But blood for blood without remorse, I’ve takes at Oulart Hallow
And laid my true love’s clay-cold corpse, Where I full soon may follow
As ‘round her grave I wonder drear, Noon, night and morning early
With breaking Heart when e’er I hear, The wind that shakes the barley.
Very early in this film, we hear this Irish ballad, about a young rebel who sacrifices his relationship with his sweetheart for doing his duty towards his country, from which Loach borrowed the title of his movie. On 26th of May when Blue is the Warmest Colour(2013) was declared Palme d’Or winner of 2013 Cannes film Festival, I naturally found myself going through the list of previous winners. One of the winners of the recent years that caught my attention was Ken Loach’s Irish war drama film The Wind That Shakes the Barley(2006) which takes us through last years of Irish war of Independence and then Civil war following it in the early ‘20s.
Story follows two brothers Damien O’Donovan and Teddy O’Donovan. When we see Damien, he is about to leave for London to join one of the most prestigious hospitals in London. As he is bidding goodbye to some of the folks from his village, he witnesses some British officers beating one of his friends, Micheail O’Sullivan, to death because he wouldn’t tell his name in English. The day he is to leave, he also watched beating the same officers beating the driver, his assistant and guard of the train he is about to board because they refuse to let them board. Even though initially reluctant, because of these two incidences Damien changes his mind and instead of going to London, joins the local branch of IRA which his brother Teddy commands.
After undergoing the basic training, their squad starts hitting the targets like the barracks of local Police or RIC in this case. Once in a while, they come across Auxiliaries i.e. former British soldiers deployed in Ireland and try to make as much damage as they can. However they always make sure never to shoot at any fellow Irishmen even when RIC, which is full of Irish people, are very cruel and brutish even towards Women and Children. As British face retaliation, they hit back with equal force. Both sides keep on attacking each other, shading whole lot of blood and losing many lives, until finally, higher authorities on both sides agree on the truce to stop all the bloodshed.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley does not only show their struggle with British in fighting the war of Independence. Good thing about it is while they are fighting this war it also focuses on the future implications of their fight like the direction in which they want Ireland to lead, if they eventually do succeed in getting the British out of their country. Two of the film’s best scenes are not when they are out in the fields fighting with their enemy but when they are trying to work on the course they want to take as Irish people free of any association with London, as free Republicans responsible for their own future.
One, when Teddy tries to protect a rich man convicted in the republican court for swindling poor people out of their money because that man provides money for buying their guns and ammunition. Second, when all the local members of their unit decide whether to accept the treaty offered to them or to keep fighting. Half the members of the party, including Damien, are of the opinion that whatever treaty is offering isn’t worth them being content off. Other half, which surprisingly includes Teddy and his deputy in their unit, zealously supports the decision of their superiors. Soon this rift goes on increasing dividing the whole country into two, including the two brothers, and results in the civil war.
While I was in school learning about the Indian Independence Struggle, we often came across various references to IRA and Irish was of Independence in general. Not only were both the fights were against the same enemy, they were going on at roughly the same time as well. This struggle served as a great source of inspiration especially to the faction of Indian revolutionaries leaning towards armed struggle. They always fascinated me ever since then and made me naturally sympathetic of them and of their cause. Movies like Hunger(2008) have only increased that appetite. This movie goes one step further in that history lesson.
To the best of my knowledge, it is a fictionalized story or at least the characters are. But it is based on actual events, on real circumstances. There were RICs fighting the war for British, there were Auxiliaries who were former British soldiers and they were deployed in Ireland to fight against the flying squads like Teddy’s and there was civil war that swiftly followed the treaty in Ireland. From what I understand Loach was criticized for getting some of the other finer details wrong. Neither am I expert to comment on their validity nor do I think that is important enough to dwell further on.
Only recognizable names to me from the whole cast were Cilian Murphy in the central role of Daniel and Liam Cunningham as their associate Dan who stays with Daniel even after civil war breaks out. Padraic Delaney who plays Teddy did seem familiar until I realized he played George Boleyn in The Tudors(2007) that I am currently going through on Instant. Rest of the cast, most notably Orla Fitzgerald, is unknown to me but leaves you with an impression. On various occasions, characters stutter or talk like their dialogues are improvised or seem confused as what to do next. But since they remain in the characters, it gives whole movie an impromptu but naturalistic favour. Given the amateur status of these soldiers, I think this is a welcome change.
With the help of brutal but sensible screenplay by Paul Laverty and by equally restrained directing what Loach does is he makes a great case for Irish people, their cause. Even though British are the enemy they are fighting, this movie refrains from portraying them in overtly villainous ways. It is about the Irish people and it stays about them. As I’ve credited it before, screenplay of this film remains to be one of the biggest assets of the film, even in portraying Daniel and Sinead’s love story. Their arc gives us little more human interest, something to distract from all the brutalities of war and also serves the purpose of making the end more brutal but it never takes over the main focus i.e. their cause. Regardless of the validity of some of the Loach’s claims, this makes The Wind That Shakes the Barley a worthy watch.
Rating(out of 5):