Film Eye: 50 Dead Men Walking

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Reviews, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

Trainspotting meets the Troubles—Jim Sturgess plays IRA informer Martin McGartland.

Trainspotting meets the Troubles—Jim Sturgess plays IRA informer Martin McGartland.

Directed by Kari Skogland
by John Gibney


50 Dead Men Walking is a cinematic depiction of the career of the IRA informer Martin McGartland. The actual details of McGartland’s life and career need not detain us; suffice it to say that his former colleagues in the IRA tried to kill him, thereby vouching for at least some of what McGartland had claimed to have done, and he himself was somewhat unhappy with aspects of the film, which according to a disclaimer was merely ‘inspired’ by his autobiography.
It may also have been inspired by a few other things. 50 Dead Men Walking begins in a manner akin to In the Name of the Father, as ne’er-do-well wide boy McGartland (Jim Sturgess) plies a neat trade in stolen goods under the noses of the British and the IRA. He soon catches the eye of ‘Fergus’ (Ben Kingsley), a hard-boiled RUC Special Branch officer who asks him to become an informer. While he initially declines, McGartland soon ends up in the IRA anyway, and in what seems to be a fit of revulsion at the aftermath of a bombing—the film leaves his motivation unclear—agrees to inform (the title stems from the number of lives he may have saved by doing so). But as he gets deeper into the organisation, the strain of his double life becomes too much, as he becomes an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game, etc., etc.

Ben Kingsley plays ‘Fergus’, a hard-boiled RUC Special Branch officer.

Ben Kingsley plays ‘Fergus’, a hard-boiled RUC Special Branch officer.

Eventually matters come to a head as the British toss him to the IRA in order to protect a more important informer. Will the Provos exact their revenge? Or will the Brits ultimately stand by their man? And that is the story in a nutshell. 50 Dead Men Walking is a fairly undistinguished thriller, the kind of film that one might not object to watching on a wet Tuesday night if it popped up on Channel 4. A classic film about the ‘Troubles’ it most certainly is not. But, sadly, there are aspects of it that indicate that it could have been.
A cynic might suggest that this wouldn’t be hard: there are very, very few decent cinematic representations of the Troubles. This may be a natural consequence of the contentious nature of the subject-matter: 50 Dead Man Walking attracted unfavourable attention when co-star Rose McGowan, who plays an unlikely republican Mata Hari, made comments expressing empathy with the republican struggle (surely actors are supposed to empathise with those they portray?). But it is striking that the best-known and most successful films set against the backdrop of the war in Northern Ireland—In the Name of the Father, The Crying Game and, most recently, Hunger—adopted an inward turn, with a marked emphasis on the personal (highlighted by the common theme of captivity) rather than the overtly political. The politics of the conflict tended not to get a look in elsewhere. For example, films such as High Boot Benny (1994) completely avoided any engagement with political questions and in doing so depicted the conflict in quasi-mystical terms that completely avoided issues of blame, causation or responsibility: by implication, the conflict was essentially depicted as a natural outgrowth of the atavistic inclinations of the natives. Or, as in the case of the lousy Resurrection Man (1998), it could provide the excuse for a pretentious third-rate slasher movie based on the horrific reality of the Shankill Butchers.

McGartland meets his handler.(All images: Handmade Films)

McGartland meets his handler.
(All images: Handmade Films)

But a film about an informer offers a different prospect. The subject-matter is inherently ambiguous, an ambiguity heightened by the steady trickle of revelations and allegations about the collusion of the British state in terrorist activities that it found congenial: 50 Dead Men Walking makes unmistakable reference to the as-yet-unresolved case of Freddie Scappaticci. A relatively sensible (if overly hard-boiled) voiceover by Kingsley sketches out the rudiments of the political context. It is generally well acted, and the individual scenes are well directed by the Canadian Kari Skogland. The film does not shy away from depicting either the viciousness and rough justice of the IRA or the cynicism and brutality of the British: both of these parties to the conflict (Loyalists don’t come into it) are painted in a remarkably ambiguous light. And such depictions hint at an awareness of the complexity of the situation: for example, one scene of random harassment by a British soldier seems to portray the soldier more as a frightened young man than a pantomime villain. It is hard to avoid thinking that within 50 Dead Men Walking there is a complex, nuanced and subtle psychological drama trying to get out.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The film is less than the sum of its parts. Stylistically, it is Trainspotting meets the Troubles. Rapid, jerky editing, a truly appalling soundtrack, and an eventual lurch into dodgy chase movie territory towards the end: are these the kind of things taught in film school these days? Given the release of 50 Dead Men Walking so soon after the far more powerful Hunger, it is worth contrasting their aesthetic qualities: the undeniable impact of Hunger arose from its stark, minimalist style, while the brashness of 50 Dead Men Walking simply serves to overwhelm the tale it purports to tell. In other hands, 50 Dead Men Walking could have been a far more impressive piece of work. It is by no means the worst of its kind. But like the Great American Novel, the definitive cinematic depiction of the ‘Troubles’ remains elusive.  HI

John Gibney is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway.


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