’71 is fiction, but the Northern Ireland it shows is very real

Though it seems inspired by the Falls Curfew of 1970, the story at the heart of director Yann Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke’s tense thriller ’71available on DVD and Blu-ray from 9 March 2015 – is fictional, but through this fictionalised lens we get one of the most starkly truthful depictions of The Troubles committed to film.

’71 follows Derby lad Gary Hook (played by Unbroken and This Is England actor Jack O’Connell), a squaddie and single dad who finds himself posted to Belfast to provide support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He’s expecting to go to Germany as part of the BAOR, but as his commanding officer points out (and as he parrots to his forlorn son before making his farewell), this new posting is “not abroad.”

“It looks like Leeds,” opines one of his comrades as their truck rolls down the street, but this familiarity conceals an altogether more unwelcoming landscape. It’s a contrast that rears its head throughout the film, whether waiting with a barely touched pint in a loyalist pub or dumbly revealing to a young Catholic girl in a fortress-like housing estate that there’s animosity between Derby and Nottingham as if the implied symmetry simply hadn’t occurred to him.

From the outset, Gary and his colleagues are out of their depth and his commanding officer’s (played by The Railway Man‘s Sam Reid) cheery insistence on leaving without riot gear before they’re promptly pelted with faeces by snarling school-age street kids is representative of the British Army’s tragic optimism when it arrived in Northern Ireland in 1969, under the aegis of Operation Banner.

British soldiers on the Shakhill Road in 1970.
British soldiers on the Shakhill Road in 1970.

Depicted as wilfully cruel and openly sectarian, the foreboding begins the second that the sneering RUC arrive in their armoured cars, batons in hand and helmets strapped tightly on, juxtaposed against the naively vulnerable canvas-topped truck of the British Army.

The story kicks off in earnest when their first operation in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the Falls Road turns into a fully fledged riot as bricks are slung, punches are thrown and shots are fired in panic.

During the escalation Gary and another private are separated in the press, their rifles snatched and his mate shot at point blank range. Breaking free, Gary starts running and what follows is a claustrophobic dash through the terrace-lined streets of Belfast, dark save the orange splash of Molotov cocktails and dull street lights.

Though the structure owes far more to the desperate chase thrillers of John Carpenter and Walter Hill than typical brow-furrowing Troubles dramas like The Outsider, In The Name of The Father or Bloody Sunday, it disembowels the complex political landscape of 1970s Belfast and lays its hate-soiled guts out for all to see as Gary finds duplicitous allies and savage enemies with every turn of a corner.

While viewers bringing baggage of their own will no doubt see a bias, the world of ’71 is one where labyrinthine loyalties, hidden agendas and malignant ideologies make victims of all, irrespective of the badges on their sleeve.

Jack O'Connell as Gary Hook.
Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook.

Chief among them are ill-prepared squaddies like Gary Hook (asked if he’s Catholic or Protestant, he admits “I don’t know”), children born into a cycle of hatred like the fascinatingly foul-mouthed young Loyalist who offers to take Gary back to his barracks, and world-weary Good Samaritans like the Republican father and daughter who mistakenly tend to his wounds, stitching themselves into the violence as they do.

There’s conflict between the cautious old guard of the Official IRA and the feral young Provos who immediately – and violently – differ in their motives for pursuing Gary. The third – and most chilling – faction in this trifecta of terror are the shadowy Military Reaction Force. Active from 1970 to 1973 and held responsible for collusion and extra-judicial killings, they dominate the screen from their first appearance – sizing up Gary and his fellow recruits like predators following the herd from its watering hole, the machinations of the MRF runs through almost every encounter in the film and they’re not the lifeline they first appear to be.

Gary Hook begins the film with a gun in his hand, but from the second it’s snatched from his grasp and he begins to pound the pavement breathlessly, the expected arc never materialises. He doesn’t snap and finally take the fight to his pursuers, First Blood-style – he runs to live and he only fights in order to keep running.

’71 may be far more eventful than any one night could possibly be but this nail-biting yarn is stitched together from stark realities and the end result is as truthful as film-making artifice can possibly get.

’71 is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 9 March 2015. For more on counterinsurgency in the 20th Century, pick up the new issue of History of War or subscribe now and save 30% off the cover price.