Surviving War and Conflict

Yann Demange’s debut feature film ’71 explores the universal confusion and anguish of war and civil conflict through its central character: a disorientated British soldier.

We now live in a world where atrocities occurring thousands of miles away are reported to us in a matter of minutes and many people in the UK have opinions on the current political struggles in places such as Ukraine, Israel and Iraq. The (still relatively recent) turmoil much closer to home, in Northern Ireland, however, has become less prominent in the public consciousness since Republican and Loyalist tensions were appeased by the Good Friday Agreement of 1999. Depending on where you live, peace is often taken for granted but, for many people who lived in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, terrorism and violence were very much part of everyday life.

The debut feature film from London-based director Yann Demange (whose television credits include Top Boy, Dead Set and Secret Diary of a Call Girl) with a screenplay by Scottish writer Gregory Burke, submerges the audience within the epicentre of the conflict in the particularly difficult year of 1971. Telling the story through the eyes of a new recruit to the Derbyshire regiment, Private Gary Hook, the protagonist, is clueless about the situation around him, making the revelation of the terror and tension of life in a country at war with itself all the more shocking, sudden and tragic.

When Gary and his regiment arrive in Belfast, the city seems familiar because of its typical houses, but with burned-out cars littering the streets, riots a nightly occurrence, and hostile curses around every corner. The troops are given a very basic explanation of a city they do not know or understand. When the regiment is mobilised to assist with a police raid on a suspected Republican bomber’s household, a riot quickly starts and Gary finds himself and another private separated from the other soldiers. When his companion is shot at point blank range by Republicans, Gary begins a terrifying flight from warring Republican forces that sees him seeking solace and escape from both Loyalist and Republican civilians through a night of unprecedented tension as he desperately tries to find his way back to his barracks.

The initial idea for the film came from producer Angus Lamont of Crab Apple films and the screenwriter Burke (who is best known for the play created from interviews with soldiers in Iraq, Black Watch). Lamont approached Burke with the concept of creating a film set in Belfast in the early 1970s and Burke was attracted to the idea, inspired by the recent release of Apocalypse  : “It’s a really good, simple template of a guy having to return home through a hostile land.” The script resonated with Demange. He says: “I had never had a huge burning desire to tell a story about Northern Ireland in that particular time period, but it was an incredible and remarkable piece of writing. It was muscular, visceral and utterly engaging.” Additionally for Burke, the idea appealed because of his Scottish roots and his memories of the Troubles, which echoed through his home city’s own sectarian tensions: “Coming from Glasgow, I felt the issues were quite close; the Troubles were a major thing as we were growing up and have been throughout our lives.”

From the very start of the film Gary’s sense of disorientation in this new world is palpable. As an Englishman with a thick Derbyshire accent in military uniform, it is impossible not to draw attention to himself, and yet he has no way of deciphering the signals of who may be friendly and who may be hostile. The situation is worsened by in-fighting between the established Republican faction and the Provisional Republican faction and the murky indistinctions that exist between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the Republicans.

Burke highlights that Gary’s Englishness was essential to his disorientation: “He can’t distinguish anyone from anybody else: everybody sounds the same, everybody looks the same. If you’re not tuned in to those signifiers of sectarianism, you’re not going to know what’s going on.” Burke acknowledges: “We could have made him Scottish, but a Scottish soldier would have been completely tuned in to what was going on. We have Loyalists in Scotland, we have Orange marches, and all that stuff goes on there.”

As Gary hides and flees, the tension throughout the film increases and at times difficult to bear. ’71 portrays a stunning realism that makes witnessing the struggles of both the soldier and the civilians very difficult at times. ’71 is affecting and very upsetting; the trauma that the young soldiers undergo is stark and undoubtedly horrific. Gary’s struggle brings the realities of war home precisely because this all happened “at home” within a familiar British landscape (much of the film was shot in Blackburn, Liverpool and Sheffield). The simultaneous familiarity and foreignness of Belfast adds a whole new element to the story. Throughout the film, Demange’s direction and Jack O’Connell’s lead performance grip the audience. The dialogue is minimal, and at times Gary is almost crippled by his accent, not wanting to give himself away inadvertently to hostile forces merely by opening his mouth.

Burke and Demange took different approaches to their research. Burke says: “I had the basic premise and didn’t want to get too much into the politics.” While Burke remembered several anecdotes and stories relating to the conflict, Demange actively began visiting Belfast, where he “met with both sides – active Republicans and active Loyalists” and also with “families of victims” and was immediately struck by the “shades of grey” surrounding the conflict and those caught up in it. He says: “I’m not a polemicist, we demonised and humanised in equal measure. I was struck and surprised at just how young many of the key players were in that era. They were 21-year-olds and younger, very similar ages to the lads in the British army, just boys.”

Despite very little back story being presented for the main character and minimal dialogue, Gary’s story is a universally appealing duck-out-of-water scenario, while the historical distance which now separates us from the Northern Irish conflict serves to emphasise the universal nature of the story. This aspect particularly appealed to Demange, who says: “The idea of young men sent to fight dirty wars struck me as pertinent. Often, they have more in common with the kids they’re pitted against than the men they’re taking orders from.” For Burke, as with the writing process for Black Watch, this was an important motivator in notgetting too involved with the political specifics: “I didn’t do a massive amount of research when I wrote Black Watch, which was based in Iraq. You never want it to be about the actual people because it’s all still quite raw for them.” One element added by Demange was a minor insight into Gary’s background and the life that he left behind on joining the army. While Burke’s screenplay initially had Gary as “nobody,” Demange wanted a background for the protagonist and “something for him to come back to.”

Brought up in a children’s home, with just one younger brother to call family (and to look forward to visiting on his return), Gary is a person without roots or history, a not entirely unusual background for a young recruit. Burke recalls: “There’s a scene in Black Watch where they are all opening their mail and one soldier said to me, ‘you know what you got wrong there, you never show the guy who doesn’t get mail. There always is one and you give him your mail to read, so he feels like he’s got some.’” Gary’s rootless childhood emphasises the cruelty of war. As Demange says: “I saw the opportunity to explore the vulnerable masculinity of an anchorless boy, with no family, looking for a tribe to belong to and ultimately finding it in the army, only to be betrayed.”

This is the major point of ’71 – the blurred moral compass that inevitably becomes a part of war and conflict. All sides (in all aspects and factions) are shown to be deeply flawed and Gary is a sole innocent caught up in the madness. Burke explains that during the screenwriting process he was thinking about Homer’s Odyssey: “The streets and houses that Gary ends up in are the islands of the Odyssey and he doesn’t know what he will find there.”

As a result, ’71 is an incredibly moving film that shows the overwhelming confusion of conflict that young troops experience and the insane and surreal familiarity of a war taking place very much close to home. ’71 opens in cinemas across the UK on 10 October.

Ruby Beesley