Daphne Du Maurier’s 1943 historical novel Hungry Hill covers a period of 100 years (1820 to 1920) in the lives of five generations of two feuding Irish families. Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1947 film adaptation narrows the scope of the story to three generations and a roughly 50-year timespan, but it’s still a lot to take in over the course of just 100 minutes. If you’re a fan of romantic yet gloomy historical melodramas, Hungry Hill is a filling dish. And if you’re not, Hungry Hill might leave you feeling stuffed and queasy.
Margaret Lockwood gets top billing (and the most time onscreen) as Fanny Rosa, a beautiful and headstrong young woman who marries into the wealthy Brodrick family, who live in a castle called “Clonmere” in County Cork. The patriarch of the clan, John Brodrick (Cecil Parker), has several children, John (Dennis Price), Henry (Michael Denison), and Jane (Jean Simmons). (Honestly, there are a lot of characters in Hungry Hill, and he might have had more children than those three, but they’re the only ones I was able to get a handle on.)
The patriarch of the Donovan clan, old Morty Donovan (Arthur Sinclair), violently objects to John Brodrick’s plans to mine for copper in Hungry Hill, and curses Brodrick and his entire family. (Hungry Hill is located in the beautiful Caha Mountains, which I’ve hiked, so I was disappointed that there wasn’t more location footage — most of the film takes place in drafty old rooms and the bowels of the Brodrick copper mine.)
While the copper mine ends up providing plenty of employment for the Donovan clan and other roustabouts, tensions are always simmering. A labor riot leads to the death of one young man, and a visit of reconciliation leads to a deadly typhoid infection.
Hungry Hill follows a familiar three-generation rise-and-fall story arc. By the time Margaret Lockwood’s hair is brushed through with gray and her face is lined with age makeup, it should come as no surprise to anyone that her handsome son, Johnnie Brodrick (Dermot Walsh), is drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, loving and leaving the ladies, and frittering away his family’s fortune. The scenes between Johnnie and his mother are well-played and affecting, but by that point in the movie I was starting to lose interest in the dismal goings-on.
One thing I can recommend unequivocally is the casting, which is excellent. Not only does Hungry Hill feature the cream of the crop of up-and-coming British actors, but the Brodrick men really do all look like members of the same family, and the Donovans resemble one another, too. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, since it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all straight.
Hurst himself clearly didn’t hold this film in the highest regard. In a letter to John Ford dated April 9, 1951, in which he sang the praises of Siobhan McKenna, who played Kate Donovan in Hungry Hill (Ford was interested in casting her in his film The Quiet Man), Hurst wrote, “There must be a copy of a rather indifferent film I made of Daphne du Maurier’s even more indifferent story ‘Hungry Hill.’ You could get hold of this through Eagle-Lion, but don’t inflict the whole of the picture on yourself. Just see about the last four reels, because she doesn’t come in till then.”