Jack O’Connell’s new film about warfare hits close to home

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Jack O’Connell, best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken,” will next be seen in another film about military conflict, but one he can relate to more personally than the Angelina Jolie-directed film set against the backdrop of World War II.

Opening Friday, ” ’71” focuses on Gary Hook, a British soldier trapped inside the Roman Catholic quarter of Belfast in Northern Ireland during the intense fighting and rioting in that strife-afflicted city during what have come to be called “the Troubles” in 1971.

In a recent phone chat, the actor laughed as he admitted filming ” ’71” (just prior to him being cast in “Unbroken”) compared the physical challenges of the two movies.

“They both were very tough, for sure,” said O’Connell. “I’d say the up to this point, of all my films, ‘ ’71’ was a very tough shoot. In my experience, it was second only to ‘Unbroken,’ which was really brutal.”

The actor, who is half-Irish, said that his heritage “probably did give me a bit more insight into the fighting in Northern Ireland than if I wasn’t part Irish, but I think many Americans of Irish descent can also relate to it all. . . . Frankly, many people understand how so many conflicts around the world are over religion. In many cases those wars have been very shameful and horribly destructive.”

For O’Connell, however, his focus in making ” ’71” was less about political issues than playing a soldier who was abandoned by his unit and left to fend for himself in a life-threatening environment — basically behind enemy lines in Belfast.

I asked what O’Connell would have liked to have asked some of the soldiers who actually fought in Northern Ireland at that time.

“I guess I’d want to know if those soldiers really knew about the whole picture of what was going on around them. Did they have any empathy with people on the other side? What was it like to be thrown into a war that was not of one’s own choosing? . . . Of course, isn’t that the case in all wars? Young men being thrust into conflicts they had nothing to do with causing to happen — that’s gone on for centuries, hasn’t it?”

Gary’s situation is complicated. “He’s a very human guy. Yes, he’s a soldier, but he’s not some unthinking, cold-hearted killer. He’s not a savage. We see him losing his best friend in battle, plus we know he’s got a very special relationship with his young brother, who he cares for so deeply. Gary knows he has to survive in Ireland and get home, because his brother needs him.”

As for working with director Yann Demange — who made his feature film helming debut with ” ’71” — O’Connell said it was a very intense relationship. “We became very close and have remained close, but there were a lot of very intense days on that shoot. It felt like we were actually in the middle of a war on many of those days were were filming. Lots of very grim days.”

When discussing the film, O’Connell wanted to point out that “’71” should not be considered anti-war, as he thinks of it more as “a thriller than anything else.”

But the wartime setting is undeniable. “I think it will allow the audience to make up their own minds about what went on in Belfast back then,” O’Connell said. “We did not glorify war, that’s for sure. We simply wanted to tell a story about that one soldier and what he faced at the most challenging moment of his young life.”

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