Gregory Burke believes his film ’71’ set among the Troubles of Northern Ireland will come as a shock to British people, who’ve forgotten that conflict isn’t restricted to foreign fields we see on the news.
“It's like an apocalyptic world, and it's on our back doorstep. We think we’re immune to these things when we watch them on the news,” says the award-winning playwright of this, his first feature film. “We have this veneer of civilisation, but these young lads had no idea where they were, and it was brutal.”
Gregory, who grew up himself in the Scottish town of Stirling, had to be careful to set his story of a British soldier isolated from his troop during one excursion into an area near the Falls Road, in the correct time frame.
“I had to place it early enough, before Bloody Sunday, before the city was properly divided along religious lines as it became later,” he explains. “It needed to be chaotic enough to be feasible that a soldier there for the first time could become that disorientated, that he would have no idea where to turn to.”
Sure enough, Gary Hook, a rookie soldier from Derbyshire on his first deployment to “not abroad” - and played viscerally by Jack O’Connell in the film - is passed like a parcel through a series of hands in a sequence that becomes as dream-like as it is terrifying. Through Hook's eyes, we witness the chaos, the terror culminating in a bomb tearing apart the tiny body of a Dickensian urchin friend he’s made only minutes before, and the internecine power struggles on both sides meaning there are infinite cross hairs into which Hook may unwittingly stray.
It’s a deceptively straightforward tale - inspired, Gregory tells me, by the simplicity of the film ‘Apocalypto’ – that belies the complexity of the situation, and it’s clear the writer’s done his homework, giving me a walk through some of the competing factions – those who appeared to be the same side but were often fighting completely different wars, whether it be class, religious or just turf war.
His enthusiasm makes me want to go and read up a whole load more, which pleases Gregory, himself a veteran of this kind of military musing.
“There’s no doubt the army knows what buttons to press when it recruits young soldiers,” he says. “It hands out a smart uniform, and makes men fit, and then puts them to a purpose which in itself can’t be described as productive.
“But it’s often the manifestation of a whole system of honour and values, and often brings out the best in them, as well as the worst. These things go hand in hand, it’s very complex and the more we can shed any kind of light on it, the better.”
'71' is in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailer above...