War of the Buttons
directed by John Roberts
(Warner Brothers, 1994)

In the center of the bridge over the river which separates the Irish villages of Carrickdowse and Ballydowse is a white line that few young people dare cross. That's because the youths of the two towns spend most of their time trying to one-up the other, whether it's over the sale of hospital raffle tickets or something more important, such as deciding who's a "tosspot" and who isn't, or, for that matter, defining what a tosspot is.

This War of the Buttons has been going on as long as any of the youths can remember, and, as far as they're concerned, it's "to the death," though rarely does either group hurt more than its pride.

The story itself is an old one. It comes from a 1912 French novel by Louis Pergaud, filmed in France in '61. This time, however, it gets a new location and a new set of faces, all of whom are fun to watch.

The leader of Ballys is a not-too-promising student named Fergus (Gregg Fitzgerald), who lives with his mother and an abusive man who claims not to be his father in a trailer on the edge of Ballydowse.

What Fergus lacks in book-learnin', however, he more than makes up for in leadership. The youth of Ballydowse will follow him anywhere, especially a young lass named Marie (Eveanna Ryan), who narrates Buttons in those rare instances in which it needs a bit of explanation.

But the Carricks have a leader, too: Jerome, a.k.a. Geronimo (John Coffey), son of a well-off Carrickdowse couple and no faint heart when the battle cry is sounded.

Geronimo gives as good as he gets, and more, which leads to invariable escalation on both sides, from a simple dangling of a defiant foot soldier over a bridge to an all-out, all-nude assault by the Ballys in the great traditions of the warring Irish clans.

If this sounds very silly, it is. And if it sounds a bit dangerous, it's that, too.

And so are melded the two crosscurrents of John Roberts' 1994 film, which was filmed in western rural Ireland and would be worth seeing if only for the look of the landscape. Roberts careens from high drama to high comedy and back so many times it seems for much of the film as if the two threads are running side by side, both huffing and puffing to keep up.

Part of the fascination is simply watching two gangs of youths who have more ingenuity than Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner put together. Part is the impossible task of seeing just how each side is going to attempt to top the attack that came before.

And part is watching fun performances by some talented fresh faces, as well as lesser bits by old hands like Dublin-born Colm Meaney, who's probably best known for his work in The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. When it comes to playing the clueless parent, few can top Meaney. And Buttons gives him lots to be clueless about.

Sadly, however, Buttons fulfills only a part of the promise of its opening premise. As the battles escalate to the point where escalation is no longer an option, Roberts changes course and attempts to make Buttons into a film about the two leaders rather than the War they've engendered.

His effort isn't aided by an unsatisfying ending that seems tacked-on at best.

Still, War of the Buttons is a beautifully made, well-acted, carefully scripted and sometimes very funny movie that tells us much about ourselves and our penchant for making war out of less than nothing. And if it's not quite perfect, it'll do very nicely until film comes along that is.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 14 December 2001

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