"The Wind That Shakes the Barley"
by Bill Gallagher
If you’re offended by someone calling the Union Jack “the butcher’s apron,” then “The Wind
That Shakes the Barley” is not a movie for you.
But if you’re a person who is both intrigued and still a bit confused by the history of Ireland’s
struggle for independence from the Brits, then this movie is essential. It can be heavy-handed
and one-sided, but telling that one side — the Irish side — leaves little room for telling the other
side. Propaganda? No. Preaching to the converted is more like it.
Ken Loach is the director of “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” He’s a respected, leftist,
British filmmaker whose features usually open on about 35 screens in England. In other words,
the masses aren’t turning out to see his movies about the struggles of the masses. “The Wind”
won the top prize at the Cannes Film festival last year, but we’ve had to wait until now to see it
in the Pacific Northwest. (It’s currently showing at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland.)
“The Wind” opens in 1920 in the midst of what turned out to be the war that gained a taste of
independence for much of Ireland. But it doesn’t begin on a battlefield; it begins on a field of
play. The lads are dressed in their tweeds and having a hurling match. (Hurling looks like
lacrosse but is played with sticks without nets.) After the match they head to the thatched hut of
Peggy, a kindly local grandmother. Suddenly British troops known as Black and Tans make a
clamorous charge at the cottage and line up the half a dozen hurlers against the wall. And when
one of them insists on giving his name in the native Irish tongue rather than English, they take
him into Peggy’s cottage and kill him.
Watching in shock and fear is Damien (Cillian Murphy), a young Irish doctor preparing to go to
London for training at an elite hospital. But the lads, including his brother Teddy (Padraic
Delaney), want him to stay in Ireland and fight the British occupation. He’s torn but chooses
London. As he’s leaving Cork, Black and Tans at the train station beat the train driver for
refusing to transport British troops. That’s enough for Damien, who changes his mind, takes up
arms, and starts killing Brits. He’s good at it. And just so it’s really clear that his cause is just,
Loach gives us scenes of indiscriminate British brutality, including a torture scene that shows
Teddy’s fingernails being torn off with rusty pliers.
When his fellow prisoners first hear Teddy’s screams of pain from an adjacent cell, they’re
stunned silent. At this and other moments Loach shows these Irishmen as reluctant warriors, not
comfortable yet with the consequences of an armed insurrection against the mighty British
Empire. Within seconds though, one of the prisoners begins singing a patriotic anthem to drown
out Teddy’s tortured screams. The others soon join in, and I’m reminded of the prisoners
whistling defiantly in “Bridge on the River Kwai” and the patrons at Rick’s in “Casablanca”
drowning out the Germans with a rousing version of “La Marseillaise.” Loach doesn’t go for the
cheap emotional effect but will use dramatic manipulation when it serves his purposes.
Eventually the British agree to a truce with the Irish nationalists. They’ve had enough fighting
with World War I. The hostilities cease, and British troops leave the south of Ireland. Trouble is,
the terms of that truce don’t sit well with a lot of those who had been fighting the British for a
very long time. They don’t like still having to swear an oath to the King, and they don’t like that
six counties in the north of Ireland will remain firmly within the British Empire.
This is when “The Wind” gets interesting. Prior to the disputed peace, it was pretty easy to tell
the good guys (the Irish) from the bad guys (the British and the Anglo-Irish). But now the good
guys are at each other’s throats over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty supporters claim
it’s the best they could have gotten from the British. The Treaty opponents are convinced that by
signing on to the division of Ireland and accepting Dominion status, they’re blowing their best
chance in generations to get the British off their island once and for all. This mother of all family
arguments escalates to the point where men who were once brothers in arms start shooting at
each other. Damien is solidly with the anti-Treaty fighters, while his brother Teddy adopts the
deal and is a ranking officer in the new Irish Army.
I won’t tell you how these differences are resolved, but you should know that to this day in
Ireland and America you can ruin a dinner party by too forcefully arguing for or against that
Treaty. The enduring debate has its seeds in the scene in which Damien shoots an Irish Army
soldier in a bungled ambush and one of the other soldiers pleads with him, “You just killed an
Irishman. What’s it like to kill an Irishman?”
It hurts. But it’s war.
Murphy, on the strength of performances in the thrillers “Red Eye” and “28 Days Later,” has the
potential to be the latest Irish male movie star along the lines of Colin Farrell and James
McAvoy (“Last King of Scotland”). And Damien is a great role. At one point he has to shoot a
friend who informs for the Black and Tans when they threaten to kill his family. He’s a man
tortured by the act but certain it has to be carried out. He’s also the kind of stand-up guy who
will tell the mother of the man he’s shot that he’s done so, then walk with her six miles to see the
body. Damien doesn’t share a lot of the agonizing he goes through before abandoning med
school in London to take up arms. He doesn’t have to. He’s clearly the conscience of the movie
and the man who will do the right thing no matter what. But his brother Teddy is not a bad sort
either, just a little too quick to accept half a loaf from 10 Downing Street.
“The Wind” introduces the idea that if the Treaty had not been accepted and the anti-Treaty
forces eventually triumphed, Ireland could have ended up with a socialist government. That’s a
revisionist long shot but one which adds a little dramatic juice to the conflicts within the conflict.
I learned a long time ago that the more you think you know about Irish history and the struggle
for independence, the less you know. When I first visited Ireland in 1994, I went to a bookstore
in Galway where the first thing I saw was a huge table, front and center, displaying the latest
best-seller, “Who Killed Michael Collins?” It’s a re-examination of the assassination of the
Uprising hero who was also the most prominent of Treaty supporters. But that was 70 years
ago. The disputes won’t die. Maybe because the Irish don’t want them to die. Then what would
there be to argue about?
As with a lot of good Irish movies made these days, you’re almost better off waiting for the
DVD so you can use the subtitles feature to understand all that’s being said. But by doing so
you’d miss the scale the big screen gives to the grand landscapes around Cork in south central
Ireland. There are no bright colors. Just the deep, varied greens of pastures and mountains
and the businesslike grays and browns of the tweed sports coats and caps worn even in battle by
the Irishmen. Loach has great tones to work with in Ireland, and he’s taken full advantage of
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly movie column for BNW.
BrainstormNW - June 2007