Grappling with the problem of representing the French Revolution in prose, Thomas Carlyle came to the conclusion that narrative was inescapably linear, whereas action was ‘solid’: textured, dense, multi-dimensional. Anyone trying to convey history ‘as it was’ comes up against the same problem. Film-makers might seem to possess a certain advantage, having access to stratagems that convey the many-faceted and contradictory perspectives of history on the hoof; but they have to want to use them. And while it may be difficult to reflect history accurately, it is an even more daunting task to convey a contested historiography – even in a film as long as Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
This makes it all the stranger that he and his team chose to set their Anglo-Irish war drama in Cork, using Cork-accented actors, re-staging the Kilmichael ambush (with an important omission), and filming in the beautiful uplands near the Kerry border. This is, of course, the terrain over which wars have recently been fought all over again – since Peter Hart’s books The IRA and Its Enemies and The IRA at War. With skill and empathy, Hart traced a picture which reproduces fault-lines of class resentment, religious and ethnic antipathy and local power-struggle, existing along with the more identifiable war of liberation against the traditional oppressor. He also (particularly in his portrait of guerrilla supremo Tom Barry) raised merry hell among local historians. His delineation of the rise of a revolutionary elite, and his anatomy of – for instance – the Hales family, suggests the material for a great novel. Or, perhaps, a film that reflects the forces of history as profoundly as Visconti’s The Leopard, Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players, the Taviani brothers’ Allonsanfan, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, or Mikhailov’s Burnt by the Sun.
Loach shares his Marxist credentials with many of these masters, but little else. Despite beautiful camerawork, marvellously realized production design (by Fergus Clegg), a good screenplay by Paul Laverty, and some fine performances (particularly in supporting parts), the director’s hand lies heavy on The Wind that Shakes the Barley. It is over-long, and quickly abandons characterization for didactics. This sometimes works, when political argument is brought straight into the action (a Sinn Féin court-room, the Volunteers’ debate over the Treaty, a priest’s sermon condemning the anti-Treatyites to excommunication). And there are some brilliantly observed vignettes: a forgetful – and scene-stealing – messenger-boy, the rebels’ first clumsy lessons in guerrilla tactics. But the film is oddly lacking in narrative drive or psychological punch. This is a pity, because it could have been an epic. Ernie O’Malley’s masterpiece On Another Man’s Wound is clearly a partial inspiration, but Loach only occasionally tries to convey the transformative power of the revolution, the lyricism of a life spent on ‘raids and rallies’, and the profound if solipsistic disillusionment – for those who had made this their life – of the Truce, which lead to the Treaty. The conclusion of O’Malley’s book probably suggested that messenger-boy: reading it still brings a catch to the throat.
On the 9th of July, a Dublin boy, Paddy O’Connor, came to Mrs Quirke’s whilst I was away. A dispatch-rider was sent for me. The boy would not tell his business to any other member of the staff. He handed me a typed order:
In view of the conversations now being entered into by our Government with the Government of Great Britain, and in pursuance of mutual conversations, active operations by our troops will be suspended as from noon, Monday 11th July.
Risteard Ua Maolchatha
Chief of Staff
Two days from now, on the 11th of June at noon, we were to see that all officers and men in the Division observed the terms of the Truce which had been agreed to by the British. There was no intimation as to how long the Truce would last.
Con Moloney typed my orders to the five brigades. We sat down to talk about the news in wonder. What did it mean? And why had senior officers no other information than a bald message? Would the Truce last a week, or perhaps two weeks? We were willing to keep up the pressure which had been increasing steadily; soon, in a month or more, the Division would begin operations in the towns and use columns by sections. Bewildered, we waited for Micky Fitz, the quartermaster, to discuss the speeding up of ‘cheddar’ and ‘war flour’.
And so ended for us what we called the scrap; the people later on, the trouble; and others, fond of labels, the Revolution.
The throat remains firmly uncaught throughout Loach’s treatment of Damien O’Donovan, a young doctor who chooses to fight with the rebels against the Tans, is radicalized by a socialist comrade, opposes the Treaty, and is eventually executed by command of his own brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney). Part of the reason for the watcher’s detachment is that Damien is himself cast as observer as well as activist: his character is left little opportunity for development, or emotion. The camera lingers on Cillian Murphy’s beautiful El Greco face, but it registers only three recurring expressions: he hoods his eyes, he sticks out his chin, he sucks an imaginary lemon. His companions in the struggle are realized even less distinctly; each time one of them is killed it takes some effort for the audience to sort out who it was. In any case, they are all clean-cut, handsome heroes with soft voices, while their opponents resemble Nazi stormtroopers with Yorkshire and Geordie accents. This is fair enough: the atrocious actions of the Black and Tans are a matter of record, and their murderous saturnalia probably did more than anything else to turn public opinion against Britain’s continuing rule in Ireland. But Loach’s film, by beginning sharply in 1920 with no background information whatsoever, contrives to give a completely misleading idea of the historical situation in Ireland at the time.
The audience with whom I watched the film in a London cinema would have come away with two ‘facts’ that are presented in the film. First, that IRA resistance was created in response to the Black and Tan reign of terror. This is, of course, an exact reversal of chronology. The Anglo-Irish War began with the shooting of policemen in early 1919, a process escalated by the radical wing of the Volunteers and opposed by those in the movement called contemptuously ‘the politicians’. After a year of inept counter-measures, Lloyd George’s government embarked on the disastrous policy of recruiting mercenaries and, later, of ‘reprisals’. (The best account is still Charles Townshend’s brilliantly forensic analysis of the disconnections between government and military policies in The British Campaign in Ireland 1919–21, published over thirty years ago.) The second lesson slammed home by Loach is that those who opposed the Treaty did so for reasons of socialism, ‘democracy’ and anti-partitionism: the reasons articulated by Damien, his mentor Dan (Liam Cunningham), and his lover Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) in a violent debate over accepting the 1921 terms. It is one of the best scenes in the film, but it is misleading nonetheless. Socialist politics had long since taken an acquiescent back seat, and it is significant that Dan and Damien talk reverently of Connolly’s part in the 1913 lock-out and the Citizen Army, while Larkin (whose relationship to nationalism is much more problematic) is never mentioned.
Dan, it transpires, learned his politics in the Frongoch internment camp after 1916. This is almost the only reference to the events before 1920. That London audience was certainly not told of the cliff-hanging politics over the passing of the Home Rule bill before 1914, when that measure, supported by a parliamentary majority in Westminster, was held up and diluted by the Liberal government’s dithering in the face of possible civil war threatened by the opposition of a million Ulster people (including a majority of the urban working class, though Ken Loach would not like to hear it). The impression created by this film is that Black and Tan rule was the general state of things in Ireland before independence, fully authorized and sanctioned by the authorities – which was not the case. Nor will those who watch this film knowing nothing of Irish history be given any clue that there was an Irish Home Rule party, and that the republicans were waging war against them with at least as much vigour as against the British army. There was another revolution within the revolution, and this has been engrossingly demonstrated by the growing number of local studies of the era since David Fitzpatrick’s seminal work on Clare, such as Marie Coleman on Longford, Michael Wheatley on the north-west midlands, and Fergus Campbell on Galway and Mayo. Loach presents us with a single example of the local middle class, in the best scene of the film: a republican court, trying to mediate between a gombeen man and a widow paying exorbitant interest on her grocery bill. The gombeen man is backing the rebels, so Teddy disputes the court’s decision when it rules against him. It is marvellously written and played: the Sinn Féin judge (a woman), the realpolitik of the Volunteers, the watchers in the court, the sense of two authority-structures at war. It is one of the few moments when The Wind that Shakes the Barley approaches the film it might have been.
Elsewhere, the historical picture is distinctly shaky. Loach is determined to portray Ireland as a country not only groaning under military dictatorship, but impoverished by centuries of exploitation. Several characters are illiterate: the socialist Dan even ‘learned to read and write’ at Frongoch, which must have made him the fastest learner in the West. The awful dirge which gives the film its title, mercifully sung only once (and then off-key), includes the lines ‘But harder still to bear the shame / Of foreign chains around us.’ The chains were fairly light by 1914. The politicized County Cork of the Anglo-Irish War was part of a polity that sent 103 MPs to Westminster, had an independent judiciary and openly recruited civil service, a broad and broadening distribution of landownership, a vibrant civil society, rapidly developing labour organizations, a notably advanced educational system and an exceptionally lively (and uncensored) press. Home Rule had, of course, passed through Westminster and an impatient Irish political elite was waiting to assume autonomous power. The war changed some of this, and 1916 transformed the nationalist consciousness. But the revolution, when it took hold, built on these pre-existing conditions too, and Loach’s Cork has no room for them.
It is also (with the single exception of Sir John Hamilton, an aristocratic Big House owner) a Protestant-free zone, again in marked contrast to the world re-created by Hart. (To add to the irony, much of it was shot on location in the famously Protestant town of Bandon.) When the IRA execute ‘informers’ in the film, they are informers; according to Hart’s version, they were as likely to be social undesirables, sexual deviants, and rival property-owners. In an essay accompanying the published screenplay,* Luke Gibbons insists ‘there is clear evidence that the shooting of Protestants was motivated not by religion but by their activities as informers’. The ‘evidence’ remains unproduced, and this judgement would certainly not stand for the murder of, for instance, the Pearson brothers in Kinnitty, Co. Offaly, in June 1921, and the burning out of their house – the subject of a recent local study. Many of these incidents took place long after the Truce. Protestant small farmers like them were certainly targeted for reasons that went beyond ‘informing’ and tapped into far more ancient memories and antipathies. Usually, when Loach’s revolutionaries inflict violence, they do so as a ‘warning’: the scene where they invade a police barracks and line up the RIC men simply in order to caution them may have had an occasional parallel in contemporary events, but it is certainly unrepresentative. Here, Paul Laverty’s intention ‘not to romanticize the inevitable violence’ (as declared in the book of the screenplay) wears rather thin. A majority of those killed by the IRA were fellow Irish people, and usually their own neighbours, rather than heavily armed fiends in Crossley tenders. The lines between the opponents are, for all the film’s ravishing outdoor colour and beautifully filmed indoor chiaroscuro, strictly black and white.
The film is far less crude than some other gung-ho treatises on national liberation that make clunky parallels with the present day (Braveheart comes to mind, or Rebel Heart); but it is still skewed. In interviews the director has referred to hurling being ‘banned’ in this era and the Irish being ‘forbidden to speak their own language’, apparently unaware of the imposition of Irish as a compulsory matriculation subject in the National University a decade before the film begins. In interviews, and in the screenplay book, Loach has also drawn sweeping parallels with the invasion of Iraq, which hardly fit the case – except for the inevitably counterproductive effects of imported soldiers put into ‘peacekeeping’ roles against guerrilla resistance. He inveighs against ‘the cunning of people like Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead et al.; when they were forced into a corner, when it wasn’t really in their interests to keep denying independence, they sought to divide the country and give their support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the hands of people who, in the time-honoured phrase, “they could do business with”’. This interpretation would not stand up to the most cursory examination of the Treaty negotiations. The idea that de Valera, Childers, Cathal Brugha et al. were motivated by socialism is baroquely wishful thinking. The film’s historical advisor, Donal Ó Drisceoil, gives a more accurate and judicious version in the same volume, referring to revolutionary socialism as ‘a tendency within the national movement’; but it is Loach who gives the public interviews. He is far more interesting when he writes about his method of creating ‘collective spirit’ among his cast by rigorous ‘basic training’: this helps explain both the strengths of the film and its weaknesses.
Where there are nods towards the literature or memoir of the time, ambiguity and nuance are ironed out. The scene in which Sir John and his informer employee are taken to the hills and shot suggests another passage from O’Malley’s book, or Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation, but without the tragic ambiguity beneath the surface. When Kilmichael is replayed, the controversial aftermath (were prisoners shot after surrendering?) is tactfully left out. The two-dimensional Damien O’Donovan is very far from his prototype medical-student-turned-revolutionary Ernie O’Malley, that violent, mercurial, quasi-nihilistic intellectual superbly portrayed in Richard English’s biography. Repetitions of locale are used repeatedly – same place, similar atrocity, different perpetrators. This climaxes in the Animal Farm oppositions of Loach’s last scenes, with the Staters indistinguishable from their Tan predecessors. It is in line with the strictly schematic representation, but would make far more sense if the audience had been given any sense of preceding tensions and fault-lines within the movement (it is only at this stage, for instance, that we learn anything of the strong-farmer background of the O’Donovan brothers).
None of this is likely to bother audiences much. The review-quote chosen for the film’s publicity in Ireland stated didactically: ‘“Not to be missed by any citizen of the State” (Irish Daily Star)’. The citizenry duly turned out in large numbers to a film already garlanded by the Palme d’Or from Cannes and a useful outpouring of outrage from the right-wing press in Britain. There were only a handful of people in a Hampstead cinema when I saw it on a hot Friday night in June, but things were very different in Dublin, where the first two weeks were booked solid. The Wind that Shakes the Barley does not seem, however, to have ignited a phenomenon on the scale of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. The Collins film conveyed the characterization, psychological dynamics, and sexual allure of its revolutionary heroes with more panache than Loach’s; but it similarly simplified what they were fighting against. Both films have been readily attached to present-day political agendas, though very different ones. Jordan’s was interpreted as an argument on behalf of revolutionaries abandoning the guns in order to pursue compromises that might give them, in the end, what a majority wants. The Wind that Shakes the Barley unequivocally comes down on the other side of the question; the condemned Damien writes in his farewell letter that when Teddy opted for the Treaty, he died inside. Given the current state of our own polities, north and south, and the credibility of our politicians, the Irish public’s favourable reaction to Loach’s representation of 1920–21 as an aborted socialist-nationalist revolution craving completion may be significant. But what they have been watching is an exercise in wish-fulfilment rather than history.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 24 Autumn 2006