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.