It’s no good reproaching me for taking nearly fifteen years to watch a good film. I can only go at the pace of my DVD collection.
You know with Ken Loach films that you will get socialism, humanity and decency, in any order you like, and that the acting and cinematography will be terrific. So there is no surprise in reporting that Land and Freedom, which must be a bargain now on Amazon, is remarkable – in fact, of the umpteen Loach films I’ve seen, perhaps his very best. He wears his politics lightly, but embeds them deeply. This one is about the Spanish Civil War, and its very early stages. I suspect that this is the war (and the Fascist) that got away. Very few people know much about it, and I admit to have always been confused by the label ‘Republican’, in that both sides were ostensibly Republican and indeed both Nationalist. Until watching this film, the screenplay of which plainly draws on Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, the facts had gone fuzzy on me. Somewhere in the distant past I’ve read David Thomas’s book about Spain, but it has detached itself like a retina.
In the commentary – a commentary made in perhaps 1996 – Loach compares what happened in Spain to what is happening in Iraq. It is a very generalised comparison, but it is certainly good to be reminded that Britain did nothing about Franco, any more than they did about Salazar in Portugal. It takes the shine off the idea of Churchill as an idealist (although of course Churchill was not to be in power for five more years). Franco was business dealt with, something you could overlook. Essentially, he poked Stalin in the eye, and that was expedient enough at the time to get away with it. Stalin remains a complex figure: the subject of huge loyalty on the left until two decades after the period in which this film is set, and after that, too.
You have here a brilliant portrait of a war within a war: slightly shambolic and endearing idealists who wanted to overthrow the monarchy (done), as well as the fascists. The left-wing Marxists at the heart of the film are double-dealt by everyone. They even contrive to argue amongst themselves (the real parallel is with the Cromwell supporters who wound up on the wrong side of the Lord Protector’s pragmatism in the 1650s).
What is marvellous about this film is its modesty. There are no political sledgehammers, no homilies: only a sequence of images, each unforgettable, about how brave it is to support a cause when you are from a foreign country. It is a breath of internationalism. And it is also a a series of quiet and tender stories. An unemployed Scouser, David Carr, goes to Spain because he wants to help out. He is a card-carrying Communist in the day when that was acceptable (we had Communist MPs in this country when the American right was launching its attack on Communists). When he gets there, he finds that there are locals debating collectivism (shared ownership of land), and a Communist Party which is quietly turning on splinter groups as ineffective.
The debates in the film are crucial to its success, because they force us to think about whether idealism is enough, although they also force us to line up against Franco (a very similar technique is used in Trevor Griffiths’ play Comedians). Whether the framing device Loach and the writer Jim Allen used was necessary, I doubt (the film opens with Carr’s death as an old man, and his grand-daughter’s discovery of his Spanish mementoes, which include some slightly too creaseless photos and slightly too well-kept newspaper cuttings). Loach’s argument is that it yokes the past and present together. It certainly helps remind us that we are pretty ignorant about the Spanish Civil War, but I was only half-convinced it was needed.
Acting, filming, script, tension: all sublime. Loach’s skill is in drawing out understated, comic and naturalistic performances. And above all, he is a terrific teacher.