Ken Loach’s Route Irish (2010)

I’ve read a few reviews of Route Irish and while I agree this may not be Ken Loach‘s best movie, I thought it was far better than I expected. There are a few awkward moments but overall it’s well done, well acted, interesting and suspenseful.

Fergus and Frankie are best friends since childhood days. They are inseparable. They join the army together and leave it together. While Fergus starts working as a contractor for Tyree (an organisation like Blackwater), Frankie does the odd job in their hometown Liverpool. The problem is that odd jobs don’t bring money and he is not with Fergus. That’s why he joins up with Tyree as well and they go to different “hot places” together. 10000 £ per month seem enough money to justify what they are doing and to accept the risks they are taking.

Organisations like Blackwater are the face of modern warfare. Although the men are called “security personnel” by their employers, what they really are is mercenaries. Iraq is a particularly ugly place to be. It’s messy and chaotic. They are constantly shot at and shoot back.

While Fergus is in Liverpool, Frankie is on his last mission, escorting a reporter.  He is killed on Route Irish, the most dangerous street in the world, the road that leads from Baghdad to the Green Zone.

Fergus is guilt ridden because he wasn’t there for his friend. Just before his death, Frankie tried to call Fergus several times as clearly something was wrong in Baghdad. A mobile phone that Frankie has sent to Fergus shows that he was involved in the shooting of civilians and that one of the other mercenaries wanted to cover this up. Fergus is convinced that Frankie wasn’t just in the wrong place at the wrong time but that he was murdered. He swears to track down the killers and take revenge.

Ken Loach could have chosen different ways of showing us the corruption and lawlessness of modern-day warfare and organisations like Blackwater but I thought a thriller wasn’t a bad choice. I liked Route Irish and think it is worth seeing. Not only for fans of Ken Loach.

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Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) A Story of the Spanish Civil War

At the beginning of Ken Loach’s movie Land and Freedom, we see a young woman sorting out the things her late grandfather has left behind. She finds a suitcase full of black and white photos, newspaper articles and letters that show her a hidden part in her grandfather’s life. Little had she known that he had fought in the Spanish Civil War and loved a Spanish woman.

In 1936 David Carr (Ian Hart) is an unemployed miner and member of the British Communist Party. When someone from the Spanish Communist Party shows up and tells them about the Civil War in Spain in which the people fight against General Franco’s Army and the rich landowners, David spontaneously decides to go to Spain and fight for the rights of the people.

On his train journey he meets people from the Spanish militia, part of the POUM, a communist group that fights independently of the International Stalinist Brigades. He has no particular place to be and decides to join them. The people in the little group he is fighting with are all idealists. They come from all over the world, the US, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the UK. They want to fight for the rights of the peasants and the poor and not join the Stalinist Brigades which they consider to be corrupt and only interested in their own cause.

David who at first seems to think he is living some kind of adventure, soon faces the harsh reality. Not only is the fighting often heavy and there are casualties but they are badly trained and equipped and the Stalinists keep the weapons from them. When one of those faulty guns explodes, David is injured and sent to the hospital. Blanca, one of the group visits him in Barcelona, after he has come out of the hospital. They spend a night together but she leaves disgusted when she finds out that David has decided to join the Stalinists.

David will regret his decision soon enough and return to his old POUM group. The movie ends tragically and on a note of utter disillusionment.

Land and Freedom was absolutely not what I had expected and I assume that is exactly what Ken Loach was aiming for. We all have our ideas about the Spanish Civil War, some very romantic ones mostly. We know that Hemingway fought in Spain and so many other writers, painters… It seemed to have been one of the very rare wars with a justified cause to fight for. Ken Loach destroys all our romantic ideas and that is why the movie is good and annoying at the same time. He tries to show how it must have been. The fights and differences within the Communist Party and their subgroups, the endless talking and theorizations. The middle part of the movie is one long annoying and boring conversation and dispute about collectivism.

An aspect I wasn’t familiar with is the fact that women were only allowed to fight alongside the men at the beginning of the war. Later it was decided that they had to do “womanly” things like cooking or being nurses. I thought that women fought all through this war. Another shattered illusion.

Loach has earned a lot of praise and got also a lot of scolding for this movie. Some think that finally someone told it as it was, others think he dirtied the memory of the Spanish Civil War.

I am a fan of Ken Loach‘s movies, he has done quite a few that I liked a lot, although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I liked Land and Freedom, I must say, I appreciated it. I felt somewhat stupid for having to realize that my idea of the Spanish Civil War had maybe been a tad too romantic as well.

Unfortunately there was no trailer of Land and Freedom, only the first part of the movie.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) or Two Brothers Torn Apart by the Irish Civil War

The Wind that Shakes the Barley opens on a group of young men joyfully playing a game of hurling. After the game has ended we watch them return home to their modest houses. Some are still standing  together smoking and  talking, when all of a sudden a group of British soldiers approaches out of nowhere confronting them with the fact that they did break the law.  Meetings are strictly forbidden and even a game of hurling is considered to be an assemly and thus a possible act of rebellion. The scene heats up immediately when the young men answer in Gaelic upon being asked their names. The episode ends in a blood bath, one of the young men being beaten to a pulp and dead.

This is shocking. One can hardly believe one’s eyes since this is no invention. The British subjugated the Irish fiercely and anything resembling rebellion from their side ended in severe punishment.

Ken Loach´s movie The Wind that Skakes the Barley (the title is taken from an Irish Ballad)  embraces both moments in Irish history, first The Irish War of Independence and then The Irish Civil War. At the core of the story that is set in county Cork are the two O´Donovan  brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney). At the onset of the war Damien is about to leave his native Ireland for  London where a position as a doctor at a hospital is waiting for him. Seeing the brutality and the cruelty his people face and knowing that his brother will be leading a guerilla party, he stays to join them. At that time the British government sent the  so-called “Black and Tans” to brutally reinforce their power. The old IRA started to strike back.

After long months of heavy fighting they were asked to sign a treaty which would guarantee the Irish their own government and established the Irish Free State. However six Northern counties would stay within the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.  This is the moment when the Civil War erupts and Pro Free State (headed by Michael Collins) troops fought the Anti-treaty forces. In the movie the tragedy unfolds as the brothers go different ways. Teddy accepts and supports the Free State  while Damien wants to fight until all of Ireland is  free. He believes that they have fought in vain if they give up now. It is unbelievable but the Civil War cost finally more lives than the War of Independence.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley was as  hard to watch and as depressing as L´armée des ombres. The methods applied resemble those applied by the French Resistance. They wouldn’t even shy away from killing their own in the event of betrayal. We also see people being shot and people being tortured.

This movie is also hard to watch since it reveals a really ugly aspect of the British Empire. If you are British this will be hard to accept, if you like the British it will be equally hard and if you are Irish this will truly infuriate you. One can simply not understand why the Empire had to make  the already impoverished, famished and sick Irish suffer so much. I read that this part of their history  is not really taught in English schools. I think many English people would be shocked and astonished when they see this and might understand a lot better what was ultimately behind the Troubles.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is very intense. The pictures of the beautiful, lush green countryside contrast starkly with the brutalities depicted. The story of the two brothers who end up torn apart by their conflicting ideals is very tragic. and both actors do a great job

There is no doubt that this movie deserved the Palme d´ Or it won in 2006. Even though I am sure the movie could not cover all the aspects and the whole complexity of the Wars, it raises the awareness. It´s simply stated a brilliant movie. But it is not entertaining for one second. Harsh but recommended viewing really.