We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.
~ C.S. Lewis
The whole purpose of this post is to prompt you to watch ’71 (2015), because I’m guessing you’ve never seen it. Heck, I’ll wager you’ve never even heard of it.
That’s no surprise, because it was a flash in the pan when it came out a few years ago. I don’t remember it ever showing up at the theaters around here, and, even if it had, I would’ve given it a pass. To begin with, the title itself is a marketing disaster. “1971?” I asked myself when I saw it come up in the Redbox queue last year. “What, a movie about hippies?” I was standing outside our Walgreens, on the prowl for a flick to watch with my teenage son. Since nothing else was even remotely appealing, I read the description of ’71 and decided to give it a shot.
It turned out to be a riveting experience – for both of us. Directed by Yann Demange, ’71 is the story of a young, naïve British recruit, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), whose regiment is assigned to provide security in Belfast during The Troubles. After a disastrous confrontation with rioting Irish nationalists and IRA sympathizers, the soldier gets separated from his unit and is effectively abandoned in a staunchly Catholic district. Forced to fend for himself, Hook relies on his wits and the good will of those he encounters to survive a night in enemy territory and make his way back to safety.
’71 is a whirlwind from beginning to end – we were rapt throughout: the action is constant; the violence (rarely gratuitous), abundant; the characters, three-dimensional and sympathetic – even the bad guys (mostly). In addition, the exquisite soundtrack by David Holmes, shifting between calm guitar and rumbling drums, subtly propels the action forward – very reminiscent of the pulsating Tangerine Dream soundtrack in Sorcerer (1977).
And while the story is hard to follow, there are plenty enough threads to keep you engaged. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on most the time – who’s on which side, who are the good guys, who are the bad – but there’s underlying urgency and pounding action that pins you down and demands your attention, beyond even the thrilling survival narrative of Private Hook. The urgency stems in large part from the confusion. In fact, I’d say the confusion is practically a lead character unto itself, and it’s introduced at the very beginning of the film.
As Hook and his comrades are called to attention, a commanding officer announces that they won’t be deployed to Germany as planned. “Because of the deteriorating security situation in Belfast, your regiment is now being deployed there on an emergency basis…. I take it you all know where Belfast is? Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom. Here. You are not leaving this country.” The disturbing reality of the Irish civil war was that the combatants not only professed the same creedal faith, but also the same nationality and/or heritage. It was worse than World War I, where Christians fought Christians across the trenches – French Catholics and Anglican Brits against Christian Germans of all stripes. The unraveling of the WWI Christmas Truce depicted in the film Joyeaux Noël (2005) was painful enough to watch, but not nearly as painful as seeing Irish Christians rip each other apart in ’71.
It’s also painful to watch the film’s depiction of how young Irishmen were conditioned and seduced into killing. Without giving away too much, one character in particular is a case study in homicidal inducement. He resists, despite all the encouragement from his elders to give way and get over the hump of the first kill. He hesitates, he stalls, a sign that he hasn’t completely lost touch with that inner voice telling him that murder is always, always wrong. At that point, it’s hard to tell how much of his reluctance to shoot is rooted in his Christian upbringing, no matter how nominal, and how much of it is some fundamental instinct against taking another human being’s life.
That there is such an instinct is unquestionable. “The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.” So writes West Point professor Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995). Grossman details the normalizing process that modern military machines utilize to suppress that resistance in men and women, and optimize both their willingness to kill and their efficiency in doing so. ’71 is practically a cinematic adaptation of Grossman’s Kübler-Ross-like stages of how we accustom ourselves to human slaughter. “The basic response stages to killing in combat are concern about killing, the actual kill, exhilaration, remorse, and rationalization and acceptance.” Prodding future combatants toward that rationalization and acceptance seems to be standard operating procedure for all kinds of armed organizations. Conscience, it seems, and morality have no place.
At the conclusion of the film, I shuddered and looked over at my son. He’s turning 18 next year, and will have to cope with signing up for the draft and all that entails. Maybe it was unnecessary, but I felt compelled to apologize to him for a world in which violence has become the default response to so many problems. In addition, I made a mental note to call my friend Shawn at Catholic Peace Fellowship to get him connected with Cris – to set up a meeting for the two of them to discuss what it means to sign on the dotted line with Selective Service.
Also, I decided to write this post to urge people to watch this underrated and neglected film – and watch it with your teens, especially your sons. As bleak as it is, ’71 contains a powerful undercurrent of confidence in our essential humaneness. “It is there,” Grossman insists, “it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there just may be hope for mankind after all.”