'Land and Freedom' review

Post date: 15/06/2015

An hour-long interview with celebrated film director Ken Loach was screened on BBC 4 last night (14 June 2015). Among the films singled out for discussion was “Land and Freedom” (1995), his only film about the Spanish Civil War. 


Loach explained how the film depicts how a revolution that had taken hold in parts of Spain was crushed “by social democracts and Stalinists” – in other words the Spanish Republican authorities.


The interview can be viewed here:


Loach’s remarks have once again stirred the controversy over his film. For some balance to what he said, here is a review penned by an International Brigader after seeing the movie. 



Land and Freedom

Reviewed by John Dunlop (International Brigade volunteer from May 1937 to December 1938)


This is the title of the film which opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 13 August 1995, fifty-eight years after the events it purports to describe during the civil war in Spain in 1937. Land and Freedom was certainly what the war was really about. But what was the film about?

It was really about boy meets girl in an exotic location (for the boy and most of the viewers), they fall in love, have temper tantrums, make it up again and then the girl dies tragically in an unreal situation, all told by the boy’s granddaughter fifty-eight years later, in flashbacks from her grandpa’s letters home, with reams of photographs of him and his comrades. 

One wonders what the purpose of the film was and why £8.5 million was forked out by backers in the United States, Spain and Britain to put it on the world’s screens. Was the purpose of the film to reinvent a small part of the history of those times? There is quite a vogue for doing so these days in certain circles. Was it from them that the money came?

As one who was there at the time of the supposed events shown in the film I can certify that it bore little resemblance to the realities of those days and the film makers made little attempt to get even the small details right. In Spain in 1937 Doc Marten boots had never been heard of far less seen, yet they were there on the feet of the actors in the film. Blue jeans? Don’t be silly! The reams of large photographs of the English boy and his comrades supposed to have been sent home by him? Photographers were few and far between especially in the supposed locations of the film. 

Back to clothing – in reality our trousers were baggy khaki coloured denim or woollen caught in at the ankles by buttons or a knitted woollen band to keep the dust from going up inside the trouser leg. The woollen ones which flopped over my boots were my first trousers with a short military style woollen jacket. I was lucky to get a pair of boots to fit me and lost them after I was wounded. Thereafter I wore alpargatas open canvas sandals with plaited grass soles held on by tapes round the ankles. The men in the villages also wore alpargatas with the baggy type trousers made of hard wearing black corduroy.

Some of us had khaki dispatch rider type denims caught in below the knee. John Black, second in command of the XV Brigade Anti-Tank Battery, wore them with British Army puttees wound from his boots to his knees – the only man in Spain to do so. That was how his body was recognised after he was blown up by a shell. 

Now for the story line. At the time the young Liverpool communist left to go to Spain, we were going in organised groups and not on our own. These groups were organised by the Communist Party and one of the group carried an introduction to the French Communist Party who arranged for their transport and accommodation through France and over the border into Spain. By November 1936 all volunteers crossing the frontier were taken to a huge fort at Figueras from where they went in large groups by train to Albacete where they were documented and received into the International Brigades. So the naive depiction of how the young Liverpool Communist Party member was persuaded by complete strangers to join the POUM militia was a virtual impossibility. In any case no enthusiastic young communist of those days would have been taken in in such a way. Whoever thought up that story line displays a singular lack of knowledge of the Communists of those days. 

Now here let it be said that when the British International Brigade Association was told that a film was to be made by Ken Loach about the war in Spain they offered their services but the offer was rejected. So the makers of the film bear full responsibility for all the wild inaccuracies and anachronisms that the film depicts. One wonders why the offer was refused. Let it also be made clear that the Spanish Communist Party took the realist view that the war was not about achieving a Communist state in Spain but about the defence of the democratic constitution established in 1931 which was a liberal one and contained provisions for much needed land reform and universal education which succeeding governments had failed to implement. In this aim they were supported by the international Communist movement as expressed by the formation of the International Brigades. To attempt a workers revolution at a time of when international opposition to Communism was at its height would have been suicidal. 

Communists regarded the war as one against international Fascism, against three Fascist dictators whose declared aim was the destruction of western liberal democratic institutions and the creation of new empires. Italy, in spite of being a member of the League of Nations was already engaged in wars of imperial conquest in Africa. I spent the last few days in France in the company of three Italians home on leave from the war in Africa who had arrived in their home village in the north of Italy to hear of the war in Spain and had promptly crossed the frontier into France to join the IB. 

In Germany democratic institutions had been destroyed by the Nazi Hitler whose declared aim was to spread Nazi power through Europe and recover all Germany’s imperial possessions all over the world lost to it after the Great War of 1914-18. The Italian dictator Mussolini was trying to recreate the ancient Roman Empire and to this end the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis had been created along with the Japanese war lords who were waging a war of conquest against China. In furtherance of these aims Hitler and Mussolini had formed an alliance with the revolting Spanish generals and were supplying them not only with arms and planes but also pilots and combat troops without anything being done to effectively stop them by the western democracies that were next on the list for destruction. 

There is considerable controversy over what indeed the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista – Workers Party of Marxist Unification) were up to in Spain. From their own literature it is clear that they considered the Communist attitude a betrayal of their aim of world revolution. At that time the anti-Franco forces in Catalonia were not unified under the central command of the government but were composed of the volunteer Anarchist or POUM militias (milicianos) each acting as they saw fit. The Government with the support of the Communists were determined to create a unified command. This was opposed by the Anarchists and the POUM. 

George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia portrays the POUM as the innocent victims of the struggle between the Anarchists and the Communists and that the action taken by the Republican Government on 3rd May 1937 in occupying the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona was the flash point. The reaction to this by the anarchists who had taken over control of the Exchange at the time of Franco’s rebellion was what sparked off the fighting. The Government responded by attacking all the buildings controlled by the militias and confiscating their firearms.

The crux of the difference between the three groups was the call of the Communists for the full support of the Republican government in its fight against the Fascists and the calls by the POUM and some of the Anarchists for a workers revolution. 

Strangely, ever since the publication of Orwell’s book in1938 the POUM have been portrayed as the ‘goodies’ in this fight and this has coloured all reports of the war since then. 

But for a participant looking back on those days it is significant that on the very day, 26th April 1937, that the German planes, manned by Nazi German pilots, launched the fiercely destructive raids on Guernica, the holy city of the Basques, the POUM withdrew their forces from the front line in Aragon on the flank of the Carlos Marx Division, leaving a gaping hole in the Republic’s defences. A British nurse Pauline Edney was there at the time with a medical unit on that sector of the front.

At the time these events were going on in Catalonia the British Battalion with other units of the International Brigades had been holding a defensive position on the banks of the Jarama River just south of Madrid only half a mile from the Madrid – Valencia Highway established at the end of a furious battle in February after losing two thirds of their men, killed captured or wounded defending this vital road against constant Fascist attacks. Not surprisingly we in the International Brigades had little sympathy with the attitude of the POUM and the Anarchists. 

By the middle of May 1937 when I crossed the Pyrenees in to Spain the POUM had been suppressed and both their and the Anarchist militias were being enrolled in the ranks of the Republican Army. The fortress of Figueras was packed with them when I arrived there. They had given up their firearms but were still armed with huge knives like short swords. We got on fine with them being greeted as brothers and later when the Spanish troops were being taken into the International Brigades we had some of these Anarchists in the machine gun company of the British Battalion. 

So much for the historical accuracy of Ken Loach’s film. I can think of at least six real heroes, four of them Scots, known to me personally about whom he could have made a better film. One wonders why he did not do so while there are still some of around to give him the details. As far as the viewers of the film were concerned most of them had hardly heard of the war in Spain and cared even less about it. The film did little to enlighten them. 

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