War. There are countless reasons for them to be waged and I don’t pretend to know a damn thing about any of them. What I do I understand, however, is along with war comes great sacrifice and loss. Fifty Dead Men Walking is a film set in Belfast during the late 80’s that works to capture the sacrifice of two men (one more so than the other) during the bloody fight between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the occupying British Army.
It is based on the true accounts of Martin McGartland, a young Irish street hustler who eventually finds his way into the trusted ranks of the PIRA and ultimately into the hands of the British, as an informant. Taking on the complex and conflicted role of Martin is Jim Sturgess, in what I consider to arguably be his best role to date. Initially, Martin supports his countrymen and their fight — he resents the fact he can’t get a decent job (pawning stolen clothing door-to-door, hardly qualifies) and he lashes out, every chance he gets, against the armed British presence on every street corner. After getting hauled in during one of his excursions, Martin catches the eye of handlers in the British Intelligence Anti-Terrorism division. Turns out, with a pregnant girlfriend and the lure of easy cash and a car, Martin is easily swayed to their side of the fight.
Not to be outdone by his co-star, Sir Ben Kingsley turns in a powerful performance himself as Fergus, the man responsible for turning Martin into a mole. Fergus is equally complex; he’s a man caught straddling the line between his country’s wishes to use up and throw away his informant (even if that means causing his death), and his becoming a surrogate father to Martin and not seeing him solely as just another pawn in the war.
Tying the unswaying performances together in Fifty Dead Men Walking is a tough and smartly written screenplay adaptation by Nicholas Davies, Martin McGartland and Kari Skogland. Left on the floor is any possible political agendas; the purpose of the film isn’t to decide which side was right or wrong, it was meant to capture the desperation of the people stuck in this unwinnable situation — and here it succeeds. Skogland, who also directed, keeps the pace moving briskly, slowing down momentarily, now and again, to reflect on the internal struggle Martin finds himself fighting; fighting which causes strife in his relationships with his girlfriend Lara (Nathalie Press) and best friend Sean (Kevin Zegar). More impressively, Skogland doesn’t get bogged down trying to toss in any superfluous violence. Even though there are some very telling fight scenes and a few involving torture, they’re shown as a necessary evil to the development of the story.
Detracting from the telling of the story, however, is the deep Irish/British/Scottish accents which makes following some of the dialogue difficult, if not impossible to do. Some of this is caused by my American ears which, I’ll admit, aren’t in tune with the dialect, but some of it is definitely caused by the overpowering soundtrack (which unto itself wasn’t half bad, although out of place many times) — there were several scenes that literally require lip reading ability to know what is being said. There were also times I found myself confused as to what importance certain characters played. Everyone gets identified when they’re initially introduced (mostly PIRA members), but with so many of them coming in and out of the picture, it was easy to lose track of them.
These things are, at most, minor annoyances when compared to the subject matter. Fifty Dead Men Walking is a very compelling story that provides a very human aspect to the conflict (referred to as “the troubles” by the Irish), and is made stronger by some very good performances by its leads. As is the case with most good movies, it too raises some deep seated questions, most notably — would you be willing to sacrifice your friends, family and life to save 50 people you didn’t know?