[The Guardian Guide, 1996]
HOW HEARTENING IT is to know that Ken Loach is still out there making committed, polemical cinema, so long as you don't have to watch it. Never go near a Ken Loach film unless you're trying to sleep with a socialist. If you are, however, Land And Freedom should do the trick.
For a start, it's set during the Spanish Civil War, which even a Yankee imperialist like Ernest Hemingway knew has great romantic cachet. More than Loach's usual locations, anyway, unless your object of desire's pulse is set racing by an ever more grim succession of post-industrial landscapes. Not to worry; Loach's habitual subject, the Northern proletariat, isn't excluded. The hero is an unemployed Scouse communist, and if the same went for me, I'd probably head for Spain too - although the Liverpudlian David, to his credit, wants to fight the fascists. I'd settle for a week in Majorca.
It's telling that Loach has to look back to the 1930s for a truly noble socialist cause (although it doesn't seem to have told Loach anything.) But at least the cause of The International Brigades was noble, if profoundly compromised by political infighting, as Land And Freedom is honest enough to show. The Brits who went along for the war in the former Yugoslavia were merely headbangers of the first water. But then so, it would seem, are the Yugoslavians. Take Underground.
From the look of the box, Underground is one of those mammoth, earthy, eastern European sagas which go under the generic title A Long Film About Peasants. That's only part of it. It is indeed a salty Balkan epic, covering 50 years of Yugoslavian history, most of it from a cellar. It is, of course, ribald, tragicomic and larded with symbolism. But at some points, it resembles The Muppet Show staged on a battlefield (which is pretty damn funny); at others, a Slav Carry On movie with a plot nicked from 'Allo 'Allo. For the rest, think Delicatessen and, well, more long films about peasants. At almost three hours, there's room for it all.
Underground shares with Land And Freedom a sense of bombast and an urge to Explain The Message that makes the big speech from Independence Day look subtle and restrained. How unlike the sober, repressed, chin-up-chaps style of great British war movies such as Lawrence Of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai. The distributor is cunningly refusing to send out review copies of these, but as there's an entire satellite channel seemingly given over to screening nothing else, my memory is pretty fresh as to what to expect. Two camels running towards each other in long shot for five minutes on a 20-inch screen looks like nothing so much as an ancient video game, some lavishly visualised version of Pong.
Both films are worth seeing again for their heroes alone, those arch-Britishers played by Peter O'Toole and Alec Guinness. Both are extraordinarily dangerous men. Guinness's Colonel Nicholson is as amorally devoted to his craft as Albert Speer or Leni Riefenstahl. Building his bridge is paramount; that its very excellence abets the enemy is an idea he refuses to confront. This dedication, this intensely narrow focus, while understandable - some might say essential - in an artist, is a bit of a drawback in a senior officer on one's own side. Still, at least he redeems himself by falling upon the dynamite plunger at the end and destroying the bridge. Oh dear, I haven't ruined it for you, have I?
Lawrence, conversely, is so much an adventurer that you get the idea he will do anything for a buzz. In another age he might have been a cocaine smuggler or a bungee jumper - or, you have to suspect, an English mercenary in Bosnia, never allowing his complete financial failure to interfere with his enjoyment. As luck would have it, the Colonial Service gave him the chance to pursue his fortune in the Middle East. The results of his courage and charisma are visible today in one of the most hideously complex political tangles ever visited upon this benighted planet.
Thank God we lost the empire.
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