Bloody Sunday films: Both 'agonizingly faithful'

'BLOODY SUNDAY -- THE MOVIE"

Bloody Sunday films: Both 'agonizingly faithful'

By David Tereshchuk

To mark 30 years since the chilly afternoon when British troops shot civilians dead in the streets of Derry, two films titled, respectively, "Sunday" and "Bloody Sunday," have re-created the event. Both are powerful -- searingly so, in fact -- and in their different ways they do much more than highlight a horrifying abuse of military power.

Liam Daniel for Sunday Productions
A scene from "Sunday": General Robert Ford, commander of land forces in Derry City, stands at barrier 14 with members of the Royal Green Jackets. General Ford is played by Christopher Eccelston.

"Sunday," written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Charles McDougall, announces itself to be a "dramatized reconstruction", while"Bloody Sunday," written and directed by Paul Greengrass, is described in an opening caption as a "dramatization of events." Careful phrasing, to be sure. It's not readily obvious what separates one from the other.

Both films employ actors to portray real people, and they both use the actual locations when they can. When they cannot, they have replicated convincingly the impoverished Catholic enclaves of Derry in 1972. This was necessary since the present-day neighborhood has been totally transformed, mostly by demolition of the area's most salient landmark, the notorious high-rise Rossville Flats, where most of the killings occurred.

The 'Sunday' Experience

NEW YORK -- Nearly 200 people filled NYU's Cantor Film Center in late March to view "Sunday" and pose questions to the film's co-producer, director and Leo Young, a survivor of the march whose brother was shot through the head by a British paratrooper.

Through the 90-minute made-for-TV film, the audience was quiet. At several poignant moments, viewers could be seen wiping their eyes, including this reporter, as when a woman recalled how she and others, all under fire, failed to thwart Barney McGuigan's move to help the wounded Paddy Doherty, who had cried "I don't want to die alone -- somebody help me." A paratrooper shot McGuigan, foiling his mission of mercy.

Above, Leo Young; below, brother John Young, 17 when he was shot to death.

After the film ended, producer Stephen Gargan, director Charles McDougall and the real Leo Young reflected on their intentions.

"The film is very much based on Leo's own story", said Gargan, a Dublin native who moved to Derry. "We felt it was very important to consult the relatives."

Young, 55, a stocky gray-haired affable man, was visiting the United States for the first time to help promote the film. Young's blue eyes welled with tears when talking with reviewer David Tereshchuk about his brother, John, who was slain during the march. [Click here to see a photograph of, left to right, "Sunday" producer Stephen Gargan, David Tereshchuk and Leo Young at the screening. (WGT Photo by Gerry Regan)]

Near the film's conclusion, the actor portraying Leo Young sits in a parlor with a half-dozen other young Derry Catholics, as each is called to take an oath to the Irish Republic, in front of a poster showing Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and others executed by the British after the failed Easter Rising. The camera cuts away before we see if Young actually joined the IRA.

Asked how many of those men portrayed in the scene were still alive, Young said the only individual's fate he knew was that of victim Gerard Donaghey's close friend, who eventually served 15 years in prison. Said Young, who ultimately decided not to join the IRA, "I wasn't man enough to go down that road." -- Gerry Regan

And both films base their narrative and much of their dialogue on well-documented sources (which include material in the public record, such as legal statements and proceedings, now-published government papers from the time, and even radio traffic between military units on the day). As well, the filmmakers themselves conducted many background interviews.

I must qualify my own reactions to the films. I was present for the actual Bloody Sunday protest march and the killings that ended it, as a journalist covering the march for a weekly British TV program. I lay in terror as the shots rang out, eventually more than 108 in 10 minutes. Once the army's firing begins in each film, the wrenching images and soundtrack assail the viewer, and may have achieved a disproportionate effect on me.

That notwithstanding, I can say that each of these films, originally made for British commercial television networks, conveys with conviction the Derry crowd's panic at becoming targets, the deaths inflicted, and the rapidly mounting outrage, shock and ultimately grief. And in doing so, they both accomplish an agonizingly faithful evocation of that terrible day.

McGovern's "Sunday," unlike Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday," offers a short piece of historical context as its opening. Voicing-over some familiar news footage from the late 1960s and early '70s, the actor playing Leo Young, a local man present on the day and older brother to one of the 14 marchers killed, briefly describes Northern Ireland's struggling civil rights movement and the forces that opposed it.

The important place that Leo Young occupies in the structure of "Sunday" presents one difference between the two films. Leo and his family form a core motif to McGovern's effort, one which is entirely in keeping with McGovern's overall concern for the working-class community of Catholic Derry, while Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday" can seem at times more generally emblematic.

Greengrass features strongly, on the civil rights side, the leadership role of the progressive Member of Parliament, Ivan Cooper, who happens to have been a Protestant. In perhaps idealized terms, it is Cooper's busy, deliberately upbeat preparations for the march that we see opening Greengrass' version, intercut with senior army and police officers. It may be the perpetually seductive "great man" theory of history making its presence felt again, as it frequently does in filmmaking. Throughout the McGovern film, however, it is not the movement's leaders, but the reaction of Derry's predominantly poor Catholic population that dominates.

Similarly, both films seek to examine fully the authorities' role (doing it with an inevitable overlay of menace), and both hint darkly at the worst of motives from the highest of sources. However, it is McGovern who is at pains to display, in addition, a different sense of "community" feeling, this one among the lower ranks of the British army. And it is not a pretty sight or sound.

The vicious anti-Irish ethnic abuse in "Sunday," conveyed sometimes in clunky line-readings and sometimes in tumultuous overlapping dialogue between Paratroop squaddies, is so offensive that I felt compelled to ask the filmmakers if they had reliable sources for it. They assured me they did. (I know from my team's interviews in a sergeant's mess the night after the shootings that such hostile "pumped-up" sentiments were rampant among the soldiery, but even so, these scenes' heavy-handedness carried for me the whiff of dramatic overlicense.)

MP and civil rights activist Ivan Cooper, portrayed by James Nesbitt, in a scene from "Bloody Sunday."

Generally speaking, though, the emotional tenor of both films is sure-footed. The grim tableau revealed in the city's Altnagelvin Hospital, as night sets in and the enormity of what has happened fully registers, is heartrending. Here we share the confusion and agony of distraught relatives trying to get news of the missing and the all-too-possibly dead.

Tellingly, in the Greengrass version, it is the arrival of the MP Cooper, as he works as both inquirer and comforter, that holds the scene together. In McGovern's account, by contrast, we have already gotten to know and recognize specific families, and we are hooked into their individual anguish.

But sometimes the generally careful, even restrained, emotional register of both these films made me sense something was lacking. Seeing the graphic enactment of 13 deaths (a 14th man was to die of his wounds much later) was, as you might expect, quite sufficiently devastating. But with one particular death, especially as portrayed in the "Sunday" film, I felt my attention and emotions were insistently focused on the horror of the episode, and yet it still fell short of the grim reality.

Liam Daniel for Sunday Productions
Leo Young, portrayed by actor Ciarán McMenamin, helps carry the coffin bearing the body of his brother, John, slain by the British army.

Through the narrative device of hearing a witness (at the egregiously inadequate official "inquiry" into the event) recount the details of 41-year-old Barney McGuigan's killing, we get -- quite excruciatingly -- to see McGuigan die twice. We learn how he couldn't bear the moans of Paddy Doherty, 31, who lay on open ground, wounded in the back. On hearing Doherty say, "I don't want to die alone -- somebody help me," McGuigan moved from the cover of a wall to help, only to be hit by a bullet himself.

In the film, we see the actor playing McGuigan jerk, twist and fall -- we see this once in "real time" and again through the witness' eyes. But the two scenes still don't tell the full story for me. One witness said in 1972, "The shot hit him, and blew his head up like a tomato exploding." 


Buy This Poster At AllPosters.comBloody Sunday 
Bloody Sunday

And another: "There was a large pool of blood around his head. I have a vivid memory of steam rising from the blood."

Perhaps I should be grateful that the filmmakers showed only as much as they did.

UN media adviser David Tereshchuk, a New York-based TV news and documentary producer, is a WGT consultant and contributing editor.

EDITOR'S NOTE: "Bloody Sunday" is now being shown in selected theaters across the United States. Check the distribution schedule to locate a time and a place to view the film near you. It has been released on DVD in Region 2 (Europe, Middle East & Japan only). Jimmy McGovern's "Sunday," made for television, is looking for a United States network deal.


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