'Land and Freedom' - a VALB view

by Abe Smorodin in the Volunteer, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, , Spring 1996

Readers of The Volunteer [Fall, 1995] may remember Gabriel Jackson's comments on Land and Freedom (see below): "Ken Loach's movie has been a box office hit in Spain and, with mild reservations, I recommend it to all vets who are still not fighting the Stalinist/Trotskyist battles of the thirties."

He ends his review with this comment: "My main reservation is that the movie exploits the current fad for blaming all sins on the Communists. You would think it was Stalin and not the appeasing democracies, who killed the Spanish Republic."

Our few surviving Lincoln Brigade veterans should certainly see the film, as urged by our dear friend Gabe, the pre-eminent U.S. historian of the Spanish Civil War. He didn't detail his "minor reservations" but we certainly can bear witness to reinforce Gabe's "main reservation."

A number of VALB staff members and friends had the uncomfortable experience of previewing the film. Let us sketch the plot.

A young English Communist Party member, David, goes to Spain in the early days of the war and joins a POUM militia group operating in Catalonia. The motley band has other volunteers from England and one American, Lawrence. A village is captured. A priest who has been firing on the militia from the bell tower of a church is executed. A meeting then is shown where villagers and soldiers debate a proposal to collectivize the farms. The discussion is spirited and totally democratic. One peasant pleads for the right to retain his small plot.

The American volunteer argues that the first order of business should not be land seizure but the defeat of the fascists. His is a lone voice.

In a hand vote, collectivization wins. The American quits the militia to join the International Brigades. This is a fine scene on an important subject.

The English volunteer subsequently goes to Barcelona where he becomes involved in the May 31, 1937, putsch against the government of Catalonia. The rebels' failure, followed by their arrest, impels the Englishman to shred his Communist Party card.

The focus then reverts to the POUM militia unit, rejoined by David, in the countryside where it is surrounded by troops of the Spanish Republican Army. Their colonel, with the American reappearing at his side, orders the POUMists to surrender their arms. An outcry follows. Invectives against Stalinism fill the soundtrack as the Republican troops stolidly watch. Then an accidental shot is fired, killing a militia woman.

This is the climactic scene of the film. Loach brazenly uses his cinematography to stand history on its head. He depicts an unidentified Republican force, uniformed and jackbooted like a detachment of the Nazi Wehrmacht, led by a pitiless colonel. Loach here compounds his skewed fantasizing by zooming in on the American, Lawrence, who has inexplicably found his way into this unit.

Film viewers may never know that the International Brigades could not have been involved in such a confrontation. They all were then embattled elsewhere. More significant, giving the lie to Loach, the IB never veered from its reason for being. The IBers had come to Spain to defeat fascism, not to interfere in Spanish politics.

The narrow focus of Loach's tale ignores, perhaps deliberately, the critical dangers confronting Spain's democratic Republic in the Spring of 1937. Madrid, the capital, remained under siege; the Non-Intervention Pact was denying arms and sustenance to the Republic and its people. The Republican Army, under constant combat, was in its formative months. Mussolini was pouring in his Italian divisions; and Hitler's Condor Legion was making history by bombing Guernica. Most menacing was the imminent fascist invasion of Asturias and the Basque country, its eventual success assured by a Catalan front, quiescent throughout the Spring of 1937. A film maker may tell any story for which he can obtain financing but the Barcelona events did not happen in an isolated place. They were integral to a larger whole: the Spanish War of National Liberation.

Gabriel Jackson's comments on Land and Freedom: Volunteer, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Fall 1995

Ken Loach's movie, Land and Liberty, has been a box office hit in Spain, and with mild reservations I recommend it to all vets who are not still fighting the Stalinist/Trotskyite battles of the thirties. There are two particularly fine sequences, I think: the opening scenes, where the English volunteer, not yet knowing a word of Spanish or Catalan, becomes a comrade through gestures, embraces, exchanges of cigarettes and sandwich goodies in the train from Port Bou to Barcelona; and the debate among the villagers, after they have seized the town government, as to whether they should distribute the land to individual peasants, or collectivize it. I've read dozens of essays about the land reform question, but never have seen such accurate dramatization of what it meant to Spanish villagers. My main reservation is that the movie exploits the current fad for blaming all sins on the Communists. You would think it was Stalin, and not the appeasing democracies, who killed the Spanish Republic.