1996 Land and Freedom [Vidal]
By Martine Vidal. From New Politics, vol. 6, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 21, Summer 1996. Translated from the French by Patrick Flaherty.
Land and Freedom The Civil War in Spain:
Revolution and Counterrevolution
In this era of triumphalist market economics, it is wonderful to see a film dealing with a revolution 60 years ago greeted with such emotion, even fervor.
In effect, the members of the audience are identifying with the militants from all the countries (France, Ireland, Germany, England, Italy, the United States, etc.) who came voluntarily to the aid of the Spanish revolutionaries in their fight against fascism and their struggle to build a better society.
Land and Freedom, directed by Ken Loach, has been a cinematographic, political, and social event in Spain, Italy, England, Germany, Switzerland, and France. Entered into competition at the Cannes Film Festival, it won the critics’ award as well as many other European prizes. In France, the film has been running for more than six months with many special screenings followed by audience discussions with the actors and former POUM militants. The cinemas have been full to capacity and it has not been unusual for the audience to give the film a standing ovation at its conclusion. Laudatory and polemical articles have appeared in all the magazines and, for the first time, many people are familiarizing themselves with the history of Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista (POUM), Stalinist repression, and the show trials and executions conducted outside of Russia. Booksellers have been doing a brisk business in works on the Spanish Civil War and especially George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
We are not talking about another documentary about the Spanish Civil War or a soap opera set against the backdrop of a revolution. In Land and Freedom, Ken Loach has chosen a particular moment (a few months in 1936-1937), a certain place, a POUM military unit on the Aragon front, and specific characters (David, a member of the English Communist Party who left home to fight fascism, and a group of young men and women who had enlisted in the POUM militia).
The film begins in the present with the former soldier, David, having just passed away. His granddaughter comes across his archive: clippings from magazines of the period, snapshots, and letters David had sent from the Aragon front to his girlfriend back home in England. The story is told in a series of flashbacks between the young woman pouring over the documents or reading the letters, and the actual field of battle where David and his comrades are brought back to life. Thanks to these shifts back and forth in time, we see events unfolding through the eyes of the various characters.
Just like Orwell, the young David is initially motivated by a desire to defend the Spanish Republic against fascism. In the course of events, he gradually becomes aware of the complexity of the situation.
Along with his militia unit, David takes part in the capture of a small town. The local farmers have long lived under the thumb of a large landowner. Their village had been occupied by the fascists and only just been liberated by POUM troops. The villagers must now make a decision about what to do with the land and how it should be run in the future. They all come together to discuss the matter among themselves, and invite the soldiers to give their opinions. The debate is far-ranging. Some are for the partition of the land into small private plots while others want to collectivize it. All the attendant problems are addressed: the urgency of a military victory over the fascists, the need for social transformation, the Western democracies which must not be alarmed by excessive radicalism, the possible solidarity of the European proletariat, etc. This meeting in the town hall of the recaptured village is a model of political debate but it does not seem artificial or forced because the characters embody their positions, and especially because it is based on a concrete situation where decisions have to be made.
David’s political outlook evolves over time as he is drawn more deeply into the thick of events. The poor quality of the weapons at the disposal of his detachment gives him cause for reflection, especially after a rifle explodes in his hands. Wounded, he returns to Barcelona where he meets up once more with his Communist Party comrades and enlists in the International Brigades. At that very moment, the Stalinists have stepped up their propaganda against the POUM, accusing its members of treason. On the streets of the city, the police begin to make arrests. Learning from him that he has enlisted in the International Brigades, David is rejected by Blanca, his girlfriend from the POUM militia. He takes part in the street fighting of May 1937 which pits the Communists and the Republican police against the militants of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederacion National del Trabajo (CNT) and the POUM. He quickly finds himself firing dispiritedly upon his old friends. Finally in a café, David overhears officers of the Catalonian Stalinist Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya (PSUC) exchanging denigrating tough talk and insults about the Aragon militants. His growing disgust drives him to tear up his Communist Party card and set off to rejoin the POUM militia on the Aragon front. At last, he realizes that his political outlook is most in tune with his former frontline comrades.
Soon after this, David takes part in a major offensive against Huesca where only the POUM battalions of the 29th Division (the former Lenin Column) succeed in breaking through to their objectives and wind up isolated when the other assaults are beaten back. The film depicts a key moment of this battle when Major Vidal, the POUM battalion commander, putting up desperate resistance, calls for artillery support and none is forthcoming. Right after the battle, when the survivors are still tending to their wounded, a Republican unit under the command of the PSUC arrives on the scene with orders to disband the 29th Division. The POUM has just been declared illegal.
The scene is rendered particularly touching by the sight first, of the militia members’ stupefaction, then their outrage when they find themselves surrounded by their own army, ordered to lay down their arms, and finally the roll call of the names of officers subject to arrest. The episode ends with the death of Blanca who tries to avoid a massacre by disarming a comrade who was preparing to fire on the army. Her death marks the demise of the revolutionary project.
The final scene, the burial of David in England, brings the film back to the present and establishes the continuity between the past and present. Even if some members of the audience fail to grasp the full significance of the history of the POUM militias and the events of May 1937 in Barcelona, the link has been established tenuously but distinctly.
This film is exceptional and important. Exceptional because it enables us to perceive the political in history not by long-winded speeches or didactic displays but through the unfolding events, the situations in which the characters find themselves, the choices confronting them, and the decisions they have to make.
Land and Freedom sheds light on a little-known aspect of the Spanish Civil War which was not just a struggle of the Republic against fascism but also a genuine social revolution unleashed by the revolt of Franco’s army. The film also reveals the real role of the Communists who wanted to destroy the revolutionary achievements (the militias, committees, collectivization, etc.) in order to rebuild the former political structures of the bourgeois Republic while, at the same time, conspiring to infiltrate them. Their success would have been nothing more than a Eastern European style "People’s Democracy" hatched before its time.
LAND AND FREEDOM is also important because it encourages the audience to ask questions and delve further into the reasons why things turned out as they did, why this war has acquired a one-sided mythical reputation as an exclusively anti-fascist struggle with the Communist Party, and the International Brigades under its control, portrayed as the principal actors.
Finally, we come to the most remarkable aspect of the film. We live in an age when money, consumerism, individualism, duplicity, and cynicism rule the world. When barbarism is erupting across every continent, including the very heart of Europe. Against this sorry landscape, Ken Loach’s film recounts a story of a group of men and women who had an ideal and sought to transform society and the relationships between people. Land and Freedom is an antidote to the moral and physical squalor surrounding us because it emphasizes friendship, solidarity, generosity, and the endeavor to understand and be understood.
That is why the interest and the enthusiasm that the film has aroused, are signs of hope.