The movie Bloody Sunday depicts the factors that converged to result in the shootings of civilian protestors by members of the British Army in Northern Ireland which would later become known as the Bogside Massacre or Bloody Sunday.
There was a climate of incrementally increasing hostility between the Catholic population and the British ruling class as well as Protestant paramilitaries. (The Catholics of Northern Ireland initially considered the arrival of British troops from England as a positive development, because it was thought that they would be a neutral force, unlike the Royal Ulster Constabulary.)
However, the persistence of housing and economic discrimination, residual survivals of the hated Penal Laws, still rankled, as did the fact that the British-controlled Northern Ireland government banned civilian processions, marches, etc. and had instituted internment without trial for Catholic terrorist suspects in 1971, in direct violation of the magna carta!
Though the insurgent attacks which preceded and followed the Bloody Sunday killings were characterized as religious warfare, and considerable hostility between religion-based groups existed, the producers of this picture thought that it was important to show that there were Protestant civilians in Northern Ireland who actively supported an end to internment and promotion of other civil rights for Catholics, one of which was Ivan Cooper, played by actor Jimmy Nesbitt, himself a Northern Ireland Protestant.
Under Cooper’s leadership, the Irish Civil Rights Association positioned itself as a politically moderate entity which engaged in non-violent protests. Some shots of assembled marchers in the movie showed that people not only held signs protesting the internment policy and calling for the release of particular individuals, but also some signs with slogans such as “We Shall Overcome”, as a means to suggest that this Irish Civil Rights movement may have been influenced by similar non-violent mass demonstrations being used by the (African-American) Civil Rights movement in the USA.
(It is unknown if this use of imagery and ideology is a case of historical folderol. Whether or not the Catholics of Northern Ireland in the 1970s really saw fit to emulate the American Civil Rights movement, or consciously drew parallels between their situation and that of American Blacks, they did see themselves as a similarly ghettoized population denied equal opportunities in society.)
It was when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association staged a technically illegal march to protest the internment policy that the British Paratrooper Unit, having been deployed with an original plan for a “mass arrest operation”, with the intention to simultaneously arrest a number of key figures in the civil rights movement, opened fire at what by most accounts was slight or no provocation.
While British soldiers who participated in the shootings claimed to feel threatened by the fact that some teens at the march threw stones, and some people at the march may have had bombs, apologists for the Irish side say that those who threw stones only started to do so after the British troops opened fire, the nail bombs found on or near some of those killed may have been planted, and the British troops had been trying to engineer a provocation to “draw out” active IRA members.
Alternatively, the resultant “use of a shotgun to go after flies” came from the fact that the British Parachute Regiment were “shock troops” trained for NATO operations, frustrated at the less overt nature of the Irish Troubles, and less sophisticated about nation building issues than comparable forces today. They considered an overwhelming use of force to be an effective means of quashing future resistance. In an innovative means of projecting a true picture of the professional soldiers’ mentality and behavior, Jim Sheridan pointed out in the commentary that the decision had been made to use real soldiers who had previously served in Northern Ireland to play the parts of the British Paratroopers in the movie.
Most of the parts with the exception of some of the principal actors, were played by “non-actors” for the sake of projecting a spontaneity which may be lacking in “real” actors who may have an intellectual rather than an emotional understanding of the events portrayed.
According to the Wikipedia entry for Bloody Sunday,
Thirteen people were shot and killed, with another man later dying of his wounds. The official army position, backed by the British Home Secretary the next day in the House of Commons, was that the paratroopers had reacted to the gun and nail bomb attacks from suspected IRA members. However, all eyewitnesses (apart from the soldiers), including marchers, local residents, and British and Irish journalists present, maintain that soldiers fired into an unarmed crowd, or were aiming at fleeing people and those tending the wounded, whereas the soldiers themselves were not fired upon. No British soldier was wounded by gunfire or reported any injuries, nor were any bullets or nail bombs recovered to back up their claims. In the events that followed, irate crowds burned down the British embassy on Merrion Square in Dublin. Anglo-Irish relations hit one of their lowest ebbs, with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Patrick Hillery, going specially to the United Nations in New York to demand UN involvement in the Northern Ireland “Troubles”.
Though the “Widgery Inquiry” a report produced by a largely superficial investigation following the shootings largely exculpated the soldiers involved, physical evidence nevertheless showed that many of those killed had been shot in the back while fleeing or helping others, one man who had not been part of the march had been shot simply crossing the street near the march, and one soldier involved in the shootings had actually used 22 rounds of ammunition, more than he had been issued.
The British Army, however, understood the importance of sound bites, and how they were portrayed by the news media, and thus, the victors did a very good job of having written history for the past 30 years, though occasional popular songs and articles which presented the Irish view on the subject emerged (including U2’s 1983 Sunday Bloody Sunday, which was played with the ending credits).
A recent re-investigation of the events surrounding Bloody Sunday, the Saville Inquiry, concluded in July 2010 at great expense, went very far in the other direction, the prevailing winds of political will having changed.
Ivan Cooper, having been present at Bloody Sunday and survived, served as a technical consultant, meeting with Nesbitt and sharing his experiences and perceptions of the incident. He was, however, 30 years stouter and grayer than a visual recreation of the events surrounding the Irish Civil Rights movement and the massacre called for.
A fine job has been done conveying the visual look as well as the emotional atmosphere of the time: lots of grey skies, slightly greyish flesh tones, dun-colored rooms and furniture, long-tabbed collars and flared pants make an on-screen appearance, as well as other, more subtle significators of the Seventies, such as black-framed glasses and mutton chop sideburns for many of the men, make their appearance on the screen.
The exterior scenes were filmed in an impoverished suburb on the outskirts of Dublin, because a decade of peace, relative prosperity, and the presence of a new generation have made the Derry of today unrecognizable as the bleak, graffiti-painted Derry of the 1960s and 1970s.
Co-producer Don Mullen, having been a participant in the march as a minor and an eyewitness to the shootings (his parents had given him permission to be in the march because it was understood that the IRA refrained from armed participation in these marches), had a bit part in the movie as a middle-aged priest who gives one of the murder victims last rites. In his commentary to the movie on the DVD, Mullen said that the radicalizing effect of the massacre did a lot to touch off the subsequent 20+ years of guerilla warfare on the part of the IRA and similar organizations. “Had I been a couple of years older (at the time), I might have joined the IRA”, he said.