Friday, October 16, 2009

Greatest War Movies No 6: The Wind That Shakes the Barley

After a long hiatus my Greatest War Movies countdown is back and this time I'm going Irish with Ken Loache's unique film about the war of independence. Starring Cillian Murphy and Liam Cunningham this 2006 movies is unusually brilliant. Deliberately low budget the entire cast of this movie except for Murphy and Cunningham consist of amateur actors who regularly fluff their lines giving the dialogue a sense of authenticity. Set in West Cork the accents are very real (which anyone who has ever been there can attest to) and this adds to the whole sense of being there which is more powerful than in any other movie I have ever seen. There have been lots of movies made about this era. And after watching all of them I always think afterward what a great time it was and how I would have loved to have lived through it. The powerful realism of The Wind That Shakes the Barley shatters that illusion. It was an awful time of murder and mayhem and the decisions and choices that had to be made as always in war were horrific. The first time I watched this film I remember thinking afterward how glad I was that I did not live through that time. While I can see the romanticism in fighting the Black n'Tans its not so easy when it comes to what to do with a suspected spy or knowing when its time to put down the guns.

Watch the opening scene of the hurling match followed by the violent attack by the Black N'Tans.

Other films about this topic have been made from the top down. In other words they feature the prominent personalities of the day. In this movie there is no Michael Collins or Eamon De Valera. All scenes are from the view of the local column and how they operate in their independent and isolated manner. In this sense it is less historical and more about the challenges of living through the war. Again this adds to its convincing style. My only complaint is that I fear it is incomprehensible for non Irish audience (I'm not talking about the accents). The Irish Civil War that followed the struggle for independence was unique in that there were no ethnic of ideological differences between the two sides. It was simply a war between those who accepted the post war agreement and those who did not. In order to make it more understandable or perhaps more attractive to a wider audience Loach appears to have attempted to make it look like a struggle between right and left. This might be easier for a wider audience to understand as most modern civil wars as in Russia, Spain, Finland, Greece were all fights to the death between fascists and communists. We see this in the movie as Dan the trade unionist from Dublin tries to convince some of the volunteers that the capitalist IRA men will just replace the British and continue to oppress the working class. There may have been many leftist who felt this way but it is highly unlikely that they would take up arms against the new state in an alliance with ultra nationalist whose fanatic desire to fight on was not based on any leftist ideology but on an all or nothing philosophy when it came to an independent 32 county republic. This I know to be historically true. The Irish Citizen army, James Connoly's crowd, did not like the Anglo Irish Treaty but they did not fight against it. Unlike De veleras Sinn Fein they took their seats as the labour party in the new Free State parliament and formed the constitutional opposition to the government. I'm only making this point because I don't want people to think that the Irish Civil war was a left versus right fight. Proof of this can be seen in the political legacy of the civil war which created two main parties not of the left and right but of the center. Both these parties today are ideologically indistinguishable. None of this is to say that the movie distorts history but it is an important point to make. In any case the clip below will explain better in what is simply the best political debate ever seen in a movie.

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