Ken Loach's 1995 epic beautifully walks the line between superb intellectual essay of the Left's betrayal of itself during the Spanish Civil War and a believable humane drama that incorporates such ideology and theory in a manner which engages its audiences hearts as well as minds.
Ian Hart plays an unemployed Liverpudlian communist who, in light of Franco's Fascist regime, wants to make a difference for the cause. Arriving in Spain he enlists not with the International Brigade (which international communists would usually serve with) but with the POUM, a quasi Trotskeyite people's militia, after meeting up with some of their comrades. The film is top and tailed by the death of Hart's character as an OAP in a shabby Liverpool tower block, and we view his experiences of fighting against fascism from letters and photographs his granddaughter discovers whilst planning the funeral.
What follows is a concise and well argued exploration of how Stalinism effectively outlawed the POUM and stifled the revolution in Spain at birth for its own ends. As the scriptwriter and long term Loach collaborator Jim Allen explained, 'what we wanted to do was show that Socialism was not the same as Stalinism and that you couldn't just bury Socialism and say it was dead forever'. In taking this stance, focusing on the POUM, the film received some criticism from some, including legendary former war correspondent and Hemingway squeeze Martha Gellhorn, who questioned the actions of POUM as well as its significance and place in 'the great drama of the war'.
Personally, and perhaps because as a late teen I was avidly reading Homage To Catalonia (George Orwell's first hand account of serving with the POUM) I have no problem with the film's focus and believe Loach and Allen were merely concentrating on one aspect of the conflict for more cohesive and thought provoking storytelling. In doing so, Land And Freedom isn't just about the Left vs the Right or 'good vs evil' it concerns itself with much greyer areas such as the fractured and disparate beliefs that could exist within what was perceived to be the same argument/side. Though that said, I can still get on board to some extent with the criticism that in focusing on the battles within, the fascist enemy is largely invisible in the film.
Strategically placed mid way through the film is the ideological argument at its heart. Having taken private land from fascist hands, the villagers and rag tag soldiers meet around the landowners table to debate what they must now do with the land. The majority are for collectivism which would be socialism in action and the birth of the revolution they dreamed of and fought for, but some - including an American communist with POUM - argue that they must sustain the revolution, and hold back for the bigger picture. Loach has a tradition of planting the political and ideological discussion that motivates his work, into extended scenes allowing room for the 'big ideas' to be put across. It's something he particularly did in Loach and Allen's 1960s/70s TV plays such as The Big Flame (about the Liverpool dock strike) and The Rank and File (about the strike at Pilkington's Glass factory, St Helens - a strike my own father took part in). On occasion this can unbalance the film, suspending the narrative to provide rather dry and semi improvised dialogue, but I believe it works rather well here and it's rather moving to see an agreement for collectivism be reached. These were people who never had a chance to think or act for themselves and in that moment, in embracing socialism, they have the power and ability to finally act for themselves.
It also sows the seed for the film's final reel when the American returns, this time fighting with the communist International Brigade and demanding the disbanding and arrest of his former comrades in arms. It's a deeply poignant, harrowing and upsetting finale that, without wishing to give the film away, naturally does not end happily - the betrayal and failure of the war being writ on more personal heartfelt terms.