Film Review: ‘Land and Freedom’ – The Spanish Civil War Revisited
Ken Loach is a considerable film maker. He directed Cathy Come Home for BBC TV in 1966, and his credits also include the unforgettable Kes (1970), The Price of Coal (1977), Hidden Agenda (1990) and Raining Stones (1993) – both winners of the Cannes Jury Prize. And now comes a film about the Spanish Civil War, 'Land and Freedom' (Curzon West End, Chelsea Cinema, Renoir, Screen on the Green and selected cinemas across the country from October), another Cannes winner and, by any standards, a major achievement.
Through an impressive flashback devise, Loach unifies life in contemporary Liverpool with Spain in the late 1930s. An old man collapses on a Liverpool housing estate. He has had a stroke and he dies on the way to hospital. His granddaughter, sorting out his things, finds an old suitcase with letters, clippings and photographs of the civil war. And as she reads them and reflects, her grandfather's story unfolds on the screen.
David leaves to fight fascism. He joins an international section of the Republican militia on the Aragon Front and is wounded. He is sent to hospital in Barcelona where he discovers that factions on his own side – the so-called communists – are more concerned with internal disputes than with fighting the war against fascism. David’s war ends tragically. The Militia are disarmed by the Stalinist Popular Front (sic) and one of his comrades is killed.
The film works on many levels. As an attempt to tell a compelling story which captures something of the spirit of the times – the revolutionary idealism of the Militia, the sickening poverty of Spanish peasants, the internal conflicts amongst the republicans, the unfolding story of David's love affair with Blanca and its tragic conclusion – this is a well crafted piece of film-making. But more than this Loach offers us a series of powerful political snapshots of Spain in the mid/late 1930s. He might have made an even more effective film if the dialogue had painted a clearer picture of the background to the war, but nevertheless this is a splendid film – a substantial piece of political story telling which will have great interest for socialists.
There are perhaps three defining moments. First, a fascist-held village is captured and the villagers meet to discuss what to do with the land. Jim Allen's script and Barry Ackroyd's camera linger over the fascinating, heated discussion. The villagers are united only in their opposition to fascism. Some want to move towards common ownership of the land by collectivising farms. Others want to confiscate only fascist's land, and to divide this amongst the peasant community. Whilst a third group want largely to retain things as they are. The scene demonstrates what socialists already know: that there was no majority in favour of a socialist revolution in Spain in 1936, but rather the remnants of a coalition of anarchists, republicans, Stalinists and, so-called, revolutionaries.
Second, in the streets of Barcelona, David becomes involved in fighting between anarchists, Stalinists and revolutionaries. Later he tears up his membership card of the British Communist Party and, voice over, writes witheringly in a letter home of the betrayal of the revolution by the Stalinists.
Third, as David's coffin is buried his granddaughter gives the clutched salute of the Spanish Militia. Loach seemingly wants us to draw parallels between the Spanish Civil War and relevant actions which the working class might take in contemporary Britain. We are presumably to conclude that the ideas and actions of latter-day Spanish-style militants are relevant. Not so. The only actions which are pertinent to the working class revolutionary are those which are concerned with the enlightenment and empowerment of the class to which they belong, and the collective transformation of capitalism into socialism. Not for us a re-run of anything akin to the Spanish Civil War, no matter how heroic and well-meaning many of those who fought on the republican side might have been. We have a different war to fight: to enfranchise a socialist majority and, by so doing, to end all wars.