Land and Freedom (1995) Dir. Ken Loach

Image © NordNordWest

Red Lester

This film looks at the Spanish Civil War through the eyes of David Carr, an unemployed man from Liverpool. A member of the Communist Party, he is inspired to join the fight against Franco’s attempt to overthrow the elected government of Spain. The story follows his initial involvement with POUM, the Spanish Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, his decision to join the Communist Party approved International Brigade, his political disillusionment with them and his return to his comrades in the POUM unit, only to witness their enforced disbandment.

We see the war through David’s eyes and Loach’s sympathies are clearly with POUM and the anarchists. Reviews have been written which disagree strongly with the images of POUM and the Communist Party portrayed; others agree and unsurprisingly these opinions divide politically between ex members of the International Brigade and ex members of POUM. Other reviews point out the film’s resemblance to George Orwell’s book ‘Homage to Catalonia’, although the main character, rather than an Old Etonian, is an unemployed docker. 

The film’s central and most telling sequence takes place when the inhabitants of a recently liberated village meet in the house of the priest they have just executed and discuss how the village land should be managed. Many of the parts were played by non-professionals, who lived in the village where the film was shot. Loach gets convincing performances from all, and anyone who has ever been to a political meeting will be able to identify with someone in that room. The argument here is about collectivisation of land. Some wish to allow people to keep their small plots but the passionate opinion of others is that complete collectivisation is the only way. It falls to David to point out that if the war is not won this will not be an issue as they will all be dead. This scene encapsulates the divisions within the anti-Franco forces which weakened the resistance to his rebellion. Later in the film, the event that completes David’s disillusionment with the Communist Party is when, as a member of the International Brigade, he is ordered to defend the Communist headquarters in Barcelona from other leftists. In a short exchange with another Englishman on the opposing side, it becomes clear that both have lost sight of why they are there.

The film depicts in a series of scenes the problems facing the POUM militia. They have no military experience and do not take easily to attempts at enforcing military style discipline. They cannot obtain weapons unless they agree to be integrated into the national military force and so are reduced to using old weapons, one of which causes an injury to David. Their main asset is their passionate commitment to the cause. Initially, women were able to fight alongside their male comrades, but as integration was gradually forced upon them, women were allowed only their traditional roles of nursing and cooking.

The film is dramatically involving and the cinematography captures the Spanish light and landscape. The leading actors, Ian Hart and Rosana Pastor are convincing. My only criticism would be that sometimes it felt as if the need to portray the political views of the characters detracted from their depiction as rounded characters. However, there are so few films with any type of overtly political subject matter that it is possible to overlook this tendency. It is worth noting that another actress in the film, Iciar Bollain has gone on to direct the recent film Even the Rain, which explores attitudes to the exploitation of native peoples. This is well worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it.

The story is framed by sequences set in the present day. The film begins with David’s granddaughter discovering him unconscious at home and his subsequent death en route to hospital. After his death she discovers letters, news cuttings and a handful of earth and these allow the movement of the plot from episode to episode, revealing his changing attitude to the Communist Party. We also see that he is not entirely truthful; while assuring his girlfriend in Liverpool that no Spanish woman matches up to her, we see him become attached to Blanca and sleep with her. This device also shows the passing of political ideals from one generation to another. At the end of the film, his granddaughter throws the Spanish earth onto his coffin and gives the clenched fist salute. She also gives validation to the ultimately defeated militia in Spain. Quoting the poem ‘The Day Is Coming’ by William Morris found in David’s papers she recites:

‘Join in the battle wherein no man can fail,

For whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail’.

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