July 2020 marks the 84th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.
In his Spanish memoir A Moment of War, the English poet Laurie Lee remembers how he and his comrades of the International Brigades had reacted to the Spanish Civil War:
I believe we shared something…unique to us at that time – the chance to make one grand and uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith, which might never occur again…few of us yet knew that we had come to a war of antique muskets and jamming machine-guns, to be led by brave but bewildered amateurs. But for the moment there were no half-truths and hesitations, we had found a new freedom, almost a new morality…
Few films have managed to give tangible shape to the moral universe Lee speaks about with as much conviction as the Ken Loach film Land and Freedom (1995). Loach tells his story simply, without any dramatic flourish, convinced that his narrative is rich enough to not need any supplemental stylistic embellishment. Indeed, he does not shy away from using even stock video footage of the Civil War. The tone of complete authenticity is a particular highlight of Land and Freedom.
David Carr, a young working-class communist from Liverpool, decides to volunteer for the Republican forces in Spain as General Francisco Franco stages his coup against the elected Popular Front government, plunging the country in civil war in July, 1936. Carr leaves his wife behind in England, and makes his way to Catalonia via France. He plans to be part of one of the International Brigades to which most foreign communist volunteers were being recruited.
On the train to Barcelona, however, he makes friends with a group of POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) militiamen who persuade him to join their unit instead. Though the POUM was a dissident Marxist outfit which often disagreed with the Spanish Communist Party and the Comintern, it was still a partner in the Popular Front, and Carr had no misgivings about joining them. The first few weeks were a heady time. Carr trained with and later joined the militia on the Aragon front, engaging with and often getting the better of the better-armed Francoist ‘Nationalists’ in close combat. Men and women from several European countries united in the militia in an exhilarating spirit of brotherhood, equality and hope of social revolution. They free many villages from Nationalist control, losing some of their comrades in the operations. Carr falls in love with Blanca, feisty girlfriend of a dead comrade. Then, he is de-capacitated in a freak accident and sent to Barcelona to convalesce.
His British communist antecedents impel him to join hands with Spanish communists in Barcelona now, but he soon realises that a great gulf of mistrust and hostility separated the communists from the POUM and the Anarchists, so that the communists were intent on eliminating these groups altogether, though nominally all of them were on the same side of the barricades. Disgusted, Carr throws out his Party card and slinks away to join his old militia once again. Soon, however, they are denied all access to arms and ammunition and find themselves increasingly isolated, until the day when they are disarmed in a violent confrontation with a communist contingent authorised by the government.
Blanca and several other comrades die in the melee. Traumatised, Carr flees Spain, but not before attending Blanca’s funeral in her native village where he picks up some clumps of earth dug out for lowering the coffin. The film unreels as an uninterrupted flashback in which, after Carr’s death in England many years later, his granddaughter Kim chances upon his letters from Spain to his wife, his diary, and the clods of red earth he had preserved from Blanca’s grave. Land and Freedom ends with Carr’s funeral, where Kim clenches her raised fist in the classical ‘red’ salute, pours the red earth on Carr’s grave, and recites from William Morris:
Join in the battle wherein no man can fail,
For whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail.
It is a powerfully told story, and Loach does not balk at capturing the raw passions and the triumphant energies released by the Spanish revolution in its first, heroic phase before low intrigue, factional wrangling over power and brutal internecine fighting began to undermine the Republican cause seriously. Given the matrix of international relations obtaining then, it was probably unlikely that the Spanish revolution would have prevailed over Falangist reaction even with full-throttle help from the USSR, but there is no denying the truth in Loach’s presentation that the Stalinist orthodoxy and distrust of other points of view set the revolution back in Catalonia and in much of agrarian Spain significantly.
What is particularly endearing about Loach’s film is that, despite his disgust with Stalinism, he never excoriates the revolutionary process, unlike the well-known former communist intellectuals of The God that Failed who did so energetically. Loach’s narrative parallels Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in large measure, nowhere more so than in the episode where Communists and Anarchists are locked in a deadly skirmish to control Barcelona’s Telefonica building, while combatants from both sides wonder why the other side cannot join their cause. Like Orwell, once again, Loach retains his respect for and faith in the essential goodness of the ordinary human being.
He is “gazing towards the horizon, rather than glaring at the cold streets of the downcast,” as a critic memorably said.
As conventionally easy-flowing as his visual idiom may be, the intrepid Loach does something remarkably unconventional here: he pauses his narrative midway to delve deep into a long and lively debate – in which the ordinary peasants of a just-liberated village take part with the same eager enthusiasm as the members of the militia –around the desirability or otherwise of collectivising all arable land across Spain. Two diametrically opposite view-points emerge: the radical anarchist preference for wholesale collectivisation, and the carefully calibrated response of the ‘democratic’ socialists (with whom the Stalinists made common cause) that going slow was the way forward. A German militiaman clinched the argument when he said: “In Germany the revolution was postponed, and now Hitler is in power”.
This hard-edged but poetic film won Loach the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes in 1995. He later went on to win Cannes’ Palm d’Or twice, for two other movies, but many Loach aficionados rate Land and Freedom higher than anything else he created.
If Land and Freedom chose to be unequivocal in its messaging, Carlos Saura had every reason not to go down that path in his early masterpiece La Caza (The Hunt). He simply didn’t have that option open to him. The film was shot during 1965-66, even as the last few years of the Francoist dictatorship were playing out in Spain. The censors would axe any overt anti- Falangist or pro-Republican sentiment, and Carlos Saura had to work through elaborate ellipsis and suggestive visual and aural association to make his point about the Civil War and the society it had spawned. In the event, La Caza masterfully captures the temper and tone of a society mouldering with raw hate and thinly-veiled violence.
Three middle-aged friends plan a day out in the country, hunting rabbits. The warm summer’s day opens on the right note, promising oodles of rest and pleasure. The hunt is a great success, and the hunters’ bags are soon bursting at the seams. And yet, before the sun has gone down, all three men are dead, killed by one another’s bullets. La Caza (The Hunt) closes with a long shot of what looks pretty much like a battlefield strewn with corpses – the three friends’. The only young member of the hunt, the brother-in-law of one of the protagonists, is caught on camera fleeing wildly from the carnage. As he freezes, the question hangs in the stiflingly hot, still air: will this man escape the mayhem, either? After all, hasn’t the contagion caught up with him as well?
The milieu from where the three friends come is established subtly but surely in the early part of the film. The men casually discuss their years together in the ‘war’, when they fought and killed (obviously Republicans, though that part is left unsaid) in much the same terrain they have now come to hunt in. In August-September 1936, Toledo, where the movie was filmed, saw one of the most savage battles of the Civil War. As the Republicans began to overwhelm the rebels holed up inside the Toledo Alcazar, Franco had arrived from Morocco with his insurgent army and proceeded to slaughter the troops loyal to the government. The friends look back with relish to that massacre, one of them nonchalantly letting it drop that it was more fun hunting men than rabbits.
Violence as the film’s principal motif is established right at the beginning, through the credits that show hungry ferrets scratching restlessly around their cage, trying to break free. The sense is reinforced by repeated close shots of the friends’ hands loading, reloading and cocking their guns, their faces completely left out of the picture frames. The violence finds its most intense expression in the feverish long shots showing the rabbits being mowed down in a hail of bullets. But even the arid, blanched landscape and the torrid heat of midday seem to enter the drama as protagonists, sharpening the jagged ends of this violent spectacle. Indeed, the rising heat appears to impregnate the close-ups of the characters, subtly suggesting the remorseless escalation of violence and mutual hate. And then the seething violence erupts into the open. The friends destroy one another in an orgy of killing. A shot that sears into one’s memory shows Jose – the friend who had arranged the hunt – being killed much as he himself had shot down rabbits in the morning – scampering desperately up the scraggy hillside in a futile attempt to escape. The apparent calm of a comfortable, post-Civil War Spanish existence is blown into smithereens.
Quite deliberately, Saura proceeds to construct a set of characters who are uniformly disagreeable, often downright hateful. Jose is separating from his wife because he has fallen for a much younger woman, and he now needs a lot of money to finance his plans, the reason why he arranged the hunt in the first place, for he wants to sponge off the wealthy Paco for a hefty loan. In his turn, the worldly-wise Paco has not the slightest intention to help out Jose who had done him a good turn once, and even he is worried about his looks, because he is wooing a young woman himself; meanwhile, he also needs to disengage from a wife he had married for her money.
Luis is the science-fiction-reading cynic who doesn’t believe anything is sacred or inviolable; it was he who had succinctly observed that hunting humans seemed a far pleasanter sport than rabbit-hunting. The young, fourth member of the squad is the son presumably of another Civil War veteran whose Luger pistol (which the son brings to the hunt) gives him away as having been an important Fallangist personage: Lugers were Hitler’s gift to fascist Spain. This smooth-cheeked youngster’s libido is tickled by a slip of a girl, the niece of Juan, the caretaker of the property where the hunt takes place. He cosies up to her, and looks for an opportunity to have some fun for free.
He wheels his binoculars around in search of interesting sights, and latches on to where the girl is bathing in the open. Saura does not entirely deny him essential humanity, but there is enough hint that he, too, is cut out for a cynically self-centred existence. On the other hand, though Saura does not labour the point, Juan, the impoverished caretaker, comes across as far more dignified than his well-to-do guests. And even as she is confined to her sick bed, Juan’s mother worries about her hungry pets rather than about herself.
La Caza is relentless in its intensity. One sits glued to the screen as one watches it. The dreary, dry-as-a-bone landscape and the scalding afternoon sun seem uncannily to get to the viewer as well. It could not have been a very acute censor who passed for universal viewing this withering commentary on Franco’s Spain. But it is hardly surprising that the film won the Best Director’s Silver Bear at Berlin in 1966.
Anjan Basu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org