'Land and Freedom' looks brilliantly at Spanish war

June 28, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

The Spanish Civil War has entered legend as a heroic left-wing crusade in which a noble proletariat, led by dedicated soldier-intellectuals and poet-revolutionaries, fought the opening rounds against the Fascists in a prelude to World War II.

The cool thing was, they lost. That made it everybody's favorite martyred cause and second favorite folk song ("Viva la Quince Brigada!", checking in right after "Blowin' in the Wind").

And that's why nobody ever looked carefully at it -- well, except for that annoying British fellow Orwell, in "Homage to Catalonia." But what did he know, just because he was there?

The truth, as Ken Loach's brilliant "Land and Freedom" makes tragically clear, was far more complex. For in many ways, the war was just a charade, an example of Stalin's Realpolitik as he used it to draw his internationalist (i.e. Trotskyite) enemies out, and then destroy them. For him the operation was a success, and he didn't care if the patient -- Spain -- died in the process.

Indeed, that's the story Loach tells, after Orwell, and in direct contravention to Hemingway's pulp fiction, which piped the party line. The difference is that Orwell's protagonist was Orwell himself, a leftish intellectual and public-school boy who went to the war in 1937 as a journalist, then joined a militia and found himself in the front lines. A few months later, he woke up to discover himself on the wrong end of a bayonet when the communists decided to purge the Trots. (No wonder he didn't like communists: They tried to kill him!)

In Loach's version, the hero isn't an intellectual or a member of the cognitive elite, and he has no sense of irony or dry humor. He's an ardent commie working man, called David (Ian Hart, who once played John Lennon), who rushes off to join the revolution that breaks out spontaneously when the Fascists, led by General Franco, invade to overwhelm the legally elected Spanish parliamentary government of 1936. In Barcelona, he joins the P.O.U.M., not the C.N.T. or the P.S.U.C.

Wait. You're lost? Think nothing of it, friend. Confusion is normal in combat and mandatory in the Spanish Civil War. It is the war of the initials, an alphabet soup that is utterly incomprehensible. If you can't tell the P.O.U.M. from the C.N.T. from the P.S.U.C. from the S.I.M. from the Anarcho-Syndacalists, you are one lost pup.

But you really only have to remember one: P.O.U.M. is the Trotskyite faction, a political party and militia of dreamers and poets, aflame with the hope of revolution (it was Orwell's choice, too). P.O.U.M. insisted upon seeing Spain as a beginning for world socialism and world revolution -- for land and freedom, in other words.

Anyone who was in the Barcelona of 1936 recalls the splendor of the moment, and Loach does a great job in recreating that ecstasy. At last the old order was crumbling; at last the people were fighting for land. An end to officers and land owners and mayors and policemen: a beginning to freedom and equality -- and free love.

The POUMistas made war like they made revolution: with a lot of passion and a lot of courage, but very little efficiency. Thus Loach's version of the P.O.U.M. militia feels terrifically convincing: You feel their ardency, their working-class fire and guts, their love for one another -- but also see how hopelessly amateur they are. Each action is followed by endless discussion of consequences.

The Communists, shrewdly directed by Stalin himself, took one look at this dangerous intoxication and in thunder said nyet!Their agenda: Soviet-national interests first, last and always. So after helping themselves to the Spanish gold reserve (still unreturned) they purged the unruly dreamers, torturing and shooting the leaders, imprisoning the followers in what were called chekas. The lucky ones -- like Orwell or Loach's David -- fled, and carried the betrayal with them their entire lives.

Loach, working from an excellent screenplay by Jim Allen, keeps all this clear and human. His POUMista platoon is made up of refugees from all over. The fighting is violent and lucidly ragged, and again feels real, rather than syncopated to professional filmmaking rhythms. It has the scratchy, awkward feeling of authenticity, not a sense of being an outtake from "The Rock."

The story, of course, is terribly sad. To this day, in leftist circles, much bitterness remains in the memory of a revolution betrayed from within. Loach's brilliant film captures the melancholy of history in a remarkable way.

'Land and Freedom'

Starring Ian Hart, Rosana Pastor

Directed by Ken Loach

Released by Gramercy

Rating Unrated

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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