Sunday Bloody Sunday (film)

Sunday Bloody Sunday is a 1971 British drama film written by Penelope Gilliatt, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Murray Head, Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch and Peggy Ashcroft. It tells the story of a free-spirited young bisexual artist (played by Head) and his simultaneous relationships with a divorced female recruitment job consultant (Jackson) and a gay male Jewish doctor (Finch).[2]

Sunday Bloody Sunday
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Schlesinger
Produced byJoseph Janni
Edward Joseph
Written byPenelope Gilliatt
StarringMurray Head
Glenda Jackson
Peter Finch
Peggy Ashcroft
Music byRon Geesin
CinematographyBilly Williams
Edited byRichard Marden
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • 1 July 1971 (1971-07-01)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£1.5 million[1]

The film is significant for its time in that Finch's homosexual character is depicted as successful and relatively well-adjusted, and not particularly upset by his sexuality. In this sense, Sunday Bloody Sunday was a considerable departure from Schlesinger's previous film Midnight Cowboy (1969), which portrayed its queer characters as alienated and self-loathing, as well as other gay-themed films of the era, including The Boys in the Band (1970) and Some of My Best Friends Are... (1971).[3]


Set in London, the film tells the story of a middle-aged gay Jewish doctor, Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch), and a divorced woman in her mid-30s, Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), who are both involved in an open love triangle with sculptor Bob Elkin (Murray Head), a younger man in his mid-20s. Not only are Daniel and Alex each aware that Bob is seeing the other but they know one another through common friends. Despite this, they are willing to put up with the situation through fear of losing Bob, who switches freely between them. Bob has his own coterie of artist friends who support his work, which consists of glass fountains.

Alex and Daniel are both close friends with the Hodsons, who are a conventional middle-class family living somewhere in a leafy London suburb. They alternate having Sunday dinner with the Hodsons, who are quite aware of their relationships but don't talk about them, though the Hodson children are inclined to snicker. Alex also has a depressed friend who has recently lost his job to age discrimination. They sleep together at Alex's flat, and then Bob announces his arrival, forcing them to pretend to be having a casual drink. Bob tells Alex that he has no problem with her sleeping with other men. They are, in his words, "free".

There are minor crises in the narrative. The Hodson's family dog is run over by a truck which narrowly misses the children. Daniel has to deal with a former lover (Jon Finch) who is a heroin addict. After unsuccessfully trying to fill a heroin prescription for him at a pharmacy, being unable to prove he is a doctor, Daniel finds that his medical bag has been stolen from his car.

For Alex, the relationship is bound up with growing disillusion about her professional life, failed marriage and uneasy childhood. For Daniel, it represents an escape from the repressed nature of his Jewish upbringing. Both realise the lack of permanence about the situation. When Bob decides to leave the country to settle in New York City, after receiving an offer to open his own art gallery, they both come face to face for the first time in the narrative. Despite their opposed circumstances, Daniel and Alex come to realise that it is time to move on; Bob leaves for the United States.

The film ends with an unconventional speech from Daniel directly to the audience. He muses on his relationship with Bob, his friends' concern for his happiness, and declares "I am happy, except for missing him". His last remark is "I only came about my cough", often a punch line to a joke about a man going to the doctor and getting unexpected news.


Production notes

Schlesinger had the idea for the movie when making Far from the Madding Crowd. He approached Penelope Gilliat, who had recently done a novel A Statement of Change about a love triangle involving a doctor, and asked if she would write a script. They had extensive discussions and she wrote the first draft in London over ten days.[4]

The movie took five years of development. "There were endless delays," said the director. "No one was very keen about our doing the film." There were casting problems. For what it is it ended up being terribly expensive."[5]

The relationship between Schlesinger and Gilliat was often difficult and David Sherwin did an extensive uncredited rewrite.[6]


The original choices for the leads were Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave. Both were offered the parts but turned them down.

John Schlesinger said he wanted Peter Finch for the role of Daniel Hirsh, the gay doctor. However he was meant to star in a film of Man's Fate so was unavailable.[5] He then cast Alan Bates but Bates was held up filming The Go-Between (1970) so Ian Bannen was cast.

Schlesinger was thinking of casting Jean Simmons until he saw Glenda Jackson in Women in Love and decided to offer her the role.[1]

Several actresses (including Dame Edith Evans and Thora Hird) politely refused the part of Glenda Jackson's mother, Mrs. Greville, because they thought the project was too risqué. Peggy Ashcroft accepted after the director explained to her the elements of the story and she gladly signed on.


Filming took place from March to August 1970.

Ian Bannen was fired from the role of Daniel Hirsh shortly after filming began. Apparently, he was so nervous about what kissing another actor on screen might do to his career, he could not concentrate enough to even get going with the part. He later said that losing the role set back his career, and regretted it till his death. He was replaced by Finch who became available.

Daniel Day-Lewis made his film debut in an uncredited role as a vandal. He described the experience as "heaven", for getting paid £2 to vandalise expensive cars parked outside near St Alfege Church, Greenwich. The sequence showed children walking alongside a line of parked cars, casually scraping the cars' paintwork with keys and coins.

Of the kiss scene between Head and Finch, Schlesinger said he wanted to direct it "purely natural. Both Peter and Murray were totally involved in their parts and they were certainly less shocked by the kiss than some of the technicians."[3]

"We were eager to make a tender film," said Schlesinger.[3]

During filming Head was in a motorbike accident and the child actors came down with measles.[7]


The film makes extensive use of source music including a leitmotif of the trio Soave sia il vento from Mozart's opera Così fan tutte.


Schlesinger says that when he showed the film to United Artists executives in New York, "they were all appalled except David Picker. They were prepared to let it quietly die."[5]


The film currently holds a 92% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[8]

Peter Rainer of Bloomberg News wrote, "It's Finch's finest moment as an actor (and literally a far cry from his most famous role as the "mad prophet of the airwaves" in Network). As for Jackson, she was never better, more variegated."[9]

This film appeared on both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's Top 10 list of 1971, listed as No. 5 and No. 6 respectively. Roger Ebert commented, "The official East Coast line on John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday was that it is civilized. That judgment was enlisted to carry the critical defense of the movie; and, indeed, how can the decent critic be against a civilized movie about civilized people? My notion, all the same, is that Sunday Bloody Sunday is about people who suffer from psychic amputation, not civility, and that this film is not an affirmation but a tragedy... I think Sunday Bloody Sunday is a masterpiece, but I don't think it's about what everybody else seems to think it's about. This is not a movie about the loss of love, but about its absence."[10]

Box office

The film performed strongly at the box office in urban centres but was not popular outside these and ultimately lost money.[11]

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards

Golden Globe Awards

BAFTA Awards

Other awards and nominations


  1. Mann 2005, p. 356
  2. "Sunday, Bloody Sunday". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 38 no. 444. London. 1 January 1971. p. 146.
  3. Flatley, Guy (3 October 1971). "I Suppose Some People Will Be Shocked". New York Times. p. D13.
  4. Sayre, Nora (15 October 1971). "Features: Penelope Gilliatt: Talks About 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'". Vogue. Vol. 158 no. 7. New York. pp. 100–2.
  5. Champlin, Charles (15 October 1971). "A Return to Studio Shooting?". Los Angeles Times. p. G1.
  6. Mann 2005, pp. 361–2
  7. Kramer, Carol (14 November 1971). "John Schlesinger's delicate risk". Chicago Tribune. p. q9.
  8. Sunday Bloody Sunday at Rotten Tomatoes
  9. Rainer, Peter (14 January 2013). "Kiss in 'Bloody Sunday' broke rules". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  10. "Sunday Bloody Sunday". Chicago Sun-Times. 1 January 1971. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  11. Mann 2005, p. 369
Works cited
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