Category Archives: Ken Loach

Land and Freedom (1995)

I tend to watch Ken Loach’s films before I know anything about their subject. I saw Kes before I had read anything about the mining industry in the north of England. I saw The Wind that Shakes the Barley before I had a clue about the Irish War of Liberation. After I watched Land and Freedom, twice, I read some of the reviews online. I simply don’t have enough background on the various conflicts between anarchists and the government, between the Communist Party, the POUM, and the CNT to make any judgment about whether Land and Freedom is a unethical Trotskyist hit job on the Communist Party, or an accurate dramatization of the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution by Stalin.

Does it work as drama?

Land and Freedom starts out with the death of an old man in a ratty flat somewhere in the United Kingdom. His granddaughter, who discovers the body, also discovers a cache of letters and photographs. As she reads, we flash back to Liverpool in the 1930s. David Carr, the old, is now a young man. A member of the Communist Party, he is listening to a presentation by a Spanish comrade on the need for international volunteers to go fight in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. Carr, who doesn’t have a job anyway, is eager to sign up. He sails to Marseilles in France and hikes across the Pyrenees to the Arragon front. There he joins, not a Communist Party brigade, but the POUM, the same Trotskyist militia George Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia.

I haven’t studied the POUM’s role in the Spanish Civil war, but it seems to me that, for the sake of narrative compactness, Loach has re-imagined the POUM as an amalgam of the Trotskyism and Spanish anarchism. David Carr’s column is an international brigade. There are three languages, English, Spanish, and Catalan, along with a smattering of French, Italian and German. The commanders are an Irishman named Coogan, an American named Lawrence, and a Spaniard named Vidal. There are two women. There’s a German socialist, a Scot, a veteran of the IRA, a Frenchman and an Italian. But it’s not a Communist Party international brigade. They don’t answer to Moscow. There are no ranks. There’s no saluting. There are no uniforms. The POUM, in Loach’s film, is not just a group of socialists. It’s radical democracy in action. Think of Land and Freedom as the antidote to all of those American movies about the Second World War. Here, a diverse group of recruits come together, not to be “men,” but to be both men and women, not under the iron hand of some authoritarian drill instructor played by John Wayne, but according to their own commitment to fight fascism.

David Carr, in fact, learns to confront his own latent conservatism.

Two of Land and Freedom’s strongest characters are women. There’s Maite, played by Icíar Bollaín. Maite has little use for formal discipline. She gets sick of drilling in formation with wooden rifles and flips off the drill instructor, who has to reason with her, not order her, to get back in line. But she’s also one of the POUM’s most dependable stalwarts. She talks a recruit back into the organization when, in despair over his wife having an affair, he threatens to desert.

“I came here for her,” the man says, “for my daughter, for the future.”

“If Franco wins,” Maite says. “There won’t a future, not for me, not for you, not for your wife not for your daughter.”

Then there’s Blanca, played by Rosana Pastor. Blanca, with her doe like features, tall stature, and her long, graceful neck looks like every man’s romantic dream of Spanish anarchism come to life. Ian Hart, who plays Carr, is a bit too small and refined for the character. He’s a working class Scouse from Liverpool, not a graduate of Oxford. He also assumes Blanca’s a prostitute. “Your whores look a lot better here than they do back home,” he says. His fellow members of the POUM, including Maite, are more amused than they are offended. They know Blanca’s not someone to be taken lightly, so they encourage him to ask her out on a date. All he gets is a lecture, but he’s genuinely smitten. David Carr has a bit of a rough edge. But he’s no misogynist. He’s as impressed with Blanca’s intelligence and commitment to fighting fascism as he is by her looks.

After the POUM liberates a small town from the fascists, and Blanca’s lover Coogan is killed by a village priest, who uses a church tower as a sniper’s nest, the POUM has a debate about land reform. Should they collectivize the whole village, or should they only redistribute the land of the fascist sympathizers? It sounds boring but it’s not. Every character is thrown into relief. The German talks about how the conservatism of the Communists and Social Democrats paved the way for Hitler. Maite translates between English and Spanish. Blanca and the Scots activist form a block in favor of immediate collectivism. Lawrence, the American, anchors the POUM’s right wing. Immediate collectivization, he argues, will alienate the capitalist powers. It will make it harder to buy weapons. The Communist Party will assume they’re dreamers not to be taken seriously. David Carr, who’s still a member of the Communist party, not an anarchist or a Trotsykist, waivers, but the resolution is passed. They will confiscate all the land and redistribute it. Later, on the road, Blanca explains why.

“And you talk about being poor,” she says as two landless peasants pass them by on the road. “Landless agricultural laborers living in caves or sand pits. That is poor.”

Whether or not Land and Freedom is an accurate depiction of Spanish anarchism, the Communist Party or the POUM, it is an effective dramatization of the radical promise that was lost when the Soviet Union and the western democracies betrayed the Spanish republic. If the anarchists had won in Spain, Loach suggests, beating fascism would have been about more than just restoring old order and ushering in the new Cold War. It could have been about genuine, radical democracy in all of Europe.

Loach places the blame squarely with the Soviet Union. In order to establish diplomatic relations with the capitalist west, he argues, Stalin stabbed the Spanish Revolution in the back. The POUM votes to retain their independence, but Stalin has more resources than they do. They’re denied supplies. Carr is gravely wounded when an obsolete rifle blows up in his face. Blanca makes up a tourniquet for his arm, and gets him back to a hospital in Barcelona. There they begin to see the state cracking down on anarchists. The police are better armed than the militias at the front. The old order is being restored, even if it means losing the war against Franco. Carr, who is still a member of the Communist Party, and Blanca quarrel when he reveals that he intends to join one of the Communist led international brigades. He returns to the POUM, and Blanca, when he realizes that Stalin and the Communist party are more interested in fighting anarchists than fascists.

The final sequence of Land and Freedom is a remarkably effective, indeed, almost Shakespearian sequence about Stalin’s betrayal of a dedicated group of anti-fascists. They’re ordered to attack a fascist position, which they do with great resolution and courage, but not given sufficient ammunition or reinforcements. Then, after Franco’s troops have already ground the POUM down, the state army finally arrives. Lawrence, the American, conservative, and closet Stalinist — who had earlier revealed his rotten character when he lectured the wounded Carr on the need more pragmatic instead of coming to his aid — is one of the officers in charge of suppressing the POUM. They have a list. It’s divide and conquer. The POUM’s rank and file will be allowed to disband and go home, but the veteran commander Vidal, as well as several of the more radical members, are on a list of men to be arrested, sent to prison, and probably tortured or executed. The POUM’s members stand their ground. But it’s useless. They’re tired. They’re out of ammunition. They’re surrounded. Blanca rushes at Lawrence and confronts him about his betrayal. The Stalinist troops open fire.

David Carr returns to England. He has a wife, children, grandchildren, but he still dies in a nondescript flat somewhere in Liverpool. We’re back in the grey, dreary world of class-ridden, capitalist Great Britain. Carr’s granddaughter reads a few lines of William Morris as they lower his body, and a handful of Spanish dirt, into the grave. David Carr was a hero, Loach tells us, who lived on into old age, but lost the promise of his life back in the 1930s.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”

-James Connolly

Made at the height of the United States occupation of Iraq in 2006, the opening of Ken Loach’s film about the Irish War of Independence grabs you by the throat, and forces you to look at a reality that very few Americans understand, a military occupation by a foreign power. We are in Cork, Ireland in 1920. A group of men are engaged in a curling match. We know we are about to look at a war movie, but this feels like the calm before the storm. After all, there’s nothing political about a hurling match, is there?

The men return home. One of them, Damien O’Donovan, a young man in his mid-20s who’s about to leave Ireland to study medicine, is chatting with, Sinead, his childhood sweetheart, and her younger brother Micheál. Suddenly, a group of heavily armed soldiers storm their block and hold the entire neighborhood at gunpoint. We learn that The Defense of the Realm Act has banned all public meetings, including hurling matches. The soldiers, the infamous Black and Tans, veterans of the First World War who were recruited by the British government as brownshirts to brutalize the Irish people, take us through all the stages an occupied people go through. Damien and his friends are made to shout out their names. They’re made to take off their clothes. They have to watch while foreigners scream at Irish women things like “shut up you bitch.” After Micheál refuses to comply, after he speaks Celtic, refuses to strip, and punches the leader of the Black and Tans, the Black and Tans take him into a shed and beat him to death with a Hurley, one of the hurling sticks they had just confiscated.

Micheál’s death is the catalyst that turns both Sinead and Damien, whose brother Teddy is the commander of a local IRA flying column, into committed revolutionaries. After taking the oath of allegiance to the IRA, Damien becomes a valued member of Teddy’s column. If the first 15 minutes of The Wind that Shake the Barley are about dramatizing what it’s like to live under a foreign occupier, the next 45 minutes are about the struggle against the occupier. Teddy, Damien, Sinead and their fellow activists are by no means romanticized. Indeed, after Damien carries out an order to execute Chris Reilly, a teenage boy who was strong armed into turning their names over to the police, we see how unsentimental Ken Loach is, even about a guerrilla war he so obviously supports.

In the second half of the film, after the British government and the IRA call a truce, Loach flips the narrative he had so effectively drawn us into in the first 15 minutes. Teddy and Damien find themselves on opposite sides of the coming civil war. Damien, who had come under the influence of an old militant named Dan, a disciple of James Connolly, wants to overthrow the Irish land owners and the Catholic Church along with expelling the British. He recognizes that the Irish poor can be exploited and repressed by the Irish as well as the English. Teddy, on the other hand, who feels a bit like Ken Loach’s stand in for Michael Collins, is willing to accept not only the existing system of class relations, but a partitioned country, dominion status, and the necessity of Irish politicians to take an oath to the King before being seated in the Irish Parliament. Try to imagine the American Revolution ending, not only with slavery intact but with a permanent British occupation of New York City.

We get a hint at what’s to come when Teddy interferes with the decision a “republican” (in this case “republican” would mean socialist) court in liberated Cork has made to compel a local moneylender to refund some of the money he had made off an old woman by lending at extortionate interest rates. Teddy needs his money to buy guns. Damien doesn’t see the point of independence if all it does is carry the old class repression along with it. But it’s only after Michael Collins goes to London and negotiates not independence, but dominion status within the British empire that the two brothers come to blows. Teddy becomes an official in the new Irish Free State. Damien joins the newly born anti-Treaty IRA. After Teddy has Damien arrested for stealing guns for the anti-treaty IRA, Damien is imprisoned in the very same jail where both brothers had earlier been imprisoned, and tortured, by the Black and Tans. Teddy has taken the place of the British occupier. Damien is leading an armed rebellion against his own brother.

Ken Loach, a socialist, is squarely in Damien’s camp. Indeed, Damien O’Donovan, is one of the more principled revolutionaries film has given us. He knows that from the moment he had chosen to execute Chris Reilly, he himself was a dead man, that he had given his life for the revolution, and that any attempt at compromise would be a betrayal. Teddy is much less self-aware, thinking that he can stop halfway, at “changing the flag and the accents of the powerful,” as Damien’s friend Dan had earlier said, paraphrasing James Connolly. But Loach also has the benefit of history. He realizes that very few people from Damien’s generation would live to see the Republic of Ireland break completely with Great Britain in 1948, let alone achieve complete independence, which still hasn’t happened. He knows how long the civil war will go on. Damien, perversely in the eyes of his brother, chooses to die rather than betray the anti-treaty IRA. Teddy, even more perversely, agrees to carry out the execution himself. The viewer is left shattered. Did Irish independence really mean the destruction of a family that had done so much to make it possible?

Kes (1969)

kes

While Kes, the second feature length film by the British director Ken Loach, has been acclaimed by the critics and ignored by the general public, it has little to do with a difficult plot, or a self-indulgent, experimental style. On the contrary, it’s a straightforward little narrative about a bullied 15-year-old boy that should have an almost universal appeal. The problem has always been its setting. Filmed in the mining district of Yorkshire with mostly non-professional actors, the north of England accents can sometimes seem a bit like a foreign language.

There’s no reason people in the United States shouldn’t discover this poetic, humanistic film. The Yorkshire mining district accents are much less of a problem on DVD or on YouTube (where Kes is currently available in full) since you can easily turn on subtitles translating them into standard American English. While the setting and the story may at times feel bleak and hopeless, it’s offset by the almost universal appeal of the protagonist.

Kes stands squarely with a bullied underdog against the institutions of a class society. The protagonist, the 15-year-old Billy Casper, who lives with his single mother and 20-something brother in the city of Lundwood, is part of the lower-working-class. The opening of Kes, short for Kestrel, is quietly bleak. British miners at the time were among the lowest paid workers in the developed world. Billy and his brother Jud not only share a bedroom, but a bed.  An alarm clock rings. Jud, who is already working down in the mines, and Billy, who has to deliver papers before he goes to school, want nothing more than to stay in bed. As they squabble, as Jud demonstrates his complete disregard for Billy’s feelings, his callous, spiteful attitude towards his brother, you get the sense that this is about more than just wanting to hit the snooze button and get an extra hour of sleep. Both would rather just be unconscious than be alive.

We can see why Jud is so bitter and angry. What exactly do you have to live for if you’re pulling full time shifts at the mine, and don’t even have your own bed? Then again, Jud is not even the kind of young man who could imagine something better. He’s just an asshole with no inner life. He’s all surface.

Billy Casper on the other hand, lives in his own head, so much so that it makes it difficult for him to cope in the harsh, working-class school he’s on the verge of leaving to go find a job. These days he’d probably be diagnosed with Aspergers and medicated. But in Loach’s film, it’s clear that he’s an asocial, clumsy misfit simply because his imagination is likely to offer him a better life than anything in the real world. It makes sense for him to turn away. One day, out walking, he sees a pair of kestrels flying low over the horizon. A Kestrel, a majestic breed of hawk also known as a “windhover,” is perhaps, best described by quoting the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins.

“I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”

The Windhover

Suddenly, Billy Casper has something to live for. This is love at first sight, only it’s not a girl, who, at best would simply drag him down into a dreary working-class marriage, back into the cycle where his mother is trapped, a dead end that would do nothing more than produce more wretched Billies and Juds. The kestrel is Billy’s soul made flesh, the descent of his consciousness into the the physical and the ascent of the physical into the spiritual. After discovering the kestrel’s nest in a dilapidated ruin of an old castle, Billy steals a book on falconry from a local second hand book store, captures the bird, then brings it home.

Immediately we see the contrast between the way Billy treats the kestrel, or “Kes,” and the way the adults at school treat him. Where Billy loves Kes, trains him only to teach him to be more free than he already is, Billy’s school is all about crushing the spirit. Indeed, what’s striking about Kes is the way the lower-working-class and the lower-middle-class have so completely assimilated the contempt of the ruling classes for their “inferiors,” themselves. In another film about alienated youth, like the great French movie La Haine, we need cops. We need the oppressor with a gun or a set of riot gear. In Kes, people at the bottom of English society repress one another so well all we need are schoolteachers and football coaches. Loach captures the way people who hate themselves and the people around them speak, the contempt, the harsh dismissiveness, the inarticulate rage at being part of a community you despise in the way they spit out their words and hector one another for no conceivable reason. But Kes allows Billy to escape it all. As he watches Kes fly, soar above what we can now see is still a lovely green countryside apart from the mines, we soar with Billy’s soul. He will of course be defeated in the end, but, unlike Jud, he does, if only for a brief time, know what it’s like to be free.

That makes what happens to Billy, and to Kes, all the more emotionally devastating. It’s not that we don’t know what’s coming. A young man like Billy is damned before he’s even born. He really doesn’t have a chance But it’s the sheer cruelty and maliciousness of what’s done to him that makes Kes such a small scale, yet powerful protest against the English class system. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” the American poet Robinson Jeffers said.

Kes leaves us wanting to kill someone.