The young men move about the muddied hillside engaging in a friendly afternoon game of hurling. On their way home, they are accosted by a platoon of “Black and Tans,” the occupying soldiers sent from England to stamp out the crackling embers of Irish independence. The place is County Cork, circa 1920, six years after the Defence of the Realm Act banned “public meetings” deemed threatening to British national security. The soldiers demand the young men’s names, and when one refuses to say his in English instead of Gaelic, he pays with his life.
This bone-chilling opening sets the tone for what follows in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which traces the Irish independence movement from the dawn of IRA guerrilla attacks in the summer of 1920 through to the controversial December, 1921 signing of the Anglo-Irish peace treaty (which granted Ireland significant freedom while keeping it as a dominion of the British Empire). That senseless act of violence is also the moment at which a medical student named Damien (Cillian Murphy) resolves to forgo his London internship to stay behind and fight in what he believes is a just battle. In short order, the lads we witnessed playing sports under the film’s opening titles are being trained in tactics of stealth and marksmanship on those very same hillsides.
Like Jean-Pierre Melville’s recently rediscovered Army of Shadows, The Wind That Shakes the Barley possesses the soul of an anti-war movie and the style of a thriller, with charcoal figures moving hurriedly against a darkened landscape periodically illuminated by bursts of gunfire.
Though it spans just over a year of actual history, Loach’s film implicitly casts one eye back to the failed Irish Republican Brotherhood uprising of 1916 and the other forward to the seven decades of bloodshed that would yet fall upon Irish soil before the arrival of something approximating peace. And contrary to the grousing of some British critics, the movie neither amounts to a flag-waving valentine for revolutionary politics nor a knee-jerk condemnation of imperialist empires. It is, rather, a profound consideration of the fog of wars that rage not only between nations but within.
Indeed, it is hardly by accident that the film (written by frequent Loach collaborator Paul Laverty) speaks about the seeds of terrorism, about centrism at odds with extremism, and about political interests placed ahead of human ones at a time when such matters continue to weigh heavily upon the global dinner table. Or, as Loach himself noted when collecting the Palme d’Or for best film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival: “Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we tell the truth about the present.”