“Northern Ireland, 1981. 2,187 people have been killed in ‘the Troubles’ since 1969. The British Government has withdrawn the political status of all paramilitary prisoners. Irish Republicans in the Maze Prison are on a ‘blanket’ and ‘no wash’ protest.”
– Opening contextual title cards from Hunger (2008)
Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) is about hunger of many kinds. It’s about the literal hunger that its main character, Bobby Sands, faces as he protests for civil rights. It concerns the hunger that the British seem to feel to hold violent dominion over their weaker opponents. However, it is also about the almost feral hunger one feels for freedom, independence and basic human dignity. Such is a hunger experienced by all the Irish Republicans incarcerated at the Maze (a.k.a. Long Kesh) prison. It is this hunger which drives them to an astonishing willingness to use their bodies as weapons, torturing themselves in order to force their opponents to compromise.
This is, ostensibly, a film in three acts. First, we are introduced to Maze prison guard Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham) via a meticulous morning routine, which includes soaking his bloodied knuckles in warm water and checking under his car for bombs before departing for work. We then are introduced to a new Maze prison inmate, Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), who arrives to discover his cell covered in feces, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. The culprit is his cellmate, Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), with whom he gradually forms a camaraderie whilst enduring brutal, vicious beatings day in and day out at the hands of the prison guards. Finally, almost two thirds of the way through the film, we meet Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds, 300 and Eden Lake). His prison stay includes a visit from his parents, ripping pages out of the Bible for the purposes of smoking them as a cigarette, loud and violent outbursts, even more vicious beatings, violently administered haircuts, facial shavings and brutal scrub-downs with a large brush. The final third of the film concerns Bobby Sands’ leadership of the hunger strike which would result in his death.
The film, a stark, vivid, realistic and occasionally even painful portrait of human indignity the likes of which has rarely been seen in modern cinema, becomes seemingly exhausted by its own horrors late in the film. At this point, it takes a lengthy sojourn to an entirely different type of scene, which in a sense prefigures the culmination of the final act. The 23-minute scene, emblematized by a roughly 17-minute-long take framed in a two-shot, concerns Bobby Sands calling Father Moran (Liam Cunningham of The Wind That Shakes the Barley) to the visitation room at Maze Prison for a key conversation. Bobby has decided to begin a hunger strike on the first of March, and pledges to succeed where the previous year’s hunger strike “failed.” Sands is convinced that this course of action is right and just, and should lead to the achievement of his goal, putting pressure on the British Government to grant he and his fellow prisoners Political Status. Father Moran, however, believes that this is pure and simple suicide – to what purpose?
It is this very debate that is, in a way, at the heart of this film. It is not so much the conflict between Sands and the Irish Republicans and the British that takes the film’s focus. Rather, the debate is about whether Sands’ actions are “right or wrong” and will have any effect. What is the value of sacrificing yourself in a seemingly futile attempt to get through all the hatred and violence which divides you from your enemy? What is hypnotic about the film is the way in which the screenplay, by Turner Prize-winning artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen and Irish playwright Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs), and the acting by Fassbender and Cunningham in this scene in particular, make both sides comprehendible and even sympathetic, yet leave the audience to decide amongst themselves which side they believe in.
While it is admirable that Sands and his brethren commit so fully to a cause that they are willing to torture themselves to make a point and, hopefully, change the way things are for future generations, it is nevertheless difficult to reconcile this willingness with the fact that Margaret Thatcher and the rest of the British Government seem utterly unwilling to waver and incapable of granting the slightest concession to the Irish Republicans, nor do they seem the slightest bit receptive to the hunger strikers’ intended effect. Consider the reaction of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the first hunger strike in October 1980:
“If those people continue with their hunger strike, it will have no effect whatsoever. It will just take their own lives, for which I will be profoundly sorry, because I think it’s a ridiculous thing to do (“Northern Ireland: The Hunger Strike in H-Block”).”
The British Government has no intention of indulging in what they seem to see as emotional blackmail on the part of the Irish Republican hunger strikers. Would their actions then be “suicide” for no reason? Certainly, Father Moran seems to believe wholeheartedly that these actions will result in nothing but more senseless death. Bobby, however, sees this strike as his only remaining endgame, calling the negotiation with the British a “lark” and a “sideshow.”
One aspect of the failed negotiation process which Bobby makes reference to in this scene concerns the prison’s attempts to make him and his comrades wear “civilian-type clothes” – arguably de facto uniforms – despite the fact that they were “promised” their own clothing, a bait-and-switch which he calls “childish skullduggery.” He goes on to rant about having to negotiate with “lying, reneging monkeys” like the Governor, whom he calls a “moron” and about whose appointment to such a position he expresses anger and disbelief at: “It’s a bloody insult to humanity.”
Inevitably, the long-standing conflict between the Northern Irish Republicans and the British had, at this point, become such a massive, seething cesspool of resentment, hatred and violence that negotiation was essentially out of the question. The prisoners’ desire for political status had been ignored by the British, and they’d had enough. Bobby’s unwavering belief that he and his people are at least entitled to their own clothes – which they were promised, after all – is not an unreasonable one, however ridiculous and petty it may sound at first. When one is fighting for a cause, and dignities are being stripped away at every turn, sometimes clinging to the little things trumps picking your battles. Feeling burned and betrayed by the British, Sands and company no longer trust the negotiation process, and who can blame them?
When Moran then asks “What makes this strike different from the last time,” Bobby admits why the previous strike was “flawed,” saying, “It became emotional. Seven men started at the same time. They all got weak, and they couldn’t let the weakest one die, which left us susceptible to being conned by the Brits – and that’s exactly what we were, conned.” He adds that 75 men have volunteered to take part in the strike, and Moran says that what makes this protest different, then, would seem to be that Bobby is “set to die.” Bobby says, “If that’s what it takes.”
At this point, Moran begins to argue against the effectiveness Sands believes his actions will have, using many tactics in order to try to get Sands to relent. First, he takes an almost sarcastic approach to Bobby’s plan, seemingly trying to make him see how ridiculous it sounds. He asks “How many deaths are you expecting? Maybe 5 or 6? But sure, there’s 75 of you.” “It won’t come to that,” Bobby responds. “Oh sure, maybe the Brits will buckle after 20 or so, but why should you care ‘cause you’re already dead, right?” says Moran. Sands is resilient, however, insisting that the brutality, humiliation and taking away of basic human rights needs to stop.
Certainly that aspect of Sands’ argument is exceedingly sound. However, Moran has a point as well which cannot be ignored. How many deaths does it take to get one’s point through the thick skulls of their opponents? Fifty? A hundred? More? The notion that more death will shock the conscience of an opponent seemingly so numb to not only their own violence but also the terrible actions of their enemies is patently absurd. Why would the British suddenly trade in their own long-held convictions just because a group of seriously committed men attempt to force their hand through what they see as a sad, desperate and ultimately pointless act?
Perhaps attempting to detect another motive, Father Moran also suggests that perhaps Bobby is seeking martyrdom. I’m not sure this is the case, and Sands insists that it isn’t. If martyrdom was a sort of incidental outcome of the hunger strike for Bobby, that would be one thing. I don’t, however, believe that is his goal. Rather it’s as if, having exhausted all other avenues and becoming more convinced than ever of the monstrosity of the British, Bobby simply wants to underline their atrocities for the whole world to see – as long as the world pays attention.
However, in response to Bobby’s desire to “expose British intransigence,” as he puts it, Moran says rather bluntly, “So fuckin’ what. The whole world knows what the British are like. (…) And it’s nothing to do with you. The British have been fuckin’ up things for centuries.” Here, Moran shows his Northern Irish colors, as it were, exposing his own hatred for Sands’ mortal enemies, which Bobby calls him on. This strikes me as yet another tactic, however, with Moran trying to tell him there’s nothing new under the sun, and that killing himself in order to “expose” the already well-chronicled misdeeds of the British Government will have no measurable effect.
Moran even pleads with Bobby on a sentimental level, asking “What about your wee boy?” This, as well as more than one occasion of asking what his family will think, is a tactic which Bobby sees right through. In attempting to make a purely emotional plea to Bobby’s better nature, Moran seems to misjudge how much value Sands puts in his own family at this point. His cause is his family now.
Ultimately, however, what the hunger protest – which could very well lead to death (and does) – comes down to for these two men is a moral issue. These men just have two different ways of looking at the morality of taking this action. Bobby sees it as the only rational response left to an immoral situation, with enemies utterly lacking in humanity. Father Moran sees it as “destructive,” a suicide, which will have no positive effect on the overall outcome of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
“You want me to argue about the morality of what I’m about to do and whether it’s really suicide or not,” says Bobby, adding “For one, you’re callin’ it suicide. I call it murder.” Sands, spurred on by decades of personal loss at the hands of the British – making reference to being “burned out of (his) house in Rathcoole” – believes that what he is doing is unquestionably right and that the British are forcing his hand on some level. After all, when you have two sides in a conflict unwilling to negotiate and incapable of compromise, what other options do you have? It is almost comprehendible that when faced with so little choices, a nuclear option of this magnitude may be one’s only way out. Whether Sands can, as he believes, achieve significant change with his actions is debatable. Certainly, Moran feels that starving himself to death “to make a point” will lead to nothing but more death in a conflict already drenched with blood and drowning in, to paraphrase another film title on the subject of ‘the Troubles,’ a sense of profound loss.
Moran then suggests an intriguing notion. He thinks that perhaps Bobby and his comrades are “afraid of talking, afraid of peace,” adding sarcastically, “Sure, what would Ulster be if it wasn’t turning itself to shite.” His argument here as well may have some scintilla of merit. The Northern Irish Republicans have seemingly become so distrustful of the peace process – trying to negotiate, not getting their demands heard or respected, human rights being thrown out the window left and right – that their nerves have turned raw at the mere thought of dealing with the British and the Loyalists, and they seem incapable of simply sitting down and talking it out. Bobby Sands, certainly, has had enough.
What, then, is the point of Sands’ hunger strike? If the British are unwilling to grant his people political status, and he is unwilling to compromise with them, will a hunger strike make a difference? This is, essentially, what Father Moran is attempting to argue throughout this scene. If your demands are falling on deaf ears, what would it take to shock the conscience?
Finally, Father Moran attempts to argue that Sands and his men have been in prison so long and have become so deluded that he is “in no shape to make this call.” While Moran suggests that Sands cannot reasonably think that this kind of decision is in any way right given the circumstances of his imprisonment, his treatment, and the inevitable psychological mindset he’d have to be in given all of that, Sands is nevertheless steadfast in his beliefs that “a United Ireland is right and just” and that his actions will achieve this goal.
Bobby cements his point with the story about a Catholic-Protestant cross-country running event when he was a boy. He is, in the end, willing to be punished not just for his beliefs, but for the good of his men, and for the eventual future of the greater good.
One of the interesting aspects of this scene is that Father Moran, a Catholic priest, barely even suggests the possibility of Sands’ starvation being seen by God as suicide, which one would think might result in punishment by him – at least according to Catholic beliefs. However, there is barely a mention of this. As film critic Roger Ebert mentions in his review of the film, “he discusses it entirely in terms of its usefulness.” Well, almost entirely. He does say that “if not just for the suicide, (God) would have to punish you for stupidity.”
It is fascinating that religion barely registers in Father Moran’s argument. He does seem to focus on the notion that Bobby’s actions will have a negative effect – if any – on the proceedings and doubts the usefulness and morality of the hunger strike, if not the religious implications.
This is, ultimately, not a black-and-white issue, however simple it may appear to the casual observer. This is very much a grey issue. On the one hand, you have the admirable courage of conviction that the Irish hunger strikers, led by Sands, display in the face of a seeming utter lack of human compassion on the part of their British opponents. On the other hand, you have that indifference going a long way to back up Father Moran’s notion that this strike will only lead “to more dead men” instead of a victory.
The nature of this scene is a passionate back-and-forth, debating the issue of what effect – if any – Sands’ actions will have for the good of the Catholic-Republican people of Northern Ireland. We hear both Bobby Sands’ rationalization for his chosen course of action as well as Father Moran’s personal beliefs and appeals to Bobby’s better nature in an attempt to talk him off the proverbial ledge, as it were. It is worth noting, however, that Father Moran appears to be a rough symbol of one point-of-view, and not (as Sands is) an actual historic figure. The scene, too, appears to be a fabrication on the part of the McQueen and his co-writer. Dramatically then, the scene works very well to crystallize the argument – and, in a sense, the entire conflict in Northern Ireland – into the form of this one debate. The ferocity of the performances, the stunningly precise yet spare visual style, and the profound elegance of the dialogue work together to bring the entire film up to this point (roughly two thirds of the way through a 96 minute runtime) into sharp focus.
The debate as to whether or not Sands’ convictions proved to be worthwhile is, perhaps, best left to history. On April 9, 1981, Sands ran for Parliament while on hunger strike in the Maze Prison. He won with “just over 52% of the vote in the Northern Ireland by-election compared to 49% for the candidate of the Official Unionist Party, Harry West (“1981: Hunger Striker Elected MP”).” Why then wouldn’t he come off the hunger strike? Perhaps because the British had still failed to effectively agree to the prisoners’ demands up until shortly after Sands’ death.
The question of whether Sands’ actions paid off, then, is perhaps best left to a quote by Margaret Thatcher after his death:
“Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims (“1981 May 5 Tu: Margaret Thatcher, House of Common PQs”).”
It seems Father Moran isn’t the only one who looked at Sands’ actions as suicide.
“1981: Hunger Striker Elected MP.” BBC. 10 April 1981. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/
dates/stories/april/10/newsid_2453000/2453183.stm>. 6 Nov. 2009.
“1981 May 5 Tu: Margaret Thatcher, House of Common PQs.” Margaret Thatcher Foundation. 5
asp?docid=104641>. 6 Nov. 2009.
Ebert, Roger. Hunger: film review. Roger Ebert.com. 15 April 2009.
“Northern Ireland: The Hunger Strike in H-Block.” Time mag. 15 Dec. 1980.
<http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,922211-1,00.html>. 30 Oct. 2009.
Word Count: 2,891 – Me: 2,750; Research: 141