The Wind that Shakes the Barley
Directed by Ken Loach
IFC First Take, 2007
127 minutes, Not rated
It’s a good thing that the feel and backdrop of Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (written by Paul Laverty) makes 1920 Ireland look like an Irish Shangri La. The landscape is green, mountainous and lush. But by the end of the film, the issues and questions posed in this thick, dark, deep and wide parable about war might have you levitating out of the theatre.
When the film opens, we’re watching young men playing field hockey in a tranquil setting. After the game, they go to a farmhouse to relax. A squad from the king of England’s army (called the Black and Tans) shows up and permanently scars these country folk. They murder a young man for not speaking English — he’s speaking Gaelic.
(I immediately thought of the Iraq war perhaps at a U.S. checkpoint where the “You must stop” sign is written in English, not Arabic. Civilians are shot and murdered and some families get cash payouts direct from U.S. taxpayers. And some receive none.)
Moments later, one of the young men is reading the simple and clear pledge to join, for life and death, the Irish Republican Army. Their purpose is to expel the British. The republicans believe that the Irish have the right to develop their country.
Later, some young Irish men use their hockey sticks as rifles, practicing field maneuvers to ambush the king’s troops. Some of them are 14 years old. Kids who lied, and said they were 16, found a way not to starve. Their image is scary. They are boys in oversized uniforms. Their faces have terror all over them, and it looks like they’re holding giant rifles in relation to their small frames.
The movie follows this guerilla squad led by two brothers, Damian (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney). Teddy is a doctor. We see that he has been slow to join, but when he does he takes his oath seriously. (I won’t give it away.)
But if you think you’re going to see a national liberation “Rocky” movie, Ken Loach has a surprise in store for you.
An announcement of a truce between the king’s army and the IRA descends into chaos for these young men and women revolutionary guerilla fighters, and the debate we hear on screen is ferocious.
Is this a victory or a defeat for the IRA? Will the local Irish gentry fare well? Will the peasants who have everything to gain and who make up the largest part of the guerilla army be screwed? Will the IRA split into two? Will civil war break out? Will the king be laughing or will the peasants celebrate their right to work and own the land they work on?
Throughout the film, I also kept thinking about John Sayles’ movie “Matewan” and the class warfare in the 1920s that union miners were waging in West Virginia and Kentucky. When a woman in Loach’s film sings an old Irish folk tune, the basis for the movie’s title, I immediately remembered Hazel Dickens’ mountain ballads from “Matewan.” Aren’t these the same people who left Ireland because of the famine and settled into the hills and hollers?
If Tony Blair can be Bush’s lapdog, soaking up political and economic points of the Bush policies of invasion and occupation, it feels like a vaccine when we soak up Ken Loach’s best film to date, as a way to get our heads out of the sand and our troops out of Iraq.