Moving portrayal of the Bloody Sunday massacre

Issue 

Bloody Sunday
Written and directed by Paul Greengrass
With James Nesbitt, Declan Duddy, Tim Pigott-Smith, Mike Edmonds and Nicholas Farrell
Showing at Palace Academy Twin and Norton Street Cinemas, Sydney; Nova and Rivoli Cinemas, Melbourne; and the Luna Cinema, Perth

REVIEW BY NICK EVERETT
& KIM BULLIMORE

Bloody Sunday tells the story of the January 30, 1972, civil rights march in the Northern Ireland town of Derry.

Thirteen marchers were killed and 14 more were wounded when British troops opened fire. Bloody Sunday became a turning point in modern Irish history as the peaceful, reform-oriented civil rights movement gave way to a bitter armed conflict.

The film is based on testimonies of soldiers and marchers which were published in Don Mullan's book, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday. Mullan's book was instrumental in bringing about the 1998 Saville Inquiry which reopened the investigation into the role of the British army in the events of Bloody Sunday (see <http://www.bloody-sunday-inquiry.org.uk>).

Bloody Sunday is a chilling, documentary-style drama that follows events of the day, from the arrival of thousands of British troops on the streets of besieged Derry to the violent collision between the crack Parachute Regiment (the Paras) and the demonstrators.

The film follows closely the activities of the protesters and the British soldiers and police. On the protesters' side, it focuses on the idealistic civil rights leader and newly elected Derry Labour MP, Ivan Cooper (played by James Nesbitt), and 17-year-old Gerry Donaghy, a boy from the Bogside just released from six months in jail for throwing stones. Donaghy, one of those killed on the day, is played by Declan Duddy, a final year high school student in Derry, whose uncle, Jackie Duddy, was the first to die on Bloody Sunday.

On the British side, the film revolves around Brigadier Patrick MacLellan (Nicholas Farrell), the commander of 8 Brigade who was obliged by his superior, Major-General Ford, Commander Land Forces Northern Ireland, to use the occasion to underline the British army's control over the region. Farrell gives a powerful performance that conveys the confusion and lack of control felt by MacLellan.

The fourth character chosen by writer-director Paul Greengrass to tell the story of Bloody Sunday is a young member of the anti-tank platoon that opened fire on the peaceful protesters. The account provided by this soldier, later known simply as "soldier 27", is the one which most closely matched that given by protesters. Twenty-five years later, he was forced to enter the British government's witness protection program when he became a key witness in the Saville Inquiry. Mike Edmonds, a former British soldier, gives a strong performance of the soldier torn between loyalty to his friends and being repulsed by their actions.

On January 30, 1972, there were up to 20,000 marchers and 3000 army personnel on the streets of Derry. To recreate the feeling of the day, most of the British troops portrayed in the film are played by ex-military personnel, many of whom had served in Northern Ireland.

Similarly, the civil rights marchers are played by thousands of Derry residents, who responded to a call to re-enact the march. Many had been participants in the 1972 march or were relatives of the 27 people shot on the day.

The civil rights march was organised to protest the newly introduced policy of mass internment without trial, which targeted not only members of the provisional IRA but also trade unionists and civil rights activists. The protesters were to march through Derry to the Guild Hall, the seat of local (Protestant) political power, for a meeting. But the Unionist government in Belfast, the British army and the British government were all determined to stop the march.

General Ford ordered MacLellan to come up with a plan involving members of the first battalion of the Paras. The Paras were based in Belfast and had never been on the streets of Derry before. A target of 500 arrests was set.

Derry had been the birthplace of the civil rights movement in 1968, which began as a movement to demand an end to anti-Catholic bias in the electoral, penal and housing systems in the six counties of Ireland ruled by Britain via a Protestant-dominated parliament at Stormont. A gerrymander ensured that the predominantly Catholic Bogside area was "represented" by a Protestant parliamentary majority.

In August 1969, the Catholic people of Derry and Belfast came under attack from militant Protestant bigots, including members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), who attempted to burn them out of their homes.

The Citizens Defence Committee in Derry succeeded in driving the RUC out of the Bogside, fighting back with petrol bombs and other home-made weapons. The Provisional IRA was born out of this conflict, reviving a legacy of armed struggle that had been waged previously against the British subjugation and the partition of Ireland.

Following the "Battle of Bogside", the British government sent troops to Northern Ireland ostensibly to protect the Catholics. The Catholic population, however, soon became the target of the army's curfews and bans on street marches. In 1971, the British government, under the influence of Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, introduced internment under the Special Powers Act.

Greengrass succeeds in presenting a devastatingly realistic portrayal of the events that took place. Using hand-held digital cameras, Greengrass switches back and forth between the British and Irish perspectives and manages to take the audience to the heart of the chaos that day. Greengrass slowly builds the tension in the film, following the stressed volunteers and organisers as they try ensure the rally goes ahead peacefully.

At the same time, Greengrass conveys the mood building in the soldiers' ranks as they "psyche" themselves up for the confrontation.

The film reaches its climax when a group of protesters breaks away from the march, towards the army barricades. MacLellan authorises soldiers to fire water cannon, rubber bullets and CS gas; Colonel Wilford, commander of the Paras, instructs his troops to return fire if fired upon. Amid the mounting chaos, shots are heard, and it escalates into a bloodbath.

Ivan Cooper described the scene, "I remember at one point
we could hear the bulk of shots, which I thought were the firing of rubber bullets. But I remember Bernadette [Devlin] saying to me 'It's lead, Coops, it's lead'. That was the first time I actually saw the lead skipping. It reminded me of skipping stones on the river. You don't realise that this lead is designed to kill people."

At a press conference on the evening of January 30, Cooper tells journalists: "[The British government has] destroyed the civil rights movement and given the IRA its greatest victory. All across this city tonight young boys will be queuing up to join the IRA."

In the first inquiry commissioned by the British government after the massacre, headed by Lord Widgery, all British military personnel were found innocent of any wrongdoing. Many of the officers who took part in the atrocities were later decorated by the Queen.

Bloody Sunday is a vivid and moving expose of one of the bloodiest days in the modern history of the Britain's occupation of Northern Ireland. It is a powerful testament to the people of Derry, who, three decades later, still continue to campaign for justice.

From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.