence.
Set in the 1950s, it’s an energetic and entertaining movie about young boys from the two small Irish towns of Ballydowse and Carrickdowse – located on either side of a coastal inlet – who form small armies and battle against each other for supremacy.
Each side throws up a charismatic leader, with the less affluent Ballys rallying to the loner Fergus (Gregg Fitzgerald) and the posher Carricks to Geronimo (John Coffey), and there is as much personal pride as local pride involved, especially with girls watching.
The talk is dirty, and the fighting is worse as the gangs try to eliminate each other to become the fiercest in the neighbourhood. The winners cut off their enemies’ school ties, shoelaces and the buttons on their shirts (hence the title) as a token of victory.
The cast of unknown young Irish actors clearly had a great time making what was, for most of them, their first film. The young teenagers were picked by Puttnam from all over Ireland and appear to have had a ball doing in front of the camera what they’d never dare do in front of their parents.
The film was shot in 1993 in County Cork around Skibbereen, with Castletownsend and Union Hall roughly representing the two towns, while the mock medieval showdown is set in an imposing gothic ruin overlooking Rosscarbery Bay.
Release of War of the Buttons was delayed for a few weeks following a court injunction by the parents of one of the child extras, who objected to him appearing briefly with a naked bottom in a hilarious skirmish in which the Ballys get the better of the Carricks by confronting them without clothes. Three seconds of footage was removed without spoiling the scene.
Fat Pat’s Dad