Thursday, April 05, 2007

“Wind that Shakes the Barley”,

Last night I finally caught up with the “Wind that Shakes the Barley”, and I have to say I was disappointed and I consider the film to have been wildly over-praised. Perhaps because any film showing a British army of occupation will be well received during the context of the Iraq war.

Stylistically, I have a problem with the way Loach rather clumsily seeks to educate the audience, with dialogue and indeed whole scenes inserted just to inform. For example when the character played by Cillian Murphy rather incongruously explains Sinn Fein’s election victory to a British officer. Loach could have achieved much stronger artistic effect by simply filming the story about two brothers who ended up on different sides in a civil war, without breaking off every few minutes for a history lesson.

But as loach has consciously set out to make a political film, then he must be judged on both the politics and the artistic content. The interaction between the two starts with loach’s choice to make the film about a rural IRA unit, away from the centre of action, and the major players. Of course great insight can be achieved by looking at the effect of major historical events on ordinary people, but Loach’s choice causes him some problems. Firstly, there is no sense in the film of the enormous, almost feverish ferment in Ireland during this period, a good introduction to which can be found, for example, in C Desmond Greaves’s book “Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution”.

And shifting the centre of action to a rural location also means that the key turning point happens off stage: the attack on anti-Treaty forces in Dublin’s Four Courts by the Free State army with British help in 1922, and the subsequent execution of IRA leaders, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett. In the film, the first act of civil war we see is anti-Treaty IRA men shooting Free state soldiers – a reversal of history. We get a clear idea in Loach’s film of what was driving the pro-Treaty camp, but the strategy of the anti-treaty forces remains opaque. (they had sought to provoke a British reoccupation that would reunite the republicans, and restart the war of independence, without the stranglehold of the Treaty) This is despite the fact that Loach clearly feels more sympathy with the anti-treaty forces.

This is a weakness of Loach’s decision to film the story from the point of view of the rank and file, had he instead made a biography of, for example, Liam Mellows or IRA chief Liam Lynch, the politics would have been much clearer, and without the need for clunky explanatory inserts.

Loach also imposes some of his own politics onto the historical account. For example, watching the Wind that Shakes the Barley gives the impression that the division between pro and anti treaty forces was also influenced by those who were in favour or opposed to a socialist workers’ republic. In fact many of the anti-Treaty forces – after all backed by Éamon (“Labour must wait”) de Valera, were simply nationalist patriots.

Loach also reruns, almost word for word, the debate from “Land and Freedom”, showing a court case where an Irish republican court rules punitively against a small landlord, in favour of a tenant. This starts an argument about whether social justice must wait on military victory. However, this makes the mistake of identifying the small scale farmer or shop keeper, with the big capitalists. In fact, as we see today in Palestine, national oppression forces a common interest between employers and workers, simultaneous to their differing class interests.

Another missed opportunity,in the current context, is that the republican movement seems to have only two strategies - militarism and capitulation. It is not hard to draw contemporary relevance, and as Loach was determined to introduce political debate between his characters, then some discussion of alternative strategies of resistance apart from militarism might have been interesting

The “Wind that Shakes the Barley” is worth seeing, but it is not as good as it has been built up.


Louisefeminista said...

I remember seeing Loach's other film on Ireland, Hidden Agenda and thinking it was terrible. The reason being is that Loach was desperate in getting the politics across he simply forgot to develop the characters into something meaningful. They ended up so 1-dimensional.

I also feel overly hectored at after watching one of his films.

AN said...

I think "Barley" is average rather than terrible.

I am suprised it was so over praised, but then again most of the brit left have hardly deigned to notice the victory of imperialism in the North right here and now, so a critical view of 80 years ago is hoping for too much.


Louisefeminista said...

Nah, I didn't think Loach's latest offering was terrible (more ok) but Hidden Agenda was definitely terrible. He should have spent more time building and developing the characters.

And I read somewhere that Loach had severe problems (no surpise there!) getting funding and when he did it was stipulated he had to have American actors (he originally wanted the main woman character to be from west Germany)

AN said...

To be fair to Loach, it may have been impossible to get funding for a film-Bio of Liam Mellows for example, or to have filmed in Dublin.

There was an intesating inteview some years ago in the SWP's ISJ with John sayles, who was asked why his film matewan cut off at exactly the point the stroy got really interesting in real life, the raising of a 20000 strong red arm y of West Virginia miners and the march on the state capital.

He said this was a finding decision, because even if you get the funding to make the more ambitious film, you lose control.

So a film that included the seige of thr Four Courts would have needed a big budget, that would have come with strings from the backers. That is maybe why Ken Loach was forced out into the countryside.

Louisefeminista said...

"He said this was a finding decision, because even if you get the funding to make the more ambitious film, you lose control".

Well, that is certainly true but also if you are filming something considered "controversial" or don't have the usual "happy" ending i.e. all tied up with a nice bow.

Oliver Stone was told to make changes to the film Salvador by Warner Bros as he was "portraying America in a bad way". Well, it is hard to portray imperialism in a postive light! Stone relented and changed a couple of lines.
Incidentally, Alex Cox gave the best potted history of American imperialism when he introduced the film Salvador in the early 1990s on BBC 2 - Moviedrome.

The film Seven nearly got canned as David Fincher was filming the "wrong" ending and pressure was applied to him by the producers to change the ending. But fortunately the cast said they would walk if changes were made and the producers relented.

AN said...

BUt then Cox made probably the worst ever film on the subject (artistically worst!) with "walker",

even more remarkable as the same story, about the same perosn, had been brilliantly made by Pontocova in Burn/Quemada.

Louisefeminista said...

Yeah, Cox is a piss-poor director I agree (though I liked Sid and Nancy and Repo Man)but he was bloody marvellous when he presented Moviedrome.

I mean, c'mon, Pontocova was the best..

Anonymous said...


fyi- rural ireland was 'the centre of the action'

and 'the main players' were the rural flying columns

so loach choices were perfectly well informed

which is more than i can say for...

AN said...

Mr anonymous.

I find it hard to understand why people feel the need to post anonymously, what are you afraid of?

The fighting was largely in rural Ireland, but surely you cannot deny that the main turning point was the occupation of the Four Courts in Dublin in 1922, and the suppression of that by force (and with british help) by Free State forces? In Dublin. If we wanted to make political sense of the civil war you have to locate the political dispute there.

Dave Riley said...

Just so you know: the SUN blog's (atom)feed is going haywire. Posts during July 2006 are being recorded on the feed as April 14th this year.

I understand this happens occasionally with Blogger but if you check and find that is the case, maybe you should let your readers know.

You feed currenlty reads it thsi way:

The Socialist Unity Blog

* Better than chocolate.... - 16-Apr-2007 - Louisefeminista
* Badges Of Dishonour - 15-Apr-2007 - Tawfiq Chahboune
* Kids playing footie threatened with ASBOs - 14-Apr-2007 - Louisefeminista
* The Red Planet in 1973 - 14-Apr-2007 - AN
* Sheridan's web of deceit

when you margin reads the recent posts as:

# Better than chocolate....
# Badges Of Dishonour
# Kids playing footie threatened with ASBOs
# The Red Planet in 1973
# A Tale from behind the Wall
# Private Equity – what response from the trades uni...
# Carnival of Socialism