Image Credit: Getty Images

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, a surprisingly open-minded film about a queer love triangle.

One of the goals of this column is highlighting the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community has been underserved and underrepresented in cinema over the years. By revisiting little-seen films that put us and our stories at the center, or discussing more mainstream projects that sidelined or subtly hinted at us, we can track how our community’s portrayal in media has grown, changed, and—in some cases—first started to appear.

The vast majority of examples we are able to focus on concern the L, the G, and (to a more complex degree) the T letters of our alphabet family. The B seems to be a bit more evasive.

It’s rare to find well-delineated bisexual characters throughout early Hollywood history; people whose bisexuality goes beyond mere portrayals of promiscuity, standing in as symbols of debauchery, loose morals, or even plain villainy. Take for example a film we discussed not too long ago, Something For Everyone: Michael York, as deliciously Machiavellian as he was, still used his bisexuality to trick and deceive people for his own personal greed.

Within that context, the 1971 British drama Sunday Bloody Sunday is nothing less than groundbreaking—not just for centering an openly bisexual character at the literal center of a plot at a time where the opposite was the norm. But also for its depiction of polyamory and gay love in an honest, emotional, and often thorny lens.

The Set-Up

Director John Schlesinger’s follow-up to Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday revolves around three characters in an open love triangle in London: Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), a middle-aged divorcée who often nannies for a couple in the suburbs. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch), a gay Jewish doctor whose overwhelming patients are getting on his last nerve. And the man they are both emotionally and sexually involved with, Bob Elkin (Murray Head), a young Bohemian artist who has a much easier time navigating the relationship than the other two.

The film takes place approximately over one week, where Bob keeps going back and forth between Alex and Daniel. He spends a weekend with Alex looking over the children of their friends…. well, part of the weekend. Bob leaves halfway to go be with Daniel, with whom he is planning a trip to Italy.

For the duration of that week, Alex and Daniel (who are both very aware of the other’s existence and what the common denominator is) fight for the time and affections of Bob, and have to be satisfied with whatever little he is able to give. Both of their individual daily routines are emotionally empty and monotonous, so half a Bob is better than no Bob at all.

The Love Triangle

Image Credit: ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ The Criterion Channel

Although Bob is the person and catalyst that connects everyone, the movie is more of a character study of the two people on the other sides of the love triangle. Not for nothing it was Jackson and Finch that got the Oscar nominations for their performances.

Alex, coming out of a failed marriage and with a childhood scarred by war and abandonment, is seemingly only able to carry on with her life when she’s with Bob. They play house together with children that are not their own; they become the family that her parents were not, and the one she failed to make by herself. At least for a little while (for a single “bloody Sunday,” one might say), she lives in a fantasy life with him. But then the fantasy breaks when Bob leaves to give that same fantasy to someone else.

Much in the same way he gives Alex the family home she lacked and yearns for, Bob gives Daniel the romantic love life that he cannot have. Daniel’s days are full of people coming in and out of his practice, complaining about inexistent problems, refusing to listen to his instructions, and calling him at all hours. He is a ball of frustration and anxiety. But with Bob, he gets lost in sex, art, and Italian lessons. 

More Than A F*ckboy

Image Credit: ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ The Criterion Channel

The movie could have easily made Bob just an avatar for the desires and projections of his two lovers, and turn him into yet another bisexual character that uses his sexual guiles for his own pleasure and advancement. And in many ways, Bob is that. But he’s not just that. By showing how he’s unable to fulfill the lives of Alex and Daniel, the movie wisely demonstrates how that’s also incredibly unfulfilling for his own life.

We don’t really see much of Bob’s life outside his relationship with Alex and Daniel, which gives the impression that there isn’t much life there. For as much as he moves between the two, and toys with their expectations and feelings, his own day-to-day is filled by the time he spends with them. We see what Alex and Daniel are like when Bob is not around. It’s not fulfilling, but it is something. Bob doesn’t seem to exist outside this triangle, and that’s weighing down on him.

Passing Bi

By the end of the film, Bob decides to leave for New York and open an art gallery. It’s after he makes this decision that David and Alex actually meet for the first time, and realize they too have to move on. What they thought was giving them freedom was actually keeping all of them trapped.

Sunday Bloody Sunday is a much more introspective and meditative film than what its concept would imply. Yes, there is sexy fun to be enjoyed with the younger man that goes back and forth between his two partners. But the film really is about the realization that half a person is not enough; a bold statement to make at a time with a bisexual character at its center, an identity that had historically been portrayed as only half of something. There’s always been much more to them.

Sunday Bloody Sunday is now streaming on Prime Video, Tubi, and Pluto TV.

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