Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 16, 2008


Filed under: Film,Ireland — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

He deserved better than “Hunger”

If you expect “Hunger”, Steve McQueen’s new movie about Bobby Sands and the hunger strike at Long Kesh prison in 1981, to be anything like Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, you will be bitterly disappointed. I had to restrain myself from bolting from my seat several times at last night’s press screening and only stuck around to the conclusion in order to gather sufficient material to put a nail in the coffin of this dreadful movie.

The most obvious antecedents to McQueen’s movie are Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Alan Clarke’s plague-on-both-your-houses “Elephant”. Like Gibson, McQueen has a sadomasochistic streak. The last 15 minutes or so of “Hunger” is devoted to a clinical study of the consequences of Bobby Sands’s hunger strike, with close-ups of bed sores and bloody bowel movements. Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands, lost 33 pounds in order to lend credibility to his character, inverting Robert De Niro’s bloating up for the roles of Jake LaMotta and Al Capone.

If McQueen was truly interested in conveying reality, he would have had his screenwriter put the right words in his main character’s mouth rather than having him lose weight. In the entire movie there is only one scene in which the characters actually discuss politics. That consists of Bobby Sands in a dialog with a Catholic priest who warns him that a hunger strike would be devastating to the families of the strikers. Suffice it to say that Sands defends the tactic as only a “hardened revolutionary” would.

For McQueen, the stubbornness of the IRA prisoners is detached from their politics and mainly serves as a device to move the plot forward in a series of scenes that pits the British cops against the prisoners in a test of will. He is not interested in conveying the thinking of the embattled prisoners but in dramatizing their largely futile resistance. In one scene, the naked prisoners run through a gauntlet of cops who beat them bloody. For me at least, these ever-increasingly violent set pieces have about as much interest as the average sadistic horror movie like “Saw” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

Although McQueen does not go as far as Alan Clarke in making the IRA guerrillas as demonic as their enemies, he does make sure to dramatize the toll that the struggle was taking on the cops. In the gauntlet scene, one cop is standing off to the side sobbing. This was of course calculated to demonstrate the film’s evenhandedness. Whether or not it corresponded to the reality of Long Kesh is another story entirely. My guess is that any cop working there had to be fairly sadistic to begin with.

There are signs that McQueen was influenced by Clarke’s film-making techniques as well. In one scene that lasts a good five minutes, we see a cop mopping up urine from the floor of a hallway between the prisoner’s cells. In Clarke’s “Elephant”, tension is also sustained by having long static shots leading up to the inevitable firing of a gun. In McQueen’s movie, such a scene functions more in my opinion as the “er” or the “um” in conversation.

In keeping with the prevailing ethos of the bourgeois-minded artist, McQueen pointedly regards himself as avoiding “simplistic” notions of ‘hero’, ‘martyr’ or ‘victim’, according to the press notes. McQueen, an artist before he started making films, was embedded with the British military in Basra in 2003 on assignment from the Imperial War Museum. He came up with the idea of turning the images of dead British soldiers into postage stamp-like paintings that were shown in an exhibition titled “Queen and Country” that he hopes to turn into real postage stamps some day. In an interview McQueen insisted that the stamps were neither pro-war nor anti-war. He said, “To be on stamps you have to be either royal or dead. These boys are dead in the service of queen and country”. Of course, no artist living in the hip 21st century would ever want to be confused with Picasso’s “Guernica” or other such preachy works.

Despite his aversion to propaganda, there is evidence that McQueen made “Hunger” partly as a statement on current events. In the press notes, he states:

When Jan Younghusband at Channel 4 approached me at the beginning of 2003 there was no Iraq War, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib prison but as time’s gone by the parallels have become apparent. History repeats itself, lots of people have short memories, and we need to remember that these kinds of things have happened in Britain.

Now this might be an admirable ambition, but not at the expense of the Irish liberation struggle. In order to understand the motivation of the hunger strikers, you have to understand Irish politics something that is of little interest to the production company.


  1. Wow, great review. I read about this movie a while back and when I saw that he wasn’t concerned with the politics so much as the actual toll it took on the human body I was disappointed to say the least.

    Comment by Sky — December 16, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  2. Re Elephant. I think i understand – it provides no political context – could be IRA or Protestant militias – it is a clinical dissection of the deed – apolitical, or if you like, a deliberate concentration on the deed, and immediate consequences. If you are partisan, then lack of context and clues means that you are at sea – with no steer on whether the deed is good (the right person gets killed) or bad (the reverse). One might as well be viewing killings in an abbatoir (E as i recall was not sadistic – mundane really). Killing with the politics taken out – how pointless.

    Comment by Martin Davis — December 16, 2008 @ 10:23 pm

  3. I think “Hunger”, which I’ve just seen, is a much deeper political film than any of the thesis films of Ken Loach. What the priest expresses to Sands in that long dialogue was the opinion of the I.R.A. leadership outside the prison. They were against another hunger strike. Sands went ahead and he and nine other prisoners died. The point of a hunger strike is to move public opinion by making it feel that it’s putting people slowly to death. For McQueen we are that public. It’s not sadomasochistic to make us feel the price Sands paid. During the strike sixteen guards were killed as they went about their lives outside the prison. The I.R.A. leadership, despite their political difference with the prisoners, had to support them. It was Sands’ political decision that further took politics out of a conflict that became a mere battle of wills. McQueen shows the predicament of a community in a trap, precisely because it lost sight of political objectives.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 17, 2008 @ 12:16 am

  4. It depends on what you mean by “political”. My idea of political veers more to something like “Battle of Algiers”, which also involves many of the very same issues. I don’t think that Steve McQueen could make a movie like that, or even a cheap imitation, if he lived to be a thousand years old.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 17, 2008 @ 12:34 am

  5. You’re right. McQueen couldn’t make a film like “The Battle of Algiers,” which aimed to offer an explicit analysis. Being a visual artist, McQueen starts at the other end with physical detail–those sores, for instance. But all the material is in “Hunger” for the viewer to make a political analysis. I bet that Gillo Pontecorvo, dead a couple of years now, would have liked “Hunger” more than you did.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 17, 2008 @ 9:55 am

  6. Louis, thanks for the warning–a must to avoid.

    Since Pontecorvo has come up: note the way “The Battle of Algiers” begins–with an Algerian tortured and confessing, his abject body broken in a chair. It then backs up to show the origins of the state of siege, and the origins of FLN terrorist bombing in the prior French terrorist bombing (historically true), taking us forward to the evident defeat of the FLN, then forward again to its victory in one of the greatest crowd scenes ever filmed. In other words, Pontecorvo, like any other “visual artist,” presents both “material” and “a point of view.” Some visual artists are apolitical fetishists of bodies; others aren’t.

    For a related but superb movie, have a look at Mike Leigh’s “Four Days in July,” which examines the Troubles by moving back and forth between a Loyalist and a Republican household, with a woman about to give birth in each, and destined to conclude in a maternity ward. In the Republican household, the husband is partially paralyzed–the product of a British bullet “gone astray” years earlier. The way Leigh and his actors deal with THIS Republican body is brilliant–and of course, Stephen Rae has a minor role (and of course, it’s brilliant), And he utters the funniest line in the history of Irish cinema: “The Hispaniola?”

    Yes, of course you have to see it.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — December 17, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  7. Jim: No one doubts that “The Battle of Algiers” is a great film. But should it serve as a recipe a half century later? No one ought to doubt, either, that Mike Leigh is the glory of Brit cinema. Of course all filmmakers are “visual artists.” The point was that McQueen worked in the plastic arts before making “Hunger,” his first feature. I wouldn’t label him a “body fetishist” before you saw his film. But then you won’t see it to judge for yourself.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 17, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

  8. People can get a feel for what McQueen’s movie is like from the trailer:

    For comparison’s sake, here’s the trailer for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”:

    Comment by louisproyect — December 17, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

  9. Louis,

    Have you read, ‘Borstal Boy’ by Brendan Behan?
    He is such a good writer & journalist, and he understands English culture(especially the working class of the 30’s) as well as the subtleties of Irish society.

    His greatest quote in the book goes something like: In Ireland in the 1930’s, to get something to eat was an accomplishment, to get drunk was a victory. His best friend(mate=cockney for china plate{China} was an English boy who defended him more than once against the other English boys. He describes how the screws in the adult prisons would put Irishmen in with a group of other English prisoners & let them do their dirty work.

    But at the same time he is fair to the English who care about inequality in the system.

    Comment by m.c. — December 18, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  10. For fucks sake, i love how you dismiss anything that doesn’t comply with your opinions. IMO the film deals with solidarity in a may that deals with what that means as an individual. Look at the scene where Bobby Sands creates the moat of piss that streams outwards combining with each of his fellow inmates piss. look at how messages are passed from one to another – the fluidity of the action.

    It’s interesting that you invoke ‘The Passion Of The Christ’ because i was left with the impression that what we were seeing was a human being willing to lay down his life for an ideal annd the fact that we witness that puts the bullshit that Thatcher was spouting into it’s true context.

    Comment by Dan — December 18, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

  11. Here’s director Steve McQueen, with the former hunger strikers Laurence McKeown, Raymond McCartney and Pat Sheehan

    republican news, Sinn Fein’s paper, was more generous to McQueen’s film than you http://www.anphoblacht.com/news/detail/35877

    Comment by James Heartfield — December 19, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  12. Thank you for the warning.

    Did you see “The Reader” yet? Kate Winslett I think will win the Oscar for it.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — December 20, 2008 @ 4:38 am

  13. Hunger feeds a need to understand past

    (by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

    The release of Hunger, Steve McQueen’s powerful film about Bobby Sands death on hunger strike in 1981, underlines the case for a conflict centre in the Maze which would give the history of the conflict.

    The film is not just propaganda, as some have alleged. It is a far better film than others, such as Some Mother’s Son, which explored the H Block theme. But like all works of art it is a partial representation and should not be taken for history. Events and people it omitted need to be given their place and others whom it sketched in with a light touch need to be fleshed out in detail.

    There is a telling, but understated, moment in Hunger when Sands, played by Michael Fassbinder, acknowledges the murder of a prison officer. It comes during a 25-minute dialogue with Dominic Moran, a fictional priest based loosely on Father Denis Faul.

    Moran notices that Sands head is scarred and bruised. “How’s the other fellow” he asks. “He’s a lot worse” Sands replies, with an air of satisfaction. His facial injuries were received, a few scenes earlier, when he was dragged from a cell to be washed. He spat in the face of an officer, Ray Lohan, who punched him in the head.

    In an earlier we had seen Sands passing a secret communication to another prisoner for delivery to a visitor to pass on to someone outside. Later we see Lohan in the back of the head and dies in the lap of his elderly mother during a visit to a nursing home. The implication is that Sands had ordered the guards killing.

    I have not seen this little tableau remarked on in other reviews and I didn’t grasp the full importance of the sequence until a second viewing of the film.

    As it notes in the closing credits, 16 prison officers were killed during the course of the protests in September 1976, and the end of the 1981 hunger strike in which Sands and nine other prisoners died.

    Lohan’s murder, a fictitious incident, represents the violence carried out by the IRA outside the prison.

    McQueen does not mention why Sands was in jail. He was arrested in a car with other IRA members after the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry and a subsequent shoot out with the police. It would have made for a dramatic chase scene at the start of the movie but McQueen does nit use it. We are left to wonder about the nature of the political offence for which Sands, and two prisoners were jailed. All we hear about is the length of their sentences.

    The film ends abruptly with the death of Sands. We do not see the co-ordinated rioting on the evening following his death, during which a milkman, Eric Guiney, 45, and his son Desmond, 14, were killed when bricks were thrown at the milk lorry, and a police officer, Philip Ellis, was shot dead by a sniper.

    McQueen’s film concentrates on the IRA’s ability to endure, even embrace, suffering in pursuit of its objectives. But throughout the troubles, they inflicted more suffering than they endured. The Provisional IRA killed 1707 people during its campaign and, if other republican groups are included, the total comes to 2,056 out of 3,524 deaths recorded on the University of Ulster’s Conflict Archive on the Internet (Cain).

    There is also the effect of the hunger strike, which, against the initial expectations of the outside leadership, lifted republicans from a position of near defeat and isolation to one in which they could grow both politically through Sinn Féin and militarily through the IRA’s escalating campaign.

    Hunger leaves us with the impression that the prisoners were on their own, but there is the evidence of communications between Sands and Gerry Adams that there was co-ordinated strategy to exploit the H Block issue. Papers deposited Belfast’s Linenhall Library by Sinn Féin show that in August 1980 Sands wrote to Adams with plans to make “H Block more common than shamrock”; to field prisoner candidates in elections on the outside and even form “a provisional type government” with Sinn Féin substitutes for any prisoners elected.

    The election of Bobby Sands as an MP in an April 1981 by-election is mentioned in the film credits. But his intense involvement in the campaign, and Sinn Féin’s promise that if people voted for him they could save his life, is omitted. Hunger avoids the corrosive but plausible allegations put forward by Richard O’Rawe, a former H Block prisoner and Sinn Féin press officer. A public-relations officer for the IRA’s protesting prisoners at the time, O’Rawe argues that an opportunity to end the strike after four deaths was ignored in the interests of electing Owen Carron, a Sinn Féin member, to replace Sands.

    The prison protest has since been used by Sinn Féin to win support, but the period also contains booby traps for the party. History is seldom as straightforward as we would wish.

    Of course no film can convey the whole sweep of events or draw out all their implications because drama requires focus and selection. We would not expect a film about the Battle of the Somme to take in the full context of the first World War, stretching from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the Treaty of Versailles.

    McQueen homes in on the personal. The scenes of filth and squalor during the dirty protest, when prisoners refused to slop out and spread their excrement over the walls because they were not allowed to wear their own clothes, are graphically depicted.

    In the film, the Sands character argues that if the hunger strike fails the defeat will be temporary because it will ensure that “out of the ashes … there will be another generation” to take up the struggle. He evokes the tradition of blood sacrifice advocated by Padraic Pearse.

    But Pearse’s message was transmitted to the historical Sands via a work of fiction. Sands memorised the bulk of Leon Uris’s 890 page bestseller Trinity and recited it to fellow prisoners over a period of days. Curiously Uris based the central character in Trinity –Conor Larkin- on Martin McGuinness whom Uris and his wife Jill met and photographed in Ireland.

    Unlike McGuinness, Larkin makes a conscious decision to give his life against hopeless odds. Before he dies he tells his girlfriend “a defeat may somehow stir the ashes of our people into a series of more glorious defeats … the true job of the brotherhood is not to expand to win but to sharpen its teeth to die hard.”

    That did not happen in the case of Sands sacrifice, whatever the film suggests. Instead the hunger strike helped pave the way for politics, compromise and accommodation by the very man whose appearance and demeanour inspired Uris to create the character who Sands found so compelling.

    It is a complex story which deserves to be told in depth. At the Maze, a 360 acre site, one of the H Blocks, the prison hospital where Sands died, and some of the fencing and a watchtowers are already protected structures. They are ear marked for conflict resolution centre but the DUP are wary of approving the plan in case it will be turned into a “shrine for terrorism.”

    The example of other prison museums shows that this need not happen. We have the opportunity to achieve something unique at the Maze, to help us understand our past as well as attracting interest across the globe and European funding. All communities in Northern Ireland should take charge of this shared legacy. It is too important to be left to movie-makers and novelists.

    November 11, 2008
    ________________ Sunday Times

    Comment by Justin — December 20, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  14. “In the gauntlet scene, one cop is standing off to the side sobbing. This was of course calculated to demonstrate the film’s evenhandedness. Whether or not it corresponded to the reality of Long Kesh is another story entirely. My guess is that any cop working there had to be fairly sadistic to begin with.”

    thats not really accurate:

    “During the Long Kesh years, 50 prison service employees committed suicide. The pressure, recalls one warder, led to “irrational behaviour and heavy drinking”. “You could smell it on their breath,” Quinn says.”


    Comment by andres — January 16, 2009 @ 5:16 am

  15. I dissagree with alot of this review. This has to be the ONLY review i have come across that thinks the film isn’t political enough. If anything this has recieved negative reviews for the opposite reason – it has been condemned by a few British critics for making you empathize with a terrorist/enemy of the crown, an empathy which I think does more for the Irish Republican cause then any political sermon ever could.

    I also find it telling that you think the wind that shakes the barley is actually a superior film to this one. are you mad? I assume you think that because TWTSTB is one big political debate with very little depth provided for its characters. This is cinema for God sake,
    if you want political speeches go to a rally, or whatever yee marxists go to, sorry.

    Actually I thought the speech in the middle did quite a good job of politicising the whole picture, despite McQueens claims to the contrary.

    In my opinion this is a great film, and while i understand peoples criticism of the final act resorting to martyr centric iconography, overall I think this is an extremely immersive and cinematic experience and one of he best films of last year.

    Comment by John Dunne — February 1, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

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