The first half of Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley can easily be seen as a justification for terrorism and a condemnation of torture–the obvious reading for an American in a country now more or less obsessed by the topics.
If justifying terrorism seems a hard thing to do, The Wind that Shakes the Barley makes it look easy. From the first scene, the occupying British look roughly like bullying incompetents, and fighting back through “terrorism”–it’s really a matter of perspective–is the only recourse that the boys from County Cork seem to have.
And surely the torture Mr. Loach displays is far worse than anything I’ve known this country to have done. Pulling out fingernails wish rusty pliers is likely far uglier than the results of extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, or psychological deprivation. But the brutality only serves to make the practice’s jarring pointlessness more clear.
Before we go too far considering the cultural implications, it would probably wise to explain the movie. The film follows a small contingent of the “old” Irish Republican Army–which was much less willing to kill civilians and innocents than the “new” IRA of the 1980s. Nonetheless, Loach makes clear that this nobler old IRA were still considered “terrorists”–chiefly, but not exclusively, by the British occupiers. Britain had controlled the island for hundreds of years, and though calls for Irish independence was stronger following the Great War, the British refused to give it any serious consideration.
At the center of the group of rebels are the O’Donovan brothers, Damien and Teddy. Damien’s much more reluctant than Teddy, who both leads their contingent and survives the brutal and unproductive torturing. Damien doesn’t join the fight until he–on his way to study medicine in England–sees a railroad man beaten by the Black and Tans.
Through the pair, the film’s chief theme becomes the savagery and brutality of such a fight for change. Violence comes not only from the British, but from the IRA, both against itself and the British. The film avoids much overwrought vilification of the British, and is careful not to glorify of the Irish fighters; all sides seem at times misguided and pained. Certainly the Irish gaggle, as the focus of the film, is more sympathetically portrayed than the rather anonymous British, but neither feels completely righteous.
Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921–about halfway through the film, the group of IRA rebels split. Teddy becomes a “free stater,” while Damien insists that they require full and immediate independence from the British kingdom. This seemingly inevitable fracture of the revolutionary group, and the brothers within it, plays out most dramatically, and give the film its real punch.
Overall, for one not well acquainted with Irish history, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is both challenging–the historical details are mainly left for us to interpolate–and worthwhile. If nothing else, Mr. Loach’s film is a reminder that terrorism and revolution are not often objectives pursued by united groups. They’re made by groups of individuals, rarely certain of the way forward, rarely certain of what they want.