Bloody Sunday – Art 2/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 4/5
Hunger – Art 4/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 5/5
Fifty Dead Men Walking – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 3/5
In a special St. Patrick’s Day wrap-up, I’ll be taking a quick look at three films dealing with The Troubles, a series of clashes in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland starting some time in the late ’60s and ending with the brokered Belfast Agreement in the late ’90s that included assassinations, terrorist incidents, marches, bombings, beatings, shootings and many other varied methods of ethno-religious intercourse. I’ll briefly set aside my typical shtick of irrationally hating on Catholics to take as objective a look as possible at the cultural significance of three films based on real events.
Bloody Sunday is a cinema verite-style docudrama by Paul Greengrass (he being the sustaining force behind the superior 2nd and 3rd installments in the Bourne trilogy) of the infamous incident where a baker’s dozen of unarmed marchers for Civil Rights were killed by nervous British soldiers in Northern Ireland, ostensibly to keep the peace. Hunger is set about a decade later, and is a visually evocative gut-punch by Steve McQueen (no relation to the other Steve McQueen) starring Michael Fassbender, the same duo behind last year’s brilliant film Shame about sexual compulsion. Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army member in prison for charges of terrorism who starved himself to death in protest. Fifty Dead Men Walking, starring Jim Sturgess as Martin McGartland, an informant within the PIRA, and Ben Kingsley as his British handler, is a raw and realist picture showing the meat grinder of discord in Northern Ireland, whose divide was a gap you cannot cross twice.
From the time of the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, the Protestants of Ulster (the province that encompasses Northern Ireland) traded in the Medieval Pale for the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, that granted Hosni Mubarak-like unholy writ to engage in any emergency action in the name of defense of their state power, stemming the tide of the Catholic rabble who constituted less of the share than them in Northern Ireland but significantly more of a share as part of mostly-Catholic Ireland proper. While things settled significantly by the 1960s, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, Ulster Protestants got a wild hair up their ass with the Catholic commotion, and formed the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group meant to counter the perceived threat of the IRA. Within time, fights over property, housing, equality turned from peaceful civil protest into violent terrorist action. As mentioned by Bobby Sands in Hunger, this is when his family faced Protestant intimidation and violence to leave their home. In real life, Sands was also forced by Protestants at gunpoint to leave his job. That would make any man radical.
Bloody Sunday depicts in close Aristotelian symmetry the day of a planned 1972 march by Minister of Parliament Ivan Cooper, one of the leaders of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. In the weeks and months prior, the IRA had been killing British soldiers, which gave them an itchy trigger finger while their mission was still focused on keeping the peace in as disinterested a fashion as possible. Initially, the British were trusted by the Catholics as a more trustworthy alternative to the bigoted Irish Protestant police. As soon as war fatigue overcame the soldiers-cum-state policemen, in a panic they fired into a crowd of Catholic protesters at the march, thus exacerbating The Troubles like a tinderbox aflame. As Cooper says, the terrorists of the IRA had never been given a greater victory. Direct rule of Northern Ireland from London was here to stay, and peace was given its chance.
By the early ’80s, the IRA’s “Armalite and ballot box” strategy of fighting the British and Protestants with both the hard power of the favored AR-18 assault rifle smuggled from America and through the soft power of political influence had, if nothing else, at least forced the point that the Catholic minority was to be feared. Many people affiliated with the IRA, even some loosely affiliated, were rounded up and detained. One PIRA member, Bobby Sands, was a participant in the second hunger strike that was in protest of their abject conditions and the suspension of their recognition as soldiers in war – now instead being legally processed as murderers and terrorists. I think everyone understands the emotion of history is in the sails of anybody who opposes the Brits, as Liam Cunningham says (playing the priest of Bobby Sands, used as a narrative device for exposition of Sands’ political beliefs), everybody knows the British have been fucking things up around the world for centuries. But given that the ends of the IRA was an unjustifiable socialist state of coercion, oppression and uniformity, the means can’t be justified either. I have a hard time finding any sympathy for Bobby Sands as an historic figure whatsoever, but I still find respect for his willingness to die for a cause and etch out of oppression a meaningful existence. Michael Fassbender has to be one of the greatest actors alive today, and this film only confirmed that assumption as he left me even more conflicted in my summary opinion of Sands afterwards.
Speaking to his priest, Sands explains in fiery rhetoric how he’s been pushed to the brink by the Ulster Protestant Unionists and the British since the days of his youth, and he has nothing left to live for, save for the cause. He speaks as if he were in the Old Testament, and had only God to reckon with. Following the death of Bobby Sands, Margaret Thatcher and the British government silently gave in to demands that slowly set the Troubles in the direction of a peace agreement, without caving in on the bigger principle of the rule of law. Gerry Adams, the head of the leftist political party Sinn Féin, famously called the IRA “freedom fighters”, which makes me think of the George Carlin joke: “if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” We’re quickly reminded in Fifty Dead Men Walking, a film based on the autobiography of Martin McGartland, a common Catholic criminal snatched by the Brits and led into informing on the IRA. This depiction of them is not terribly glowing, to say the least: they torture, they murder, they’re in league with Moammar Qaddafi, they appoint themselves judge jury and executioner of their neighborhoods, they terrorize civilians for their ethnicity and little more. But McGartland, who titled his book after the 50 men whose lives he supposedly saved by informing, is as inadequate of a sympathetic figure as Bobby Sands is. His loyalty, his honor, his purpose were all comparable to that of an amoeba. He turned coat if for any other reason than a way out of hell.
The story of Northern Ireland is one of complex relations between state and society, Catholic and Protestant, republican and unionist. There were very few heroes. Those who performed heroic and altruistic actions were drowned out by the fanning flames of hatred going back hundreds of years. The significant leaders on either side were not up to the task of brokering any settlement where people could live freely. Curiously enough, the two greatest things for the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and especially Northern Ireland were Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms, and both Ireland and the UK joining the European Union, which led to dramatic economic improvement for the first time in Ireland. Just prior to the fiscal crisis, British tourists were whining about how Ireland is no longer as romantically poverty-stricken and rustic anymore. Funny how, when you soak people with capitalism, liberty of economic choice, and the opportunity of trade, all of these pathetic squabbles disappear. People alienated from their pastoral cultures no longer have those to fight over. Perhaps new ones, but those are to be dealt with in the future.
The first draft of the song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” by U2 had lyrics that the band immediately deemed too dangerous for their safety. They feared constantly having to look under their car for bombs (as characters in the above films constantly do), if they had gone ahead with the original lyrics, which could have variously offended the IRA or any one of the many Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups. So they dialed back the invective, and yet the lyrics spoke from a universal disgust with the avoidable, unnecessary conflict. The flamboyantly bi-polar Sinéad O’Connor considered U2 too “bombastic” and supported the actions of the IRA. Most of the time, I’m in Sinéad’s bald-headed corner. But on this one, I think it’s obvious who’s in the right. Just look at the lyrics and try to disagree: