FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Ken Loach’s History Lesson

“Our film is a little step in the British confronting their imperialist history. Maybe if we tell the truth about the past we can tell the truth about the present.”

The leftist British director Ken Loach has been nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes many times. On Sunday we finally found out that he makes a great victory speech, as he drove home the link between the British occupation of Ireland and today’s occupation of Iraq. More importantly, as we already knew, he makes great films, and ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ is perhaps his very best.

The greatness of this tale of the Irish War of Independence and ensuing Civil War has little to do with parallels to the present day. Viewers may eventually find themselves talking with each other about how occupying armies behave, about the right to resistance, about the relationship between religion and political violence, and about how all this relates to present-day Iraq and Afghanistan. But the movie gets us to that point by treating its immediate subject matter with unstinting care and integrity, and for two hours the audience is nowhere except Cork, 1920-22. The texture of life, language, love and loss are all here, with almost breathtaking, unglamorous ‘reality’. The director’s famous method, whereby actors are shown only their own lines, and those only briefly, helps lend this verisimilitude. Loach’s Cork-born star, Cillian Murphy, emerges quietly but definitively as the finest screen actor Ireland has ever produced, and also as part of an ensemble of otherwise little-known performers bringing fully realised individuals to life.

As some critics have noted bitterly, these rounded characters don’t really include the British troops, but this is not a failing of the film. It is clearly part of the point being made by Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty: these soldiers have been dehumanised, partly by their experience in the World War I trenches, but also by the contemptuous racism that occupation breeds. For them “Irish” is a dirty word, even in Ireland. The Irish rebels, in contrast, are at home in this beautiful landscape: we are constantly reminded that to commit acts of violence in your own home breeds ethical and psychological dilemmas in otherwise healthy people, and they make efforts to maintain some principle and even courtesy amid the carnage.

The carnage and brutality are brilliantly, awfully portrayed, especially as they continually revisit one emblematic rural homestead. But what really sets Loach apart, of course, is his respect for the political agency of ‘ordinary’ people. Again and again characters connect their own lives to wider issues and struggles. And they argue. A Dublin-born train driver (Liam Cunningham) joins forces with the Cork rebel column while quoting William Blake and James Connolly and pressing for a full social revolution in Ireland. A republican court, led by a rebel woman judge, jails a shopkeeper for charging extortionate interest to a poor customer in arrears, but the local IRA leader insists businessmen should be kept sweet because they are needed to fund the armed struggle. The Treaty sets off more honest, impassioned argument before it finally sets off more war, this time setting brother against brother.

What a contrast it makes with Neil Jordan’s absurd ‘Michael Collins’, which treats broadly the same set of historic events as the enactment of a psycho-sexual drama among its handful of prominent protagonists.

Although the various arguments are well ventilated, Loach’s heart is clearly with the left-republicans who opposed the Treaty. The split in 1922 gave rise, eventually, to the two largest political parties in the southern state that was left by partition, Fine Gael (the pro-Treaty side) and Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail, founded by Eamonn de Valera, has been the main party of government in Ireland for most of the time since it was first elected to power in 1932, and its current arts minister has been quoted as saying, presumably with some glee, that Fine Gaelers won’t like this movie. There is probably some truth in this: the gut politics of people whose ancestors opposed the Treaty are likelier to be inspired by Murphy and his ragged republican band than Fine Gaelers will be by their own more strait-laced, petty-bourgeois political antecedents.

Nonetheless, the politician’s view says something about the shamelessness of Fianna Fail. The film portrays that party’s anti-Treaty progenitors sympathetically, sure, but it also portrays them, accurately, as social and economic radicals who wanted to see the ownership of Ireland and its resources vested in its people. In 2006 the party is, e.g, helping Shell drive an unwanted gas production pipeline through the fields of small farmers in Mayo, with no royalties whatsoever going to the Irish state or people. Fianna Failers should see this film and hang their heads when they see how far their movement has come from its original ideals.

No, though the country is now knee-deep in corporate money, the story of Ireland in the 90 years since the Easter Rising has not ended happily, and neither does ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’. (Indeed, the film’s radiance fades slightly with a stagy moment or two in the last reel, before an ending of raw, terrible pain and futility.) Nonetheless, it should be seen not only by Irish people, but by everyone who wonders about this anti-colonial struggle, so near the imperial centre, that reverberated through the 20th century; and who also wants to know how a deeper revolution was almost made here, how it was halted, and how it might be made again, anywhere.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. Contact him at harry.browne@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
August 19, 2019
John Davis
The Isle of White: a Tale of the Have-Lots Versus the Have-Nots
John O'Kane
Supreme Nihilism: the El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto
Robert Fisk
If Chinese Tanks Take Hong Kong, Who’ll be Surprised?
Ipek S. Burnett
White Terror: Toni Morrison on the Construct of Racism
Arshad Khan
India’s Mangled Economy
Howard Lisnoff
The Proud Boys Take Over the Streets of Portland, Oregon
Steven Krichbaum
Put an End to the Endless War Inflicted Upon Our National Forests
Cal Winslow
A Brief History of Harlan County, USA
Jim Goodman
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is Just Part of a Loathsome Administration
Brian Horejsi
Bears’ Lives Undervalued
Thomas Knapp
Lung Disease Outbreak: First Casualties of the War on Vaping?
Susie Day
Dear Guys Who Got Arrested for Throwing Water on NYPD Cops
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
Andrew Levine
Have They No Decency?
David Yearsley
Kind of Blue at 60
Ramzy Baroud
Manifestos of Hate: What White Terrorists Have in Common
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The War on Nature
Martha Rosenberg
Catch and Hang Live Chickens for Slaughter: $11 an Hour Possible!
Neve Gordon
It’s No Wonder the Military likes Violent Video Games, They Can Help Train Civilians to Become Warriors
Yoav Litvin
Israel Fears a Visit by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Susan Miller
That Debacle at the Border is Genocide
Ralph Nader
With the Boeing 737 MAX Grounded, Top Boeing Bosses Must Testify Before Congress Now
Victor Grossman
Warnings, Ancient and Modern
Meena Miriam Yust - Arshad Khan
The Microplastic Threat
Kavitha Muralidharan
‘Today We Seek Those Fish in Discovery Channel’
Louis Proyect
The Vanity Cinema of Quentin Tarantino
Bob Scofield
Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Affects Us All
Ron Jacobs
People’s Music for the Soul
John Feffer
Is America Crazy?
Jonathan Power
Russia and China are Growing Closer Again
John W. Whitehead
Who Inflicts the Most Gun Violence in America? The U.S. Government and Its Police Forces
Justin Vest
ICE: You’re Not Welcome in the South
Jill Richardson
Race is a Social Construct, But It Still Matters
Dean Baker
The NYT Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Retains Political Control After New US Coercive Measures
Gary Leupp
MSNBC and the Next Election: Racism is the Issue (and Don’t Talk about Socialism)
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail