50 Dead Men Walking

The troubles in Northern Ireland are a very sensitive subject for a film. The worst of the violence is still a recent memory, with many families across the province continuing to live with the grief of having lost a loved one to guns and bombs. A film which takes one side will be anathema to the other, and one which tries not to take sides stands a good chance of annoying everyone. But staying neutral was exactly what writer/director Kari Skogland believed she had to do with her retelling of the true story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess). Skogland is a Canadian and so very much an outsider looking in. Being an outsider has the advantage of allowing one to stand back and reflect coolly on what both sides of the conflict are saying. But it can also lead to an inadequate understanding of the complexities of the situation. Skogland felt that by maintaining neutrality, she would force the audience to make up their own minds about what happened, but her film has prompted criticisms that it is too pro-IRA, most notably from McGartland himself.

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Written and directed by Kari Skogland, starring Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Press (Metrodome, 2009)

This article was first published on Damaris’s Culturewatch website, and is used with permission.
© Copyright Tony Watkins, 2009

The troubles in Northern Ireland are a very sensitive subject for a film. The worst of the violence is still a recent memory, with many families across the province continuing to live with the grief of having lost a loved one to guns and bombs. A film which takes one side will be anathema to the other, and one which tries not to take sides stands a good chance of annoying everyone. But staying neutral was exactly what writer/director Kari Skogland believed she had to do with her retelling of the true story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess). Skogland is a Canadian and so very much an outsider looking in. Being an outsider has the advantage of allowing one to stand back and reflect coolly on what both sides of the conflict are saying. But it can also lead to an inadequate understanding of the complexities of the situation. Skogland felt that by maintaining neutrality, she would force the audience to make up their own minds about what happened, but her film has prompted criticisms that it is too pro-IRA, most notably from McGartland himself.

Jim Sturgess in 50 Dead Men Walking (Metrodome 2009)
Jim Sturgess in 50 Dead Men Walking (Metrodome 2009)

The story is a harrowing journey. It takes us from McGartland’s days trying to make a living selling clothing door to door in Catholic West Belfast, through his recruitment by Special Branch, joining the IRA and his rise within it to the time when he is exposed as an informer. McGartland is approached by Fergus (Ben Kingsley), a police officer who becomes his point of contact for all his information. The 1980s were a time when the Royal Ulster Constabulary regularly stopped and searched young Catholic men, and when the IRA kept their own community in line by punishment beatings and knee-cappings. Fergus suspects that McGartland is unhappy at the IRA’s use of violence, and tries to recruit him. Martin soon finds himself driving for Micky Adams, an IRA man. McGartland is initially reluctant to help, though he takes the car Fergus offers him. Jim Sturgess remarks, ‘It was such a murky time and so difficult to know what was right and what was wrong. I think that’s important for my character. He really doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. He doesn’t quite know which way to turn. He believes these people from the IRA are his community and it weighs on his mind. But at the same time, he totally disagrees with parts of it – the violence, the death, the torture.’

On one early driving job, one of his passengers gets out to deliver a package at a pub outside of Belfast. That night a massive explosion destroys a van parked outside the hotel, and McGartland is galvanized into contacting Fergus and agreeing to supply information. He gets more involved and soon becomes a full IRA volunteer. As time goes on, Martin earns the trust of the IRA commanders, and he rises to be the right-hand man of the seductive but tough Grace Sterrin (Rose McGowan).

Eventually, though, the number of missions being thwarted through the information Martin is passing to the RUC begins to raise questions. Finally, it becomes clear that McGartland is the common link and he is taken to a third-floor flat to be tortured. After three days he manages to escape by throwing himself from the window. Fortunately, Fergus is searching for him and manages to whisk the injured man away before the IRA get to him, and later arranges a new identity and home for him on the mainland. Although Martin can be no more use as an informer, Fergus tells him that the information he’s supplied has saved the lives of at least fifty people.

Martin McGartland’s problem with the film is two-fold. First, some of the scenes in the film never happened to him. He highlights two in particular: the pub bombing and a scene in which he witnesses a suspected informant being tortured and is told to put a gun to the man’s head. Taking a book from page to screen is not straightforward, though, as the two media are so different. Inevitably there needs to be some selectivity about what is included in a film. As Skogland spent time in Belfast, mixing with people on both sides of the divide, she heard a number of stories which she felt would be valuable to include in the film, not because they were part of Martin’s experience, but because it enabled her to present a fuller picture of what was going on at the time.

Second, he objects to the way that Skogland and her actors spent time with former IRA members, and believes that they unduly influenced the final film. It is impossible to know how objective it is. The two sides of the conflict will tell their stories in very different ways, and McGartland himself is understandably extremely bitter to a group which tortured him. The opening scene of the film shows us what happened to Martin some years after the events of the main part of the film: a hit man discovered his location (moved to Canada rather than England because the film was financed in Canada) and shot him six times at point blank range, which, incredibly, he survived. It is no surprise, then, that McGartland is angry at Skogland spending time with former terrorists. But Skogland insists that she listened just as much to Unionists as to Republicans. ‘My story doesn’t take sides. I don’t politicise it,’ she says.


50 Dead Men Walking
was released in cinemas at a particularly sensitive moment as two soldiers and a policeman had been recently killed by a dissident IRA faction which wants to continue their violent campaign. It was decided to go ahead with the release because there is, for the vast majority in Northern Ireland, a strong desire to make the peace work, to resist a return to the sectarian violence and to continue building a better future. Kari Skogland also insists that there is a universality to this story, saying, ‘this is happening everywhere in the world.’ She feels that the story could have taken place in ‘Iraq or downtown New York. When two sides start to conflict, right and wrong gets very murky. People lose sight of what they’re even fighting for or where they started it or where they’re going to end up. And so I guess it sort of asks the right question at the end of it. At the end of the day, is it worth it?’ The film is a powerful reminder of how violence destroys communities and lives, not just of those on the receiving end, but also of those who are unleashing it.

In the two decades since McGartland was working with the RUC there have been extraordinary changes in Northern Ireland. Now men who once advocated a violent struggle are fully engaged in a democratic process. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, a former IRA leader, is now Deputy First Minister, working alongside First Minister Peter Robinson from the Democratic Unionist Party. This was unthinkable just a few years ago. Reconciliation is a long and difficult process, though, and there will be many problems along the way – especially with groups like the so-called Real IRA still embracing violence. One important contributory factor has been closely observing the reconciliation process in South Africa over recent years. A very key figure in this has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who urged his country – and Northern Ireland – to embrace truth and reconciliation rather than revenge because of his Christian convictions.

The Christian message is that the two most apparently irreconcilable enemies of all – a holy God and rebellious human beings – can be reconciled through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Martin McGartland was prepared to risk his life in order to save lives, but God's Son became a human being in order to die, in order to save human beings, his enemies. Whichever side of human conflicts we are on, we are all equally deserving of God’s righteous anger, and once we have been reconciled to God, we are all equally accepted by him, equally his children and therefore brothers and sisters of each other. This is why the apostle Paul writes, that ‘Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. . . . Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death’ (Ephesians 2:14–16). Elsewhere he writes, ‘There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). We can make great strides in reconciliation when we realise the consequences of continued conflict and violence. Films like 50 Dead Men Walking can make an important contribution to this. But true reconciliation between human beings is ultimately found in being reconciled to God, as many in Northern Ireland will testify.

© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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