Ken Loach doesn't make that many films, but when he does you can always be sure that you will get a hard hitting couple of hours and that you will walk away having learned something.
His latest film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, charts the political development of a group of men and women from a village near Cork (Ireland) against the background of the election of the first Dail and the subsequent Irish Civil War and the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Set in rural Ireland, the film illustrates clearly the role of the Landowners as collaborators with the British, the savage oppression of the Black and Tan mercenaries, brutalised by the First World War and also the development of the different political tendencies within Irish Republicanism, which can still be seen today.
The issues of civil war, repression of the Irish language, of divisions in families, collaboration and of the unreliability of conscripted troops are dealt with clearly, but also sensitively. The position of the Catholic Church as a prop of reaction is very well explained.
As in Land and Freedom, Loach illustrates the differing political positions through the individual characters in the film. This works very well, particularly in explaining the specific role played by the working class, as reflected in the character of Dan the train driver, who was a participant in the 1913 Dublin lockout, the Citizen's Army during the Easter rising and who is badly beaten for refusing to transport British troops and weapons.
The film concentrates on the rural guerrilla war, and in so doing succeeds in capturing the feel both of the landscape, the way of life of the rural people and of the methods of guerrilla warfare.
The signing of the 1921 peace treaty and the subsequent split between the free-staters and the republicans is explained through newsreel footage and through a dramatised political debate, which brings out the different arguments which raged at the time. From a Marxist perspective, this debate throws into sharp relief the contradictions, both in terms of class and politics within the movement as well as the eventual split between the Sinn Fein leaders and the majority of the ranks of the Republican movement many of whom were influenced by the ideas of that great Marxist James Connolly and the Russian revolution.
The movement for the national liberation of Ireland is raised by the Free State supporters as a major threat to the British Empire, and therefore doomed to defeat at the hands of the British army.
Socialists in Republican Movement
The arguments of the Socialists within the Republican movement are explained clearly in class terms, for nationalisation of the land and industry and for equality for all. Also, that there can be no freedom of the Irish masses and no end to the poverty on the basis of capitalism, which is as true today as it was in the 1920s. As Connolly had written as far back as 1897 in Socialism or Nationalism:
“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation 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.
“England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that Freedom whose cause you had betrayed.”
The eventual defeat of the revolutionary movement and the consequent stabilisation of the Free State are depicted in very graphic and harrowing terms. Here was a tragically missed opportunity that led to the blind alley of partition under the knife of British imperialism and the sectarian monster in the North. As Connolly had predicted “a carnival of reaction” ensued.
All in all, this is a well crafted and well thought out film. It has been thoroughly researched and really gets under the surface of the processes and the events that helped shape the current situation on the island of Ireland. But if you want to find out more, go and see it soon, because it's not going to get a lot of exposure at your local multiplex, or even Blockbusters, Palme d'Or or no Palme d'Or.