“If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own.”
A war of occupation is a peculiar thing. It’s a war that has no defined battle lines, and there’s a good chance that most of the native combatants will be civilians. This inevitably brings reprisals down upon the heads of the noncombatant civilian population. Also since there’s nowhere safe to escape to (you can’t really go behind battle lines since there aren’t any), it’s virtually impossible to stay neutral or uninvolved. In a war of occupation, sooner or later you are going to lose someone you care about, and then you’re sucked into the vortex of violence whether you like it or not.
Director Ken Loach’s film The Wind that Shakes the Barley does a marvelous job of showing the devastating fallout of the British occupation of Ireland through the story of two brothers. The film is set during one of the two periods in Irish history known as the so-called ‘Troubles’ (1919-1921). ”Troubles’ seems like a fairly innocuous label to stick on these turbulent, bloody times, but perhaps that was the point. In 1912, Britain promised Home Rule to Ireland, but this was delayed with the advent of WWI. The failed Easter Rebellion of 1916 helped create support for Sinn Fein, and resistance to the British occupation was growing.
Damien (Cillian Murphy) sees the occupation as something that has little to do with him or his intention to become a doctor. Damien’s brother, Teddy (Padriac Delaney), on the other hand, is passionately devoted to ending the British occupation of Ireland. The two brothers don’t see eye-to-eye on the subject, and while Teddy thinks that Damian should stay and fight, Damian sees medicine as a priority.
Damian’s stance of non-involvement comes to a crushing halt one afternoon. He plays a game of curling with some friends. A group of British soldiers arrive, and using the excuse that the game constitutes an illegal gathering, the soldiers proceed to brutalize the locals and murder of one of Damien’s friends. This incident causes a moral shift in Damian, and fueled by a desire for justice and freedom from the yoke of the British, Damian joins the IRA. The film follows the situations Damien is forced to confront–betrayal by comrades, the difficulty of sustaining a relationship, the abandonment of comrades, and finally a split with his brother over the issue of the 1921 Truce ordered by the First Dail (the Irish parliament established in 1919 and dissolved in 1921 during the truce). Damian rejects the order to give up arms and refuses the truce as a betrayal, telling his brother “This treaty makes you a servant of the British Empire.”
The film’s portrayal of the British soldiers is not flattering, and director Ken Loach (who also made the marvelous mostly-forgotten film about the Spanish Revolution Land and Freedom) came under a great deal of fire for making this film. The film’s commentary (an extra feature on the DVD) includes an explanation that the British Black and Tans were hardened soldiers who’d served in WWI (whereas the Irish were not subject to conscription for WWI). This intense story carries a sense of dreadful sense of fatalism that grows as the film continues, and this makes for a grueling experience at times. Based on real events, some brutal scenes include beatings, torture and executions. And in a history-repeats-itself way, it’s impossible to watch this film and not draw comparisons to the current debacle in Iraq.