Bright Lights Film Journal

Our Time of Troubles: Ken Loach on War, Irish History, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley

“But I was accused of enjoying walking up and down the red carpet! Their rage knew no bounds.”

Now 70, British director Ken Loach has for over 40 years made intimate, compelling, often funny dramas about the struggles of the working class (Kes, Raining Stones, Riff Raff, Ladybird, Ladybird, Sweet Sixteen), humanizing but not idealizing people who endure hardship and oppression, and whose ragged lives are anything but glamorous. A humble practitioner of what Manny Farber, in his felicitous phrase, called “termite art,” Loach is an inveterate Kitchen Sink–style dramatist with a nose for progressive causes. Typically, his films address a wide array of social ills and injustices with a frank, punchy vitality missing from the earnest “problem” films of the 1940s–’60s.

With his no-frills visual style and lean, sequential narratives, Loach is not out to impress anyone with technique. In fact, it is his buglike dedication to the task at hand — “concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed” (Farber again) — that makes his films so unerringly lifelike and effective. Another defining trait in Loach’s oeuvre is that he often casts unknowns and nonpros for leading roles. Crissy Rock’s heart-wrenching turn in Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), for instance, about a volatile woman’s fight to wrest custody of her children from Social Services, is a quintessential example of Loach’s gift for drawing gutsy, memorable performances out of unseasoned players. Throughout his work, Loach immerses us in human situations or conflicts — addiction (My Name Is Joe), mental illness (Family Life), poverty and street life (Cathy Come Home, Poor Cow), the travails of labor organizers and immigrants (Days of Hope,Bread and Roses), political struggle (Carla’s Song, Land and Freedom) — that are noticeably “real world” and noncinematic, populated with characters who appear to inhabit the same fraught universe we do, with grit and integrity.

So when Cannes jurors awarded the Palme d’Or last May to The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach’s militant, stirring drama of the Anglo-Irish War (1919–1921), it was a triumphant moment for the director, who had been nominated six times before. Yet the mouth-foaming viciousness that greeted the British release of Barley just a week later seemed grossly unfair, and utterly incongruous with the mournful tone of the film. Loach had, of course, provoked the ire of right-wingers once before with his 1996 political thriller Hidden Agenda, which impugned the UK’s underhanded anti-terror policies in Northern Ireland. This time around, the indigestible morsel that stuck in the craw of many tabloid columnists and Tory hotheads was that Loach, a longtime socialist, had ostensibly painted colonial British forces as hateful, rampaging sadists, while blithely romanticizing the Irish republicans who fought for independence in the early 1920s.

“He still treats IRA killers like cuddly hippies, still detests the British State that educated him and pays for his films,” frothed The Times of London. In high dudgeon, the writer went on to draw a comparison between Loach’s “socialist realism” and the films of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Loach, a frumpy, soft-spoken moviemaker from the Midlands, is the furthest thing possible from a demagogue or a party mouthpiece, even if he is guilty at times of fussy didacticism. Unfortunately, these mindless attacks dampened the film’s opening-day prospects in Great Britain, where it perhaps most needed to be seen, but Barley went on to become the most successful indie movie ever in Ireland, and has just been released in North America.

Set in rural County Cork, Barley fictionalizes events at the height of Ireland’s struggle for independence in 1920, two years after Sinn Fein won an electoral mandate for autonomy. Written with longtime collaborator Paul Laverty (Carla’s Song, Land and Freedom) and gorgeously photographed in muted pastoral hues by Barry Ackroyd (United 93), the film revisits the period when the British Crown dispatched its notorious Black and Tans and Auxiliaries — mostly weary, decommissioned officers returning from the World War I trenches — to help local constabularies crush the breakaway movement. Before long, we’re embroiled in the internecine conflicts that led to the yearlong Irish Civil War in 1922 between pro- and anti-Treaty republican factions.

As the film opens, medical student Damien (Red Eye‘s Cillian Murphy) gives up a promising post at a London hospital to join an Irish Republican Army “flying column” unit led by his brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), after witnessing first-hand the murderous brutality of the Tans. As their campaign against the British escalates, Damien is further radicalized by his prison encounter with Dan (Liam Cunningham), a former train engineer emboldened by the ideals of James Connolly, the socialist leader executed for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Ultimately, Damien and Teddy take bitterly opposing views on the Irish Free State Treaty, which die-hard irredentists believe will only guarantee their economic subjection to the empire and its Loyalist cronies. Lines are drawn, and the brothers, both men of action, tragically find themselves on opposite sides of the ideological divide.

With The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Loach has for the third time ventured into radical-history territory with a tale of revolution and a political dream deferred. (His previous efforts in this direction were Carla’s Song, which dramatized the 1980s Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and Land and Freedom, the story of the anti-fascist International Brigades who fought for social-anarchist principles during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Another film, Days of Hope, a multipart series for the BBC on labor struggles of the early 20th century, briefly treated the Irish war for independence.) As always, there are no easy answers or resolutions: Barley‘s opening shot of a group of Irish villagers playing a traditional game of hurling (outlawed by the Brits, along with Gaelic and other forms of cultural identification) is an image of unity and collective strength that contrasts starkly with the downbeat tone of the last: a vignette of sour recrimination and anguish. It reflects, perhaps, Loach’s own pessimism about the prospects for meaningful social change.

The great advantage of Barley may be its bruising, uncompromised rendering of a war of occupation and the guerrilla tactics of resistance fighters. Loach, to his credit, does not shrink from depicting the violence inherent to the “good fight,” and the sickening acts perpetrated in the name of advancing a cause, whether it be empire or a free, self-governing republic. In one early scene, a squadron of Tans ties up and viciously beats to death a young man, Michaeil, in front of his mother for refusing to speak his name in the King’s English. Our sympathies naturally imprint on Damien, Teddy, and the others who watch helplessly. But in a later scene, Damien — a doctor sworn to save lives — executes a childhood friend who’s been identified as an informer. He is agonized, saying “I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it,” but we are also briefly led to ponder (and perhaps reject) the righteousness of his justification: “I’m sorry. He’s a traitor. It’s a war.”

As a champion of class struggle, Loach works in the spirit of another historical materialist, Walter Benjamin, who wrote in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that images of the past are always in danger of becoming tools of the ruling classes: “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Certainly, that is the case with Britain’s own imperial past, the legacy of which is still palpable in Ulster. And today, under George W. Bush, the U.S. empire has perfected the art of erasing history as it happens, one press conference at a time. Loach’s central concern as a filmmaker might be staging human drama in a neorealist frame, but he is also concerned at times, I think, with rescuing the past from its oubliette in the emerald palace of the victors; and by recalling the faded memory of a thwarted better future, so better to illuminate our crises in the present. In that sense, Barley is a timely contribution to our collective imagining, and a high-water mark in Loach’s remarkably robust career.

In March, I sat down with the modest director in Manhattan to speak about the parallels between Iraq and the Anglo-Irish War, the right-wing attacks on The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and his thoughts on film and socialism.

One thing that occurred to me while I was watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley is how current these events of Ireland in 1920 seem. And I couldn’t help but think that you and Paul Laverty deliberately tried to find some parallels between the Irish war for independence and what’s happening now in Iraq.

[Chuckles] We didn’t actually. I mean, I think you’re right — there are parallels. And I think there are parallels with other situations as well. But we just tried to tell the Irish story as well as we could, because I think the parallels are inevitable. You don’t have to stretch it or bend it in any way: An army of occupation against the wishes of the civilian population, an act of violence on one side is met with more violence on the other — and it’s a downward spiral, really. Also, Ireland was a colony for many centuries, and Britain got great economic benefits from it. Cheap food, cheap labor came over the water. I think they’re not the same, but similar [to] what many people see as an imperialist adventure in Iraq. You know, there’s cheap natural resources — the oil, obviously, and potential markets for their goods. I suppose the point is economics drives the political choices of those people.

You mean the resources available to Britain in Ireland then and the U.S. in Iraq now are the main motivating forces for the occupation in both cases?

Yeah, absolutely.

With Barley, there’s also the personal story of Damien and Teddy, which is central to the narrative of the Irish Republican war as you and Paul have conceived it. Tell me a little about some of the research you did preparing for this film.

Well, it’s a very well-documented period, and there’s been a lot of books written by the people who were actively engaged. Historians have picked over it ever since, and come up with competing stances on it. Then there’s all the memories from families and local historians who put a lot of flesh on the bones of the main history. Ireland is a literary nation, so there’s a lot of fine writing. We were overwhelmed with documents and evidence and stories. Coming across people in those stories, you take [qualities] from one character, some from another, and you build up a range of fictional characters who are individuals but typical of the period. For example, the man who wrote the finest literature of the time, Ernie O’Malley — The Singing Flame is one [of his books] and On Another Man’s Wound is another — was a medical student. So from that we thought, maybe Damien’s a medical student. Ernie O’Malley is different, but there was just that element of him we thought we could use.

The Anglo-Irish War and Civil War period has been treated before in film. What kinds of clichés were you trying to avoid in structuring the story?

We didn’t think of it in terms of trying to avoid clichés, but of trying to find the essence of the story, the essential conflicts and the essential narrative, and find separate characters who would be bound on a collision course, if they stayed true to themselves. If Damien stays true to himself, then he will be on a collision course with somebody in Teddy’s position. And the same is true of Teddy. If Teddy stays true to himself, then he will go on a collision course with the Dans and Damiens. What’s important is that the essential conflict you’re trying to explore is actually embedded in the characters, rather than — well, the public story happens over there and the characters are here, and one doesn’t illuminate the other. You know, like a love story with the background of a war. It doesn’t tell you what the war’s about. We wanted to tell you what the war’s about.

That comes across especially in the scene that I’ve come to think of as almost de rigueur in your body of work, which is “the debate scene,” with various characters representing different political positions all having a go at each other.

Yeah, right. [Laughs]

The conflict that arises in Barley actually has two levels to it: There’s the conflict between the British empire and the Irish Republicans, and then there’s the conflict within the Republican movement itself.

Well, I think you’re right. This is often the case in many struggles, where one side is composed of people who are involved in it out of conviction. What unites them is the common enemy, but once you move that away, then there are other conflicting interests and conflicting perceptions — pragmatists versus people who would say what they want to do is achieve everything. So I think this is very common. At the time, when the Treaty was on the table, there were such meetings. People did gather and argue it through, particularly the people who’d been doing the fighting, because they’d put themselves on the line. They’d seen their comrades killed. They were volunteers, they weren’t conscripts. They wanted to have a say in what would happen. When you think back to the English Civil War even, Cromwell’s army debated what the outcome should be. There’s a long pattern of these kinds of [dialogues] happening.

Do you ever worry about keeping the balance between, let’s say, faithfully representing all the nuances of a particular historical moment, and making sure that your characters are fully fleshed, instead of being mouthpieces for particular political positions?

Well, I think it’s very much in our minds, yes. That’s why the essential conflict of the film is embedded in the characters. You’ve got to tell the character’s story in order to tell the wider picture. If you ever reach a point where the character is leading us one way, but the wider picture is leading us somewhere else, then you’ve really failed. I’m sure it happens sometimes, but there is a tension, undoubtedly.

Speaking of tension, you’ve taken some pretty hard knocks from the conservative British press on this film for romanticizing the IRA and overemphasizing the brutality of the British Tans and Auxiliaries. Do you feel that you presented a balance of perspectives?

Absolutely. I mean, in all this, the worst of the criticism — to keep it in perspective — [came from] a small handful of extreme right-wingers who weren’t representative of the audiences at all. And there isn’t one incident in the film that they say didn’t happen. There’s not one character that they say is invalid. They say we show the British being brutal but they don’t actually dispute anything in the film. We could actually have shown much more brutality. There were so many more instances of brutality by the occupying forces that we could have spent the whole film on that. But what they didn’t realize, the people who wrote these things, was that all the soldiers in the film are ex-soldiers. And the ones who played leading parts, like the sergeant in the first scene [who orders Michaeil killed–Ed.], is an ex-soldier who served in northern Ireland. What we said to him was, ‘You conduct this operation as a professional soldier and do what you would do.’ And so all the stuff they do, like lining up the men against a wall, is actually what soldiers do [in those situations]. It’s a technique to disorientate the people they’re dealing with. And as to the boy being killed in the first scene, there are many examples [in history], and pretty well every event was based on, you know, a comparable event in real life.

Including his speaking of Gaelic when he’s asked to state his name?

Yes. That was a conscious act of defiance, because all that was banned. So when he says it, he is saying, ‘I’m not your servant.’ He’s asserting his independence. It’s a conscious act. It’s why Damien is telling him, ‘Don’t be stupid. Say it in English.’

Has winning the Palme d’Or vindicated you in some way after this ugly tarring?

Well, I think it did validate the film. I mean, it’s one thing for them to attack us as just a British film, but when it’s got that international approval, it’s very supportive of the film. So it made them all the madder, it made them foam at the mouth even more, because you know, such a prestigious festival gave us the seal of approval. They were throwing the toys out of the pram at that point. [Laughs] It was very good, it was a very sweet moment, really. The coverage was absurd, I mean, I hate getting dressed up in fancy dress and black bow tie. But I was accused of enjoying walking up and down the red carpet! Their rage knew no bounds. It was funny, very funny.

What do you think the jury at Cannes was responding to in the film?

I don’t know, really. [Pause]

You’ve been nominated many times for this prize.

We’ve had films shown in the official competition, yes. I don’t know. They were kind enough to give it to me. It touched them, I suppose. It’s not for me to say, really.

In interviews, sometimes, you express a lot of optimism about the power of cinema to change hearts and minds, something you actually reiterated in your acceptance speech at Cannes. At other times, though, you express cynicism about the very same potential of movies to do anything other than reassure and entertain. If that’s true, why choose this medium for consciousness-raising?

It’s all I can do, really. Some people are writers, some people are poets and painters. It’s all I can do, I couldn’t really do anything else. But also, I mean, films are more than wanting to set out and make a political statement. I hope it’s much more than that. It’s much more about how people live together and what families are about, and all the things that make drama, not just something you can put on a slogan.

But there is a political conviction embedded in your work. There’s a very palpable progressive current running through the oeuvre, from beginning to end, and I wonder if you don’t ever feel like it’s a sort of Sisyphean task to tell the truth about a historical situation or the way people live.

[Laughs] Well, I never see it in those global terms. And also, I always work with a writer, and there’s a producer, and we all put our heads together and try to make it. It’s not just me. I suppose all you can do is make a little contribution to the general noise in the world and say, look, maybe look at things this way, or did you know what happened here? Or “Just consider this for a moment” or “Look at these few people” — and hope it hangs around in your mind a minute or two after you leave the cinema. You can’t do more than that, I think.

Over the course of your career, you seem to have found two modes of storytelling. One is a focus on contemporary stories about the struggles of marginal or oppressed people, and they’re very personal dramas. The others, like Land and Freedom and Carla’s Song and Barley, grapple with historical events. If it’s our duty to criticize our leaders and illuminate the present by looking to the past, do you ever feel like you want to make a movie about the war on terror or the Blair and Bush epoch?

Yes. In a way, they’re huge subjects. I think often it’s easier to take a story from the past, the immediate past, because the essential elements of the story emerge much more clearly. And that will comment on what Bush and Blair are doing, maybe as forcefully as if you were to do a contemporary story. It’s trying to see the landscape when you’re at ground level — you can’t see very far. The clutter of detail is very difficult to see beyond. If you’re a bit above the landscape, then you see the contours. It’s a bit like that when you do a historical subject — you can see the contours of the event more clearly. I’m sure there’s a huge number of films that could be made about Iraq. Maybe when you’re working on such a contemporary subject, one way to tackle it is through documentary. The danger is, if you’re doing a contemporary subject, you’re chasing the headlines. Something might happen next year that, if you’re telling the whole story, you’d want to include. And we don’t know what the end of this story is yet. But when you do a story about Ireland in the 1920s, you know what the whole story is — and the taste it leaves, and what it leaves in its wake. And that determines then what is retrospectively important. You see what I mean? It’s easier to get a handle on the whole thing.

And yet you’re forced to adopt a certain perspective on that time that, in this case, became almost as controversial as if you had taken on the present.

I think you could have a go at a documentary, all kinds of docs about the war. There are so many things to do, really, it’s difficult to choose.

You tend to cast a lot of nonprofessional and unknown actors alongside better-known actors. Why?

Well you just try to find the best person for the part and who the audience will believe. If somebody is a hugely well-known face, and you put them in a film where you want the audience to think they’re watching something as it’s happening, when the well-known face pops in, it’s disorientating. It can introduce new developments. On the other hand, you just want to find the best people for the part.

Do you feel an affinity for any other filmmakers working now who have a bit of a political inflection to their work, like John Sayles?

Yes, John Sayles has done some very good films. I think probably cinematically, we work in different ways. I think his Matewan was a good film, and I very much approve of his general view of the world. [Smiles broadly] And I always look forward to his films.

Are you committed to the realist mode of storytelling?

I think it’s more interesting than fantasy. It’s more exciting. It’s more that style of performance that is more interesting. You might cut stuff together in a nonlinear way — there’s all kinds of ways of breaking the storyline up — but I think, you know, advances in most art forms come when people just try to get close to the bone of what is really going on, the core of our experience. I think art gets decadent when it becomes obsessed with form and style and all the rest. Just to give a crude example, when the Impressionists started painting light instead of objects, they were actually just trying to get closer to the process of looking at something. In a rather more humble way, that’s what we’ve tried to do. That’s a rather pretentious example. [Chuckles] I’ve been talking too long.

How important was Barry Ackroyd’s contribution to this particular story?

Barry’s a great cameraman. We’ve worked together a long time. His great attribute — he’s got several — but one is he will be able to capture the essence of a scene in his operating, judging the moment exactly when to pan from one person to another or when to catch a movement on the wing. To me, he lights well, but his greatest attribute is his operating.

Do you still believe in the possibility of progressive social change considering this hypercapitalistic mode of production we’re in?

I think the choice is going to be thrust upon us quite soon because quite obviously we’re destroying the planet at a pretty fast rate. And I don’t think this mode of production can accommodate the changes that have to be made to stop using the world’s resources so fast. The big corporations have to show a profit, they have to find cheap raw materials, they’ve got to find ever-growing markets, they’ve got to expand. That’s the dynamic of their method. The earth is finite, and they’re rapidly using it up. So the mode of production is on a collision course with the raw materials they’ve got to work with. And sooner or later it has to change. Now it may not change, it may end in disaster, or they may make minimal changes and then totter on a little bit longer. But sooner or later the conflict has got to be resolved. And the only way I can see it being resolved satisfactorily is with a planned economy — where production is for what people need, not for private profit — and we plan how we use the earth’s resources and how we cope with it. And that’s got to be confronted. Or it may not be, in which case we all blow up. I have no idea. People say we’re in a very extreme period of the extreme right-wing parties. Well, we are, but we can’t go on like that forever.

In your next film, These Times, are you dealing with the issue of globalization at all?

I think those ideas are in it, but the film is not on a big scale. It’s about migrant workers coming to Britain and the agency that rips them off. It’s a modest little film, a very local story, really.