Of the very few English language films on the Spanish Civil War that there are, Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom is one of the better ones for the portrait if paints of the spirit of those long lost times. For new-comers to the subject of the Civil War, the film is a great introductory dramatisation of the both the war itself and the war within the war, that is, the ideological, political and, ultimately, military conflict between the various factions, parties, militias, armies and governments of the Republican resistance.
The film follows the story of a young Englishman without work who goes to fight for the Spanish Republic following the military coup of July 1936. We witness his early naivety, his confusion and fear, and we see him mature and change through his time fighting with a POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification – non-Stalinist) militia, a transformation which culminates with his realisation of the growing cynicism in the Moscow-aligned factions of the International Brigades and the People’s Republican Army. He finds new friends and falls in love with a beautiful young militia fighter (could she have been modelled on the famous Marina Ginestà?), but soon finds himself heartbroken as both the girl of his dreams and the world of his dreams are shattered by the fascist victory.
But apart from the fairly simple narrative – which is heavily inspired by George Orwell’s account of his fighting in the POUM militias, Homage to Catalonia – the film raises some deeper questions and makes some deeper points. The most compelling riddle it asks is of that feeling you feel as you, an alien to the past, read the great speeches, hear the stirring songs, and see the proud pictures of that past which now is a lost world, a world completely beyond recognition to the present.
The silent granddaughter of the dead brigadier flicks through his photographs, his letters home and his newspaper clippings that report news that is for her still news fifty years after the fact. She tries to translate the foreign language that is the propaganda of the Daily Worker, she tries to see into the eyes of the photos of the fighters, she tries to read between the lines of her grandfather’s love letters, and tries to imagine a life of lice, beans and bullets on the Aragon Front. The filmmakers could have expanded the role of the granddaughter, but the character does capture this feeling of estrangement or nostalgia that the past can bring, and in a way she could represent Spain itself, still uncovering the burnt and broken, lost, hidden and forgotten remnants of the past.
There are some powerful, beautiful scenes in the film, as well as some funny moments. The death of the Irish brigadier is particularly memorable, with his comrades gathered around his grave singing The Internationale (to understand what was meant in the last paragraph, just listen the lyrics of that song). Then there is the scene of the inter-faction fighting in the revolutions heartland – Barcelona – when the main character is bunkered down with his communist comrades yelling out insults to the anarcho-syndicalists camped out below them. The character hears an English accent across the barricades and the following exchange takes place:
-Where you from?
-Manchester – you?
-Fucking Hell! Liverpool!
-What you doing here?
-I don’t know! Why aren’t you over here with us?
-Why aren’t you over hear with us?
-Don’t fucking know!
He didn’t fucking know and we still don’t fucking know. But some more serious questions are raised that apply not just the Civil War but to all war. In the first battle scene we see more civilians than fighters, with some used as human-shields by the fascist fighters, and after the battle is won by the militias a priest is captured in a church which was harbouring fascist rebels. The militia’s ask him whether he had supported the fascists, the priest denies their accusations, but bruises on his shoulder suggest a rifle’s recoil. The militia decides to shoot him – a non-combatant prisoner of war – in a firing squad with no trial. This is the thick moral fog of war, and this too is fascism and Stalinism, and this occurred all over Spain behind the lines. The difference is of course that on one side it was the rule, the vengeful rule of war.
One of the most important scenes in the film comes after this battle, when the people of the liberated town meet together to discuss what is to be done about the property that had been seized from the church and from collaborationist landlords. The question is posed is whether to collectivise the lands for the communal production and consumption of the townspeople – applied agrarian socialism. Everyone has his or her say in this process of ‘socialism in action’ as it was called – landless peasants, landed tenant farmers, foreigners, men women – and it is resolved after much debate that the town shall collectivise all lands, not just those seized from collaborationists, as occurred in swaths of Republican held lands during the revolution. The debate that ensues gives the audience a hint at the ideological fissures that would eventually erupt into open conflict: the questions revolved around whether revolution or war or production was the most important item on the agenda, while the desirability or not of appearing moderate in the eyes of the international community was discussed and the motion defeated. This was the Spanish Revolution after all, not just the Spanish Civil War.
An obvious question to ask is why there are so few English language films about the Spanish Civil War? Every aspect of the war itself was so beyond belief that it should be perfect for Hollywood – it’s villain declared he would “shoot half of Spain” to defeat the heroes who were truly fighting for democracy and socialism, there are countless stories of love, intrigue, sabotage, betrayal and friendship that were played out in Spain’s made-for-movies landscape, and the political manoeuvring went as high as Stalin, Roosevelt and Hitler – but yet you can count the number of English language dramatisations and documentaries on one hand, with For Whom the Bell Tolls featuring prominently. Why, why is this so? The broader answer must be that the facts of the Spanish Civil War does not fit the official narrative of a wonderful West marching into Hitler’s Europe and saving the world for democracy and freedom, thereby killing fascism. The truth is, however, that the World War started in Spain when Italian and German pilots dropped bombs over Spanish cities; the truth is that every single Western power declined any substantive support to the Spanish democratic republic, however good the intentions and efforts of some statesmen; the truth is that the West flirted with and courted fascism while their citizens sent men, money, food and medicine to fight against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini where their own governments would not; the truth is that the surviving Republicans expected and prepared for an Allied invasion of Francoist Spain following the defeat of Nazi Germany, an invasion which never came; the truth is that fascism did not die with Hitler, but survived long into the 1970s in Spain, Portugal and Greece, with US support from 1953-1975 in the case of Spain, a period of ‘friendship’ that peaked with a toast made by Nixon to the ailing Franco. The truth is very, very inconvenient indeed. But still, this does not fully explain why there have been so few well-done English language movies about the war – Hollywood, to its credit, does make many decent films outside of the mainstream narrative, so why the scarcity of movies on Spain? Perhaps the official propaganda has been so effective that everyone has simply forgotten about this war that changed the entire course of the twentieth century, this war in which hundreds of thousands of ordinary people of all nations of the world voluntarily took to arms to defend democracy and to fight for socialism. If this is true then may god help us, god forgive us and god save Ken Loach.