“The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is a war movie set In Ireland in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. It was a multinational production directed by Ken Loach. It was filmed on location in Ireland. The movie was a big hit with critics and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2006. It did very well at the box office in Ireland.
The movie opens with some lads playing a game that I had to read is called “hurling”. No wonder things are so tense. The guys get rounded up by thuggish paramilitary types because they have violated the law against public gatherings. One of the hurlers is defiant and gets beaten to death. One theme of the movie is that the British are dicks.
The movie is the tale of the O’Donovan brothers. Damian (Cillian Murphy) has a bright future ahead as a doctor. He is pragmatic and not interested in fighting for independence because he feels it is unattainable. This is in contrast to his older brother Teddy (Padraic Delany) who is the leader of the local IRA brigade. Teddy tries to convince Damian to join the cause, but is unsuccessful until Damian witnesses the abuse of some railroad workers by some Black and Tans.
The violence is back and forth. The IRA members gun down some British in a pub. This is followed by one of the rebels named Chris being coerced into ratting out his mates. The result is Teddy, Damian, and others are captured in the woods. Teddy is tortured by having his fingernails pulled out. This is not done graphically and is brief. Movie over, right? Nope. A sympathetic British soldier allows most of them to escape! “I don’t want your deaths on my conscience.” That’s going to be a hard sell with his comrades, but there are no consequences and no manhunt to recover the prisoners. Unrealistic.
Damian is in temporary command (nepotism much?) as Teddy recovers. It falls to Damian to execute the traitorous Chris who happens to be a good friend. Leadership sucks! The naïve, pragmatic doctor wannabe is getting into this rebellion thing. He joins the brigade in an ambush of a British convoy on a rural road. The twenty or so British are killed (no one is wounded – that’s excellent shooting!). The British decide to evacuate Ireland. Just kidding. Can you say retaliation? This comes in the form of burning farms including that belonging to his girlfriend Sinead’s family. Damian has to impotently watch her get her hair cut off while hiding in the woods. Powerful scene, but it ends abruptly.
Before the next tit-for-tat, word arrives that the war is officially over. A treaty has been negotiated with the British government giving the southern part of Ireland dominion status. There is a great scene in a movie theater where the audience reaction indicates the polarizing nature of the compromise. This polarization is also reflected within the brigade. The debate is fascinating. It’s between the old schoolers like Teddy who are willing to accept the potential of peace and the new schoolers like Damian who want nothing less than the whole enchilada. Have you noticed that Teddy and Damian have switched attitudes? Neat, huh.
Teddy joins the new Irish Army because irony is a staple of movies like this. Speaking of which, ironically Teddy and his new mates use some tactics suspiciously like those British dicks. Meanwhile, Damian’s crew carries on in the old style and he gets himself captured in a raid to steal weapons. Will Teddy be able to convince him to see the light and come over to the dark side?
The film is not based on a true story, but it has some fragments of history in it. The basic picture is accurate. The Irish War of Independence was a series of violent confrontations between the Irish Republican Army and British soldiers (either the “Black and Tans” or the auxiliaries) who supplemented the Royal Irish Constabulary. These soldiers were infamous for atrocities against civilians and destruction of property. A lot of this was provoked by IRA attacks that targeted the RIC and British supporters like the Black and Tans and the auxiliaries. This included ambushing and attacks on police stations and barracks. The movie accurately depicts the nature of the war.
The ambush in the movie is clearly modeled after the famous Ambush at Kilmichael in County Cork . 17 Auxiliaries were killed by the IRA in a manner similar to the film. This event occurred one week after Bloody Sunday (when the RIC fired into a crowd at a football match in retaliation for the assassinating of fourteen British operatives earlier in the day). After the ambush, the British retaliated by burning homes. County Cork was put under martial law and became a hot bed of the rebellion.
Although none of the characters are real people, Damian was inspired by Ernie O’Malley. O’Malley was a legendary figure in the IRA. He specialized in attacking barracks to acquire weapons. At one point he was captured, but was allowed to escape by a sympathetic British soldier. This took place in Kilmainham Gaol. The jail was the sight of some executions of IRA prisoners. The movie used the site for some scenes. He carried on the fight after the treaty and was eventually wounded and captured in a shootout with Free State police. He escaped execution because of his medical condition. He spent several years in prison.
“The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is a thought provoking movie. I did not know much about the Irish War of Independence before this film. It is certainly more historical than “The Informer”. Even though it is not a true story, it is very informative about the dynamics of Ireland during that rough period. This being a movie, it can be criticized for demonizing the British. It seems like every group of British soldiers has a sadist in it. Most of the British are cartoonish. Loach did come under some heat for his supposedly anti-British vibe. Hello, he was aiming at an Irish audience. The movie was very popular in Ireland – mission accomplished.
The movie is well-acted. Murphy does a fine job as Damian and the rest of the cast is good. The movie could have used subtitles for those thick Irish accents. The cinematography is top notch by Barry Ackroyd. The scenery is lushly green. The dialogue is a strength. The debates clearly delineate the opposing sides within the IRA with regard to the treaty. The movie may not be fair to the British, but it is balanced in its coverage of the pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions.
The movie is a bit heavy-handed in its themes. Besides that the British suck, Loach also trots out the old “end justifies the means” trope. We also get a strong dose of war corrupts and war is hell. The film is a bit predictable and has some clichés. Damian is the reluctant warrior who grows into rebelliousness. The brothers end up on opposing sides. The younger is more impulsive, the older is more practical. At least that’s how they end up. They start out the opposite. There is a brief period in the film where they are on the same page because their arcs intersect. This is entertaining, but predictable.
“The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is a good, but not great movie. The pickings must have been slim at Cannes that year. I enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. It does a service to history and is entertaining at the same time. Be aware that it is a bit on the depressing side. Damian’s side did lose, after all. Will it crack my 100 Best list? Unlikely, but you should still watch it.
grade = B+