Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Revolution on film, part 1: The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Note: Tomorrow I'm going to Fargo (an hour's drive) to see "The Singing Revolution," about the non-violent struggle for independence in Estonia.

I'm eager to see it, because for one I've been to Estonia, shortly after independence and liked it very much.

For another, I'm interested because you wouldn't have expected a non-violent revolution to prevail against the Soviet Union, and I want to see what the conditions and process were like.

And, I'd like to share their joy at their independence while it lasts.

The omens are... not as good as they might be. The people of the Baltic states have always lived with the realization that a hiccup of history could wipe their nation and culture out - forever.

Anyone remember the Lusatians? Or that the original Prussians were a Slavic people, exterminated by the Teutonic Knights and ancestors of the present-day "Prussians"?

At any rate, I've been thinking about revolution lately. How it's portrayed in art, and how it's viewed by people in the middle of revolutionary conditions - and by romantic idiots from afar.

And, full disclosure, because I recently had an exchange with a friend and comrade, who is the real thing in an honest-to-god police state, about our mutual disgust with pompous phonies in America and western Europe who fancy themselves "revolutionaries" rebelling against the "fascist police state" of America.

We recently rented "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," from Netflix, and followed it up with the entire set of "John Adams."

TWTSTB is about the Irish revolution, and subsequent civil war. The title is from a hauntingly beautiful (and sappily sentimental that's the Irish contradiction) song of rebellion.*

The Irish actor Cillian Murphy, from "Batman Begins" and "Sin City," plays Damien, an Irishman about to leave Ireland to go to England to seek work. He has a brother Teddy, who is committed to the struggle for Irish independence.

Damien is playing hurley with friends when a squad of English soldiers arrives at a run and reminds them that gatherings of more than a certain number of people are illegal under martial law - including games.

They make the men assume the position against a farmyard wall, strip and give their names. One man, scarsely more than a boy, defiantly gives his name in the Irish.

The soldiers take exception and get rough. The boy throws a punch at the sergeant, so they take him into a chicken coop, tie him to a post, and beat him to death.

Damien later exclaims in despair, why did he die? Because he wouldn't give his name in English.

Then at the train station, he sees soldiers beat the locomotive engineer and a conductor because they're striking and won't move the train with soldiers on board.

The next scene we see is Damien taking the oath of the IRA.

I don't want to give any more spoilers than necessary, because I'd really like to recommend this movie, but the sequence goes:

The rebellion escalates. We see men training - seriously. As in boot camp seriously, not hanging around parlours and talking revolution.

Undertaking actions: men with pistols surprise police in their station and warn them "If any more prisoners "fall down the stairs" you will be shot."

Then they do shoot some English officers.

Damien and Teddy fight together and are arrested. Teddy endures torture without talking. They escape together and grow into experienced revolutionary soldiers.

Then they have to shoot one of their own.

A blameless and somewhat simple young man, is coerced into talking by threats against his mother. They take him and the enemy who called the Black and Tans on him into the country. Damien, a life-long friend of his, has to shoot him with a pistol.

The logic of this is inescapable. In a real revolution you have to, have to, execute informers, whateve reasons they may have had, or the coercion they may have suffered.

And someone had to do it up close and personal, without the luxury of a firing squad, because bullets are a precious commodity.

The boy says, "Don't bury me with him," nodding his head at the enemy.

Damien says, "I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it," and pulls the trigger.

And then he tells his girlfriend/comrade how he had to tell the boy's mother, his life-long neighbor, what happened to her child.

As the revolution gains momentum, we see conflict between the fighters, and the political officers building a parallel state with law courts - and socialist ideas of redistribution.

Then they win, and the civil war begins.

To this day, the two major political parties of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are composed of descendants of men who fought on opposite sides of the Irish Civil War.

And what was the war fought over?

Whether the Irish Free State, which required, albeit reluctantly, an oath of allegiance to the British King, was the legitimate government of Ireland.

Understand, nobody liked the idea of the oath. Forming the Irish Free State, Saorstát Éireann, was a question of taking what they could get at the time - and it was quite a lot. They had complete independence in pretty much everything, with only a face-saving gesture for England of remaining nominal subjects of King George in a British "dominion."

In the fullness of time, they got rid of that too, without another war, and became Éire.

But in the meantime, they killed each other about it.

By this time one of the brothers has "lost his soul," and the film lets you make up your mind about which one it is.

So was this Ireland they fought for worth it?


That's the question every revolutionary has to answer. That and, was there any other way to get it without the terrible price?

*The Wind that Shakes the Barley
(tune: think slow like a dirge, speeding up in the first line of the first verse, the second lines of verses 2&3, and the first line of verse 4.)

I sat within the valley green, I sat me with my true love
My sad heart strove the two between, the old love and the new love
The old for her, the new that made me think on Ireland dearly
While soft the wind blew down the glen, and shook the golden barley

'Twas hard though awful words to frame, to break the ties that bound us
But harder still to bear the shame, of foreign chains around us
And so I said the mountain glen, I'll seek at morning early
And join the bold united men, while soft winds shook the barley

While sad I kissed away her tears, my fond arms round her flinging
The foeman's shot burst on our ears, from out the wildwood ringing
A bullet pierced my true love's side, in life's young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died, while soft winds shook the barley

But blood for blood without remorse, I've taken at Oolart Hollow
And laid my true love's clay-cold corpse, where I full soon may follow
As round her grave I wandered drear, noon night and morning early
With breaking heart whenere I hear, the wind that shakes the barley


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