Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Land and Freedom, Ken Loach, 1995 film review

I started the project which became My Heart Forgets To Beat in June 1991. At that time, I approached my prof at Lancaster University with the idea of writing a novel about a Liverpool man who goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War. My mother had a cousin, one of the Merseyside Brigadeers who went but never came back. I had often wondered what I would have done had I been around at the time. My aim was always to explore the background that led someone to join up, never to write a great deal about the war itself.
In 1995, some way into the project, I was dismayed when I heard how Ken Loach had released a film with a similar theme. Watching a trailer for Land and Freedom, my hackles stood up: Loach had covered much of the same ground! A Liverpool volunteer, working class, leaves girl behind, etc.. At that point, I took the decision not to see the film until my own work was published. That way, if there were to be any similarities, they would come about by chance. I didn't want to have to manipulate my ideas in order not to clash with those of an another artist. Since publishing my book, I've watched the film and I'm relieved to say the two works stand - or fall – by different criteria.
Ken Loach has been well-known since his 1966 drama documentary about homelessness, Cathy Come Home. He is singular if not quite unique in his methods. Mike Leigh, for example in Abigail's Party (1977), has a similar approach to film-making; but his work veers more towards farce and social commentary than Loach's politically motivated drama. Both, however, are known as solid left-wingers. Loach is a director who progressed from TV drama into making full scale films, though remaining outside the mainstream. Often raising money from governments and foundations, his award-winning films have touched on characters and situations other producers tend to avoid, for example migrant workers, delinquent youths & loan sharks. From the point of view of an actor's career, appearing in his work can attract great kudos while exposing them to a very different way of working. Loach draws some of the greatest performances from non-professionals who don't need to worry about their next acting job. Unlike Cathy, when the shooting is over, they may simply go home to everyday lives.
In fact, the improvisation and workshop techniques which these films employ are more popular with theatre than film directors. The major difference is in their approach to plot. Both Loach and Leigh are notorious for letting actors build up their own characters, then informing them what the action will be. As Loach says in an interview about Land and Freedom, actress Rosana Pastor guessed she was going to be killed near the end of the film after realising that her contract was slightly shorter than the others'. He also chortles that a plot direction during the making of Land and Freedom led to a cast rebellion. This combination of actor-devised character versus director imposed plot follows the political theory that individual free-will plays little part in the great events of history.
Land and Freedom is unusual for a war film in that while the battle scenes are both exciting and realistic, they avoid the sentimentality of a Saving Private Ryan. The plot is taken from Orwell's Homage To Catalonia, following the fortunes of an English volunteer with the socialist POUM militia. POUM, which translates as Unified Marxist Workers' Party, was allied at the time with the British Independent Labour Party, hence Orwell's involvement. In Land and Freedom, though, the volunteer isn't an Old Etonian, ex-Burmese policeman, but an unemployed Liverpool man, David Carr. Another difference with Orwell's book is that much of the action centres on the revolutionary processes going on in the wake of the war. Orwell doesn't take much time out to examine peasant land issues or feminism. However, the plot of the film does stay with Homage to Catalonia in following the struggles between POUM irregulars and the Moscow-backed Popular Army. At this point, Carr's Communist Party membership leads him to break with the POUM and to join the Moscow-backed International Brigade. The film suggests these volunteers were caught up in clashes with anarchist militia in Barcelona. During a street battle scene, for instance, Carr is heard shouting across the lines to a Manchester man. Each asks the other what he's doing on the wrong side. Though this incident is based on anecdotal evidence, the film glosses over the complex politics in order to show Carr as a victim of factionalism. He tears up his Communist Party card and returns to the POUM unit on the Aragón front. The inevitable love-interest takes over as the denouement is reached and we are left pondering how wartime revolutions are betrayed.
Orwell's account was a personal documentary, whereas Land and Freedom employs fiction over fact. In my book, this should give the film an extra dimension. It opens and closes in modern day Liverpool, with the death and funeral of the aged David Carr; while the scenes in Spain are interspersed with his granddaughter reading through a suitcase of old newspaper clippings, pamphlets and letters from his time there. Many of the tropes are set up by such epistles, though what we see of Carr in Spain goes beyond what he would have written to Kit, the girl he left behind in Liverpool. For example, after promising that local girls can't hold a candle to her, we see him propositioning Blanca, a young woman he takes to be a prostitute. It turns out she is nothing of the sort and the resulting scene is a cack-handed piece of farce. Later, when her militiaman boyfriend is killed, she and Carr take up with each other. No doubt such things were common at that time and place. But Orwell's report of his wife's visit to him in Spain leaves out the juicy details – along with any dalliances he may or may not have had. Here lies the greatness of fiction over fact. According to one of his colleagues on the Aragón front, Blair (Orwell) received a neck wound from a sniper's bullet while carelessly reminiscing of his visits to Paris brothels. I mean, after Orwell's List when will the real Eric Blair finally stand up?
Orwell's Paris: Out But Not Down (1928)
I can't imagine Loach raised anything on the scale of a Hollywood budget to make this film, and yet it's lovingly realised. The costumes, sets, street scenes, vehicles and the host of paraphernalia necessary to make an historical film credible are all there. The countryside and towns of Spain are fully exploited. Most notable are passionate performances by local and international members of cast, with Ian Hart as David Carr and Rosana Pastor as Blanca. At several times there are long arguments and discussions conducted in Spanish, English, French and German, subtitles switching between languages and struggling to keep up. English too often dominates to be sure; even so the mixture of Scottish, Irish, American and Liverpool accents adds to the glorious babble... sorry, powerful dialectic. Loach's skill as a film maker is the ability to blend many disparate elements and come up with a credible whole.
I'm just suspicious of interpolating anecdotal material, as in the Barcelona street clash mentioned above. Another instance is lifted straight out of Homage to Catalonia. After enduring months of stalemate in the fighting, appalling weather conditions and poor supplies, both sides on the Aragón front take to bombarding each other with propaganda. Orwell reports a comical incident when one republican militiaman starts hollering about toast, hot buttered toast. It's a moment of sublime hysteria, guaranteed to have the reader laughing out loud, despite the seriousness of the situation. Twice in the film, similar lines are used – yet the bathos of the original is lost. I think the shortness and fast pace of this film is part of the problem; you need an epic length production, such as All Quiet On The Western Front, to put over the terrifying boredom of trench warfare. The other problem is the very interpolation of Orwell's story itself. I don't know why Loach didn't use a real Liverpudian's account, such as No Shoes To My Feet by Bob Clark.
The next downwritefiction post will be more shameless self-promotion: "My Heart Forgets To Beat" - Cover Story.

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