“Revolutions are contagious.”
Every time I watch this film, something stirs deep within me, an anger, but also a sense of pride, mixed with an unsettling frustration that is hard to shake off. These confused responses are fitting as they are the same as the protagonist David Carne (Ian Hart) experiences. He is an unemployed, scouse idealist who is inspired to join the revolutionary moment POUM in Spain to fight against Franco’s fascists as he sees an opportunity to find meaning for himself by overcoming the oppression of the unions and the democratically elected people’s party. The initial camaraderie between the comrades with make-shift arms, begins to evaporate and bitter in-fighting is ultimately replaced by Stalinists that brutally wipes out the POUM.
Loach and his screenwriter Jim Allen, who collaborated with him on the excellent RAINING STONES (1993), have a keen ear for the dialogue. They have great fun with the babel of languages and accents coming together to fight in Spain. The film manages to mix socialist polemic, thrilling battle scenes, romance and a sense of comedy to illustrate a fascinating time of history.
The film starts with octogenarian Carne dying in his flat, leaving his grand daughter to look through his mementos from the experience, including letters and photographs. The film is told as a flash-back with occasional returns to ‘the present’ as the granddaughter discovers more cuttings and notes. At the time of its release, The Pump House People’s Museum in Manchester, held an exhibition which told the stories of people from the city who had gone to Spain to fight. It was a time when politics mattered to people and they believed that they could contribute against the struggle and make a difference.
During a central scene, Loach flexes his neorealist muscles when a group of farmers liberated by the POUM begin to discuss how to manage their land. Local people were used and the acting is utterly convincing as they argue about collectivism versus private ownership of the land. This scene had a contemporary resonance. Its Loach’s “Clause 4 Moment” as he was a vocal opponent to the removal of the pledge to seek the common ownership of property from the Labour party membership cards. The removal of this core socialist ideal launched Tony Blair’s New Labour project into power. Loach has an American member of the POUM convincing the farmers that they would lose the support of mainstream countries if they moved towards collectivism – echoing Blair’s plea to ditch clause 4 to avoid alienating Middle England. The American later betrays the POUM to the Stalinist faction.
The film owes an acknowledged debt to Orwell’s HOMAGE TO CATALONIA (1938) in which he gives a personal account of his experiences in the civil war, hisn idealism and his ultimate disillusionment. When Carne’s granddaughter empties the Spanish soil on to his coffin, reads a poem by William Morris and punches the air in salute it is one of the most life affirming moments in film history.