I ran into a couple of friends after they’d been to see The Wind that Shakes the Barley and they described it as a great movie, very harrowing. This seemed to me to be a good reason to avoid it – I’m actually fine not being harrowed.
I hadn’t even meant to go and see it, my friend Josie and I had planned to go see The Devil Wears Prada, guarateened to annoy – not harrow. But due to a minor case of cashlessness we were both suffering from we missed it, so we decided to give Ken Loach’s movie a go instead. It is an incredible movie, I definately recommend it, even though ‘harrowing’ isn’t a bad description.
This isn’t exactly a review, more a discussion of the things that I thought about after watching this movie. I don’t so much review movies as dissect them – a habit that some people find annoying (but I’m not quite sure what the fun in movies are if you can’t discuss the portrayl of gender roles for an hour afterwards). Despite not being a review there are spoilers – so stay away if you don’t like that sort of stuff(and you should go because it’s good – but take tissues, because it’s really, really sad).
The Wind that Shakes the Barley is set in Ireland in 1920, a land which was under British occupation. The main character is a doctor who is about to travel to England, because he’s got a job in a big hospital. His friends ask him to stay to help fight the British, particularly after the British army brutually murder one of their friends. He refuses, until a relatively minor incident at the railway station as he’s leaving that changes his mind.
It’s odd, watching a guerilla army operate on rolling green hills with unwieldy rifles. I’m not used to watching people fight in suits, with vests, watch chains – and an array of slightly ridiculous hats. The film is obviously, at least partly, a comment on current occupations. I think that part of what gives that comment its power is this dissonance. Period movies have a whole set of expectations – and generally it doesn’t involve ambushing soldiers to steal their weapons. We also have a whole lot of expectations about war movies, which generally make it very difficult to say anything worth saying about war.
But we don’t have any preconceptions, filmic or otherwise, about 1920s Ireland (and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who knew very little about 1920s Ireland). So I think people are much more likely to accept the arguments about the necessity of resistance than they would if the film was set in Iraq, or even Vietnam. Partly that’s just plain racism – but it’s about the fact the movie is set in the past.
The weakest part of the film was the love story, whereby the main character falls in love with the only female character who does anything.* Don’t get me wrong I loved Sinnead (the woman in question) – the actress did a great job with an under-written role. But the narrative they told was extremely problematic from a feminist perspective (see I told you we’d get to gender roles).
I don’t have a problem with movies that depict homosocial realities. In some times and places women and men live largely seperate lives. Even when women and men live a more integrated life (as I imagine they would in rural Ireland – seperate spheres is not an ideology that particularly suits rural living) it is not exactly stretching the imagination to believe that men exclude women from some activities and consign them to others.** If movies about the past and present want to explore reality they need to depict worlds. But, it is so easy to tell those stories in a way that centralises men’s experiences, and minimises women’s experiences.
I would have actually had no problem with the portrayal of women in The Wind That Shakes The Barley if Sinnead and Damien had never got together (or had been together from the beginning). We did get to see glimpses of women’s world – and the work that they were doing. If we’d left it at that then the movie would have been implying that women existed in their own world.
Part of the problem is that the woman Damien was interested in was the woman who was doing everything – delivering messages, bringing them guns, running the court. Rather than implying that there was a network of women parallel to the network of men they showed, this implied that there was one really keen woman, who was almost as useful as the men. More importantly Sinnead was one of the four most central characters in the film, and yet she has no agency, she makes no choices, and she never voices an opinion that is seperate from Damien’s.
Of course, I’d be the first to admit that their romance made the movie much more powerful. But if the filmmakers wanted the scene at the end where Teddy tells Sinnead (and it was certainly where the tears that were running down my cheeks bcame sobs), then they should have earned it. They should have made her a person, and shown her world as well as his. Otherwise they are perpetuating the idea that women are just there to serve men.
So having got the gender politics out of the way, I do want to say something about the actual plot of the movie – because it’s left me thinking about guerilla warfare ever since.
Chris, the youngest member of their group (I’d say he was between 14 and 16), works as a farm labourer on an English land-owners property. The land-owner figures out what’s going on and gets Chris to talk about the group. This leads to everyone being captured by the English soldiers, while most of them escape from the prison, three don’t and these three are eventually shot.
When they discover where the information had come from they kidnap the English land-owner and tell Chris to come with them. Damien receives orders to shoot both the English land-owner and Chris, and he does.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my reaction to this. While I was watching the movie I actively wanted them to shoot the English land-owner, and I have absolutely no problems at all with them having done so. But I was, and am, extremely angry that they shot Chris.
In many ways I feel really uncomfortable writing about these issues, because they’re so beyond anything I know anything about. I believe people have a right to self-defence, that if you’re being attacked you have a right to fight back. I also believe that for self-defence to be effective it has to be organised (just like any other form of action). I’m generally going to be on the side of the guerilla army. But I have absolutely no knowledge of what that actually means.
I was really angry when they shot Chris, not just because they were shooting a teenager who was on their side, but because from the narrative the leadership were setting him up for failure. He was a teenager working on an English land-owner’s estate, and the land-owner who knew where his family was. He should not have had any information that could do them any damage. There was no need for him to know where the forces were camped out.
They had let this boy take part in an ambush for which there would clearly be reprisals, but, from his stammering answer when asked where he was that afternoon, they hadn’t even discussed what he should do if someone suspected him. They hadn’t given him any of the tools that you need in that situation and were killing him for failing.
I think that if the stakes are so high that someone might die as a result of leaked information, then those in leadership positions have to be really careful about who knows that information. I would blame whoever let Chris know where they were staying, and whoever let him be part of the action, without teaching him what he needed to know (ie there’s more to fighting a guerilla war that where to find cover) for the deaths of the three men who were captured.
That’s a bit of a cop-out, because it allows me not to look at the more serious issues around how collaborators and spies are treated by a resistance army. That’s where my ignorance comes in, I really don’t know enough about those sorts of wars to write rules about where the line falls between the land-owner and Chris. So I feel kind of silly trying to make pronouncements.
But the more I think about it, the more I think the killing of Chris was indefensible. Not just for the practical reasons (and I think the movie would have been tighter if the set-up had bee more ambiguous), but because of an argument I’m sort of stealing off Howard Zinn.***
As you may already know the Irish nationalist movement got sold out by its leaders, obviously part of this was the creation of Northern Ireland, but for our characters it was more than that. Some of the characters were not just fighting for independence, they’re fighting for socialism.
The film ends with Damien being shot. His executation was ordered by Teddy, the leader who ordered Damien to shoot Chris. The night before Teddy offers Damien amnesty if Damien tells Teddy where the weapons cache is, and Damien says that he shot Chris, who he’d known since he was a boy – to give up would be to make that meaningless.
The thing is that historically all movements for a better world have fizzled out, been crushed, or been sold out. That’s not a reason not to try, not by any means. But it does mean that if the only way you can justify shooting a teenage boy who is on your side, is that you’re creating a glorious future, then it’s probably worth pausing and considering the fact that you might not.
One of the characters who stayed with me the most, wasn’t ever on screen. Damien talks to Sinnead about telling Chris’s mother that he had shot Chris. He tells her that Chris’s mother went and got her shoes, and asked Damien to take her to where Chris was buried. They walked for six hours up into the hills till they got to the chapel. Chris’s mother put flowers on Chris’s grave and then told Damien to go – “I don’t ever want to see you face again.”
*The film does (just) pass the Mo Movie Measure – as long as you consider ‘Nan’ a name, when it’s given to a grandmother.
** I’m a feminist historian, so I feel I need to point out that of course that it is more complicated than that. Gendered division of labour is not static, but a site of contest.
*** Howard Zinn’s version of this argument is an argument for non-violence. He argues that since we never know what is going to happen it is unacceptable to kill people in the belief it will create another world. I’m not convinced by this argument as a whole – because as I said I believe in people’s right to self-defence. But I do think we have to take the range of consequences into account when deciding what’s OK.
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