There'll be clean shoes on your corpse

Jim Jepps

 

There'll be clean shoes on your corpseThere are very few actual film reviews of the "Wind that shakes the barley" out there. They tend to be either wholesale condemnations of Ken Loach from people who have not seen the film or justifications of the film on the basis of opposition to the occupation of Iraq.

On that basis I'm determined to, at least initially, say something about the fact that this is a really good and enjoyable film. Well, on the whole enjoyable although I didn't exactly smile my way through the torture scenes.

First and foremost this is a film rather than a history essay - fiction rather than fact - despite the educative role films like this can and do play. Having said that the right wing objections that it is historically inaccurate are just way off beam (unsurprisingly as none of these people have such a regard for accuracy that they might want to see the film before telling people how wrong it is).

British soldiers and black and tans are shown committing acts of violence, murder and torture. Shock! Whereas every good Daily Mail reader knows that the British were simply over in Ireland on an extended flower arranging course. Incidentally one of the things these accounts completely ignore is the majority of violence takes place between Irish volunteers of various factions so it's hardly painting republicans as saints now is it?

 

Violence at the heart of ImperialismThere is a difficulty for films that portray historical events though. You're caught between toning down the worst of the excesses that were committed and be judged soft or showing the horrors in full and being seen to be guilty of creating comic book caricatures. In the end most honest films do both.

If anything Loach is far too fair to the British Empire equating occupation simply with the violence that accompanied it - but he does hint at exploitation, poverty and the drowning of democracy. Those everyday injustices that were committed without a soldier to be seen, but perhaps you don't feel it's built into the system, into the way things are organised - simply that it's yet another grievance, and not even a central one.

It's irritating because I'm sure it leaves the door open for arguments for 'nice' occupations, where touchy feely sensitive soldiers keep order with a benign smile and none of the rough stuff of the past. Imperialism isn't simply wrong because it can be brutal but because it is the forcible seizure of power, wealth and control in the interests of a minority who live a thousand miles from the 'action'.

 

In terms of story telling it also creates a problem. You care about poverty because you have seen poverty and care about imperialism because you've experienced torture. It's a black and white view of what makes us real. Plenty of people who have experienced poverty are reactionary shits, many who have seen violence reject the idea of becoming a freedom fighter - and many who have only read of these things can become the most passionate soldiers for the cause. It makes it more difficult to care for someone who has simply been shaped by the events they experience.

However, one of the beauties of Ken Loach films is the way that argument and political positions are given real concrete form in a way that no other film makers seems able to do. It's there in the famous round table discussion in Land and Freedom, or the brilliantly moving scene where the scab explains herself to her striking sister in Bread and Roses and its there time and again in the Wind that Shakes the Barley.

National LiberationProbably the best moment of this is a court scene where a judgement descends into farce as one set of republicans let off a wealthy money lender on the basis of his support for the cause by taking carte blanche action and setting him free - whilst those in support of the court's decision rail against them asking what kind of Ireland are they fighting for.

This discussion comes back later when one volunteer declares that "if we ratify this treaty all we're changing is the accents of the powerful and the colour of the flag."

 

As a film one of the things that is interesting is that Loach is clearly on the side of those who would reject the treaty and were willing to take Ireland into civil war to continue the fight - and it's difficult to argue with the points they make - but I found my sympathies unremittingly drawn to those who were for 'realism' not 'rhetoric' because those who rejected the treaty seemed so dogmatic and uncompromising.

Even when one former comrade has another shot I found myself connecting on a human level with the executioner rather than with the executed. It isn't because I normally like officers in charge of firing squads, they tend to leave me cold, but because he understood the arguments on both sides and had made a choice - whilst the revolutionary couldn't seem to grasp why anyone would want the war to end.

This is the precise opposite to my feelings about Michael Collins where the film sides with Collins and my sympathies ended up with "the baddies" who had him shot. But the fact that I'm free to think that is a testament to how wonderfully loose and even handed this film is. Whilst Loach sides with those who opposed the treaty he let's everyone have their say. Even the English Toff landlord gets a good line describing Cork as a "priest infested backwater" just before the IRA gun him down.

It does occur to me that perhaps it appears that those who rejected the treaty were all communists. There certainly were socialist revolutionaries active at the time and the Limerick Soviet springs to mind - but I worry the film may give the impression that Eamon de Valera was an unrepentant lefty even though the kind of men Loach portrays owed de Valera no loyalty. But perhaps not, you can't go round squeezing every historical explanation and footnote into a film about love, war and brotherhood.

 

Although it's just a film it's still worth asking Are there lessons for Iraq? Well certainly that occupations can be brutal and make the population hate the occupiers, but I'm sure we don't really need a film to learn that - but there is a lesson there and that's for the future of Iraq after the US and UK troops get out - and that is what kind of Iraq is worth fighting for, who is going to be in charge?

If the anti-war movement allows phased withdrawal we lay the groundwork for bloody civil war that will dwarf the occupation in its levels of brutality and power to shape generations to come.

If the movement can link up with progressive forces and the US/UK coalition is forced to leave perhaps a better kind of Iraq can be forged. Is that possible? Who knows, but the Wind that Shakes the Barley says you need to learn to fight and learn what you are fighting for.

 

When all is said and done this is a great film, it makes you think and although you know Loach has his own conclusions the greatest respect he shows the audience is allowing you to come to yours.

 

 

 

June 2006

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