This film was an earlier success for Ken Loach and his team. It won a number of European Awards including the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. It did not win any awards in the UK or USA. In fact, as has often been the case with films directed by Ken Loach, the film performed better on the Continent, especially in Spain and France, than in the two major English Language territories. There are ironies in the producing countries, since the Spanish, German and Italian regimes were all involved in the Civil War depicted in the film, whilst Britain [like the USA] stood on the side-lines, essentially supporting the force who are enemy in the film.
The Civil War was that between the Fascist regime that staged a coup d’état against the elected Spanish government in 1936 and the coalition of left and liberal forces of the Spanish Republic defending the land and the freedom of the Spanish people. This was the great cause in the 1930s and many politically committed British men and women went to Spain to fight and often die in the defence of the Republic.
One of these was the writer George Orwell and the film is clearly strongly influenced by his account in Homage to Catalonia (1938). In the film Liverpudlian David Carr [Ian Hart] goes, like Orwell, to Spain and joins the left-wing Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. The film features battles between the Fascists and the Republicans, but it also features political confrontations and debates. As in Orwell’s book the film takes the side of the combined Marxist/Anarchist POUM against the dominant republican factions led by the Partido Communista de Spain (Communist Party of Spain). The film is rather simplistic about the political conflict among the republicans. As the film essays the Communist Party was dominated by the rather reactionary political line of the ‘United Front’. However, the opposition, embodied in POUM, had serious political problems as well.
The battles sequences are very well done. The cast trained in Spain for a fortnight before shooting the sequences. As in Loach’s other films the cast consists of professional actors of some type together with non-professionals. The latter are extremely important in the central sequence of the film where villagers debate the question of the collectivisation of the land. This sequence both sets out the political question at the heart of the film and also provides an unusually intelligent debate for a commercial movie.
The battles and the debates are sited in a drama that also highlights personal relationships among the Republicans. Both the political drama and the personal involve betrayal and tragedy: emblematic of the central focus in the films right across Loach’s career. The narrative is structured as a flashback. There is a fine opening as a funeral and a suitcase of memorabilia takes us from 1990s Liverpool to 1930s Spain. There is also a moment of reflexivity as we watch an audience and a film within a film.
As with his other films this is to a great degree a collective achievement. There is Loach’s now long-time producer Rebecca O’Brien. The Screenplay is by veteran Jim Allen with contributions from Roger Smith, who had worked with Loach on the earlier Wednesday Plays. This sadly was the last collaboration between Allen and Loach, but intriguingly Paul Laverty, who has written for Loach since then, had small part as an extra in the film. The Production Design was headed by Martin Johnson, the Cinematography was by regular Barry Ackroyd, Editing by Jonathan Morris and Music by George Fenton. The production and cast includes a cross-section of European crafts people. The film has all the characteristics of Loach’s film work, including long shots in long takes. And his approach to filming, working chronologically and often surprising the cast, produces the sense of authenticity so important in his work.
The film was shot in a ratio of 1.66:1 and is in colour. The dialogue includes English, Spanish and Catalan, mostly but not always subtitled. My memory is that in 1995,whilst there were a 100 prints for release on the continent, in the UK there were only 4. It seems we will see one of those on Sunday as the screening is from 35mm, always an additional pleasure.