50 Dead Men Walking

Malachi O'Doherty reviews Kari Skogland's controversial account of a life lived on the edge

The problem with 50 Dead Men Walking is in the ambiguous character of the fictional Martin McGarland. Here is a man who is loving, gentle and good humoured, who works for the Special Branch against the IRA out of principle and yet moves within the IRA as a plausible operator, recruited for his criminal nerve.

Is he a rake who just can't resist the fun of it all, or is he a principled life saver, as the title claims?

There is much the same problem presented by the real story, as told by the real Martin McGartland. It doesn't quite fit. Those who have met Marty and talked to him over the years have found him to be a playful and extravagant personality. His clowning is what compromises the image of him as a dedicated soldier in the war against the IRA. You get the feeling that he was in it for the craic.

The makers of the film seem aware of the problem and of the clownish side of the real McGartland, and they have reproduced that in the film, if often implausibly. An early confrontation with a foot patrol is the greatest failure in the film to represent real life.

Big feature films always fail to get this aspect of Belfast life during the troubles right. Think of the gunbattle in the streets at the start of The Devil's Own, or the riot and kneecapping at the start of In The Name Of The Father.

This film is also worse than the others for its wooden execution of accent and idiom.

Directors always want to set the scene of a chaotic and war torn city, never grasping the real complexity of life in Belfast, even during the worst of it. No one in their right mind ran away from armed soldiers who had challenged them. And those who did were often shot dead. It just wasn't what a savvy kid like the Marty in the film would have done.

The commentary behind these images overstates the problem. It tells us that in the 1980s 'the protestants' controlled the allocation of jobs and that catholic young men hadn't a chance. Actually, most catholic men had jobs and quite a lot of protestant young men hadn't, since this was the time of the collapse of the shipyard and the engineering industry in Belfast.

It's one thing to keep things simple for a foreign audience that doesn't want to wrestle with the problematic details; it's another to pile propagandist lies onto a story that doesn't need them.

Belfast is described as a battlefield, between the protestant unionists and the catholic republicans - as if everybody took sides. Yet the film is full of characters who hate the IRA. Marty's wife Laura says: 'your neighbours fear you and you are proud of that'; McGartland's mother swears that if he has been part of a shooting she will take him to the police herself. None of this fits with the image of a city in which all take sides; but it provides the moral climate in which a Martin McGartland could toy with the Provos and feel that he was not alone in his contempt for them.

In fact, the whole story of Martin McGartland is the story of a working class hero who laughs in the faces of pompous chauvinists, yet has real affection for some of the Provos he is working among. The question that raises is surely about the sincerity and the motives of the man himself. But the film does not address the question of whether McGartland is still spoofing a bit, whether he just wasn't too mischievous by nature for his own good.

When the Special Branch made their moves to recruit Martin, the attraction for him was first in the money and the car and yet somehow it morphed into heroism and principle.

This isn't to damn the film altogether. It is brutal and funny. But as a representation of life in Belfast at the time McGartland was working for Special Branch, it is virtually useless, and yet it will be taken seriously by many as an authentic account.

As an attempt to answer questions about the complex motives and character of the real Martin McGartland, 50 Dead Men Walking is equally a failure. And it diverges substantially from McGartland's own account of his interrogation by the IRA.

In his version, he presented himself at Connolly House and was taken away by Chico and Jimmy (names well know in the area). He leapt through a window to escape while the flat he was detained in was empty. But we have to have the torture scene and the drama outside; even the shooting of McGartland in later years has to happen in Canada and not the north of England.

What is the point in the script squandering its own credibility like this? It seems to be signaling to us behind the hand, the way Marty would himself, 'don't take any of this seriously; sure it's just a yarn'.