12 November, 2008
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
Don’t let the twinkle in his eyes or the lilt in his Irish accent fool you….. Irish director Mark Mahon is indeed a man on a mission, at least when it comes to his feature film directing debut, the boxing drama STRENGTH AND HONOUR. The film, which screened last weekend to an enthusiastic audience response at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, is a redemptive story about the emotional and professional comeback of a wounded fighter, in many ways a parallel to Mahon’s own dramatic story.
A native of Cork City, Ireland, Mahon started out as a singer/songwriter. At the age of 18, he was accepted into the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art where he trained as an actor of both contemporary works and the classics. At the age of 22, Mark was severely injured in an accident and spent several months in a hospital during a slow and painful recovery. Confined to a wheelchair for over three years, he turned his love of acting to writing film screenplays.
In the past few years, he has not only completed five scripts and one novel, but also set up his production company Maron Pictures with offices in Ireland and Los Angeles. In 2005, his unproduced screenplay FREEDOM WITHIN THE HEART won the Best Unproduced Screenplay Award at the International Action on Film Ceremony in Los Angeles. Even more daunting for a young man left with a permanent disability, he made the bold move this past year of writing, producing and directing the ambitious STRENGTH AND HONOUR, his feature helming debut.
STRENGTH AND HONOUR tells the story of an Irish-American boxer (played with great sensitivity and the right physical dimension by American actor Michael Madsen) who promises he will never fight again when he accidentally kills his friend in the ring while sparring. The film then cuts to seven years later, when he discovers that his only son is dying of the same hereditary heart disorder that claimed the life of his loving wife. Determined to raise the money for the boy’s operation in the only way he knows how, he sets out to train for the bone-crushing, bare-knuckles street fight known as The Pump, against some of the most physically imposing and violence-prone heavies seen on the screen in a long time. Chief among these is Vinnie Jones as the intimidating and near-psychotic “Smasher”, whose nickname aptly describes the man’s violent temperament and no-holds-barred style of fighting.
As important as the boxing match that offers the film its final climatic crescendo is the delicate handling of the Madsen character’s inner pain and the depiction of the hardscrabble lives of the itinerant Irish gypsies known as “travelers” who provide the film with its particular setting and its deep-seated emotional core. Irish actors Patrick Bergin and Gail Fitzpatrick bring a lived-in quality as the male and female leaders of this unique community that prizes loyalty above all else.
What is most impressive about STRENGTH AND HONOUR, is not only Mahon’s sensitive direction of the small-scale scenes between Madsen and his son or among the gypsy “travelers”, but his deft handling of complex crowd panoramas involving dozens of extras. “I worked by storyboarding the entire film so that we could work within our limited budget and yet shoot a sprawling film with many characters and extras”, Mahon shared with me in an interview earlier this week. “I really wanted the film to honor the authenticity of its characters and the environments in which they lived to make their stories feel very real for the audience.”
Mahon approached the Irish Film Fund about financing, but was rejected. "The project was deemed too American because it had an American actor in the lead and also prominently featured American actor Richard Chamberlain in a key supporting role. It was really silly because the rest of the cast is solidly Irish or English and the crew was entirely Irish, we shot on location in Ireland and did our post-production work in Dublin and London. The film is entirely financed with private monies, making it quite unusual for an Irish movie."
STRENGTH AND HONOR was completed in late 2007 and has since blazed a successful trail at North American and international film festivals, winning Best Feature prizes at the Boston, New York Independent and Mount Shasta film festivals, with Madsen picking up Best Actor honors at the Boston Film Festival. Mahon himself has been praised with Best Director prizes and nominations at the International Action On Film Festival and the Irish Film & Television Academy. The film had its international premiere at the Shanghai Film Festival and will also compete at next month’s Cairo Film Festival. Mahon picked up another Best Director honor on Sunday night in Fort Lauderdale. The film has also screened at the Strasbourg and Cambridge Film Festivals in Europe, and has opened theatrically in Ireland via Eclipse Pictures.
“It’s been an amazing experience so far”, Mahon expressed. “People have really responded to the film in ways that I could never even imagine and I feel proud to show what someone who has had his own share of personal challenges can do when given the chance.” For more information on the film and writer/director Mark Mahon, log on to the website: http://www.strengthandhonorthemovie.com/