The Wind that Shakes the Barley

DirectorKen Loach
StarringKillian Murphy
Padraic Delaney
Liam Cunningham
Orla Fitzgerald
Running Time127 mins

This is a very powerful parable of the effects of Imperialism and freedom fighting on the population of Ireland in the 1920s. Ken Loach is renowned for tackling controversial or difficult issues and this film does not disappoint on either count. The film certainly captures the feel for 1920s Ireland with beautiful cinematography and convincing backdrops. It also manages to portray the brutality required for an Imperial nation to subjugate peoples against their will. Now that would probably have been the end of the matter for most directors who would portray a simple straightforward moral of right against wrong. Ken Loach however takes the story to a whole different plane with a far more complicated moral compass and a whole new level of complexity and nuance.

Ostensibly the story is about two brothers who are caught up in the troubles and freedom movement in Ireland in the early 1920s. An older brother is a locally renowned IRA freedom fighter. His younger brother wants to train as a doctor and stay out of the troubles but witnesses atrocities that sucks him into the political turmoil. In fact I would say that radicalisation is one of the main themes that runs through the film. The younger brother travels the furthest along this radicalisation theme. He witnesses events and is forced to carry out orders that turns him into an uncompromising hard liner. What is interesting is the comparison with his older brother. This brother is travelling on the opposite moral road. Whilst willing to make sacrifices and suffer for a Free Ireland, he is growing weary of the conflict and is open to the compromise of an Irish Free State at least in the short run.

In fact, it is the second half of the film that is most interesting. The battle between those willing to compromise in the name of peace and those who wish to fight for a totally independent (and Socialist) Ireland. It helps illustrate how life and politics is rarely as neat and tidy as we would like it to be. What seemed crystal clear when they were all singing from the same song sheet by opposing brutal oppression together becomes far more complicated when they were given a taste of the freedom that they had been fighting for. The freedom fighters divide between the realists who understand the opportunity that they are being presented with against the idealists who wish to remain ideologically pure. The stakes are an escalation of the war against the British or a civil war between the two groups. The film builds up to a suitable climax that tests the two brothers to breaking point and beyond. Needless to say, it is a moving finale and leaves it to the viewer to decide where his or her sympathies lie.

If there is a criticism of the film then it may be that in the first half of the film it is rather unfairly harsh on its portrayal of British soldiers. They come across as relentlessly nasty thugs (which many were - but not all). I suppose this is not entirely surprising when you understand Ken Loach's politics and sympathies. However, there was one telling scene where a British officer loses his rag with the younger brother who had helped assassinate four British soldiers. The British officer is in despair yelling that the victims had served at the Battle of the Somme and were war heroes. It is easy to see how the tension and hatred could be ratcheted up on both sides, further radicalising an already difficult situation.

The other surprising lesson from the film is the amateurishness of all concerned. For what could be such a nasty, brutish conflict it is surprising at how naive and inept they could be. Whether it was the British, IRA or Free Staters, they all could veer from trusting naivity to brutal over-reaction with surprising speed. These were early days in guerilla warfare and all sides had a lot to learn - and these would prove to be frequently repeated lessons for the rest of the Twentieth Century. The roles of intelligence, commitment and restraint when being provoked are all addressed in surprising ways. It is not hard to guess Ken Loach's views on the Iraq conflict and what the 'troubles' might teach us about the validity and approach to any conflict along those lines.

All said and done, as long as you take into consideration the director's viewpoint and sympathies, this film has an awful lot to offer the student of Imperial and/or Irish history. It is a gorgeously made film with deep themes running through it. It is thought-provoking and makes us wonder what we would have done in their shoes.

Black and Tans Mock Execution
Preparing an Ambush
Debating the Free State Continuing the Struggle

Buy this DVD at: Amazon

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe