‘Maze escape nothing heroic’ says former warder on film release

A former prison officer who worked on both loyalist and republican wings of the Maze prison before and after the 1983 breakout has said it was “not something heroic” to glamorise in a movie.

A new film about the 38 IRA terrorists who escaped from the high security jail near Lisburn is due for release later this month.

Maze film poster

Maze film poster

Starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Belfast Provo Larry Marley, ‘MAZE’ charts the events leading up to the breakout, and the events of September 25 when guns smuggled into the prison were used to overpower the guards.

Two prison officers were shot and four others stabbed by the escaping inmates – including James Ferris who suffered a fatal heart attack – while a number of other warders were assaulted. Within days, 19 of the 38 escapees were recaptured.

The former officer, who did not wish to be named, said that having viewed the trailer he could not bring himself to watch the film.

“I won’t be going to see it,” he said.

A scene from the new film MAZE

A scene from the new film MAZE

“Every time someone makes a film about the Maze it shows the officers bullying and brutalising prisoners which couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It all feeds in to making a ruthless terrorist organisation look like they were doing something heroic. Many of those who escaped went on to murder more people and some of them were shot dead while trying to murder people. I now know this film doesn’t document any of that which is a shame.”

He said most people don’t realise that the layout of the H-blocks meant that the staff and administration facilities were based in centre section of the ‘H’ – known as the circle – with the prisoners housed in the wings.

“The prisoners were very much in charge of their own wings by the time of the IRA/INLA hunger strikes, and then more concessions were made after 1981 so by the time of the escape in 1983 they had the freedom to plan it all out without any interference from prison staff.

The former officer added: “Unless there were searches planned, which were few and far between, a lot of the time we liaising with the so-called OC (officer commanding) of whatever organisation it was to keep the peace.”

When the movie trailer was first released last month, a group representing victims of terrorism has urged the film industry not to romanticise those who “caused death and destruction”.

Innocent Victims United (IVU) spokesman Kenny Donaldson said he feared the film would aid the republican movement in its “incessant drive to decriminalise its campaign of terrorism”.

Austin Stack, the son of a Dublin prison officer murdered by the IRA, told RTE the film would “essentially glorify the death of a prison officer,” when last year he called on the Irish authorities to prevent it being filmed in the recently decommissioned Cork Prison.

Stephen Burke, MAZE director and writer said: “I began my writing and directing career making short films about characters caught up in the Northern Ireland conflict. MAZE marks a return to this theme for me almost twenty years on.

“The film focuses on a unique time in recent history and we have hopefully reflected the rawness and bitter reality of the 80s through the main actors.”

He added: “In my previous work I’ve used the dual perspective approach to delve deeper into the conflict and this comes through in the interaction between the Larry Marley character and his befriending of the prison warder played by Barry Ward.

“The official inquiry on the breakout referred to this episode as an ingenious and audacious escape and we’ve worked hard to show the personal interaction between all sides which led to that moment.”

Thursday night’s (September 14) premiere at Belfast’s Movie House cinema – in association with the Belfast Film Festival – will include a Q&A session with Stephen Burke, actors Tom Vaughan Lawlor and Barry Ward and producer Brendan Byrne after the screening.

MAZE goes on general release on September 22.

• OPINION

While MAZE is obviously a slick cinematic production, the audience is clearly being invited to sympathise with prisoners portrayed as downtrodden and heroic in the face of adversity.

Although no reference is made to the crimes committed by any of the inmates, the film frequently depicts assaults by prison guards on the IRA inmates.

By contrast, the violence inflicted on the unarmed warders as the prisoners effected their escape is largely glossed over or portrayed as unavoidable.

In one breakout scene a prison officer is shown being stabbed in the side but the imagery is more fleeting, and more subtle, than any of the earlier attacks on prisoners.

Arguably the most crucial element of the prison break was ignored altogether – how the Provos managed to smuggle six handguns into the top security jail.