Steve McQueen’s Hunger tells the tale of the Provisional IRA members imprisoned in Maze Prison, who protested their status as non-political prisoners. Starting in 1976 as a ‘blanket protest’ (a refusal to wear prison clothes), before morphing into a dirty protest (the prisoners smeared excrement on the walls and refused to wash), it finally ended in a hunger strike. The film removes itself from the exact politics of the situation, instead focusing on the men battling against an awful situation, and the strength of will it took to resist simple needs like clothing or food: sacrificing their humanity, and eventually their lives, in order to stand up for their beliefs.
In the stunning 24-minute long dialogue between strike leader Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Moran (Liam Cunningham), the two discuss the implications of the strike, with Sands bringing up a story from his childhood. The young Sands was on a trip with some friends when they came upon a foal by a stream who had broken its back legs. Sands drowned the horse, accepting the punishment that would come with it, to put it out of its misery. Showing that he believes that sometimes you must make a personal sacrifice in order to do what’s right, even if it won’t benefit you.
During the hunger strike, his condition deteriorates, showing the brutality of what Sands is putting himself through for his cause: ‘gradual deterioration of the liver, kidney and pancreatic function… eventually cardiac failure… gastrointestinal ulcers’. The agonising shots of the last few days of Sands’ life are a tapestry of pain, ending only with his death. One particular part of this sequence that makes Sands’ will so impressive is his resiliency, as a new meal is placed before him multiple times a day he never capitulates to it, which must have been more alluring than literally anything else he could have seen in his whole life.
The peak of his martyrdom is captured when Sands’ normal, caring orderly is switched out for a loyalist U.D.A. (Ulster Defence Association), one who refuses to help Sands out the bath. Sands, despite being weak and close to death, somehow manages to stand up one last time, showing his enduring spirit, remaining unwilling to acquiesce to the expectations of those who hate him and his ideas.
The opening murder of Prison Officer Lohan (Stuart Graham), who is assassinated in front of his catatonic mother, is pointless; his death essentially means nothing. He doesn’t seem to believe in the cause, being indifferent to it beyond having a little Union Flag keychain. So when he dies, it’s all pretty needless. The opposite is true for Sands, who by creating purpose with what he’s doing, actually achieves something with his death.
In death, Sands would not have known that his strike helped the prisoners to achieve their goals in all but name. He wouldn’t have known that 100,000 people would attend his funeral. He wouldn’t have known that while the Provisional IRA didn’t achieve exactly what they wanted (a united Ireland), they did achieve peace and a stop to the horrors of the Troubles. Sands couldn’t have known any of this because he gave his life for his cause, through intense pain, intense pressure, and intense persecution. He gave literally everything he had to give the cause a chance of succeeding. In the end, though, maybe it’s just about finding something worth fighting for that gives you the strength to persevere.