What’s wrong with the Nationalistic Epic
Andrew Legge tells us what’s wrong with the nationalistic epic.
Most people will probably agree that Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot is one of the worst movies ever made but in addition to being artistically stunted it is also evil. Emmerich presents the American War of Independence as a struggle between a jolly alliance of blacks and whites against a vicious army of Redcoats led by a cartoon English general whose hobbies include burning down churches packed with screaming women and children. By claiming to be historical, The Patriot teaches its American audience a propagandist history, turning what was a war between white American landowners and the English crown into a fight for universal suffrage. As we watch blacks and whites stand like brothers in the rebel army we forget that George Washington was a wealthy landlord who owned hundreds of slaves on his estate, that in the USA slavery was only abolished in 1865 and that there was segregation in some states until the 1960s. The Patriot belongs to a prolific film genre, the nationalistic epic, where our past is rewritten to serve the political prejudices of the filmmakers and their audiences.
In Ireland we have become experts in the genre. If the editor of An Phoblacht had scripted Some Mother’s Son, it couldn’t have been more propagandist. However, the film that beats the above for rewriting history is The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Here, the misguided Ken Loach turns the 1920s Irish Troubles into a socialist revolution. You would be more likely to find a Tory canvassing in West Belfast in 1981 than a socialist in Cork in 1920. The anti-treaty IRA, who Loach portrays as a bunch of Trotskyites, was predominantly conservative and nationalist. Many of its members went on to form one of the most right-wing Catholic conservative parties in Europe, Fianna Fáil. Their enlightened leader, Eamon de Valera, banned married female civil-servants, contraceptives, divorce, tampons, any book or film deemed ‘obscene’ and created a sexually-oppressed theocracy that sent impoverished children off to gulags run by priests frothing at the mouth. What was stunning about Loach’s film was actually how bad it was with its paint-by-numbers plot and comic baddies. Billy Zane’s hilarious Titanic villain was more subtly written than Loach’s evil, moustached landlord screeching at the peasants in his ridiculous accent. Some might argue that history has to be simplified to be compressed into a two-hour drama, but good historical films have been made disproving this argument. Paul Greengrass did justice with Bloody Sunday, showing the complexity of the conflict.
Like The Patriot, Irish nationalist cinema perpetuates the mythology that passes for history, reinforces prejudices and diverts attention from our real problems. We as a nation have inertly allowed a corrupt sinister trinity of bankers, politicians and property developers rob the Irish people but in the past when the Brits screwed up in Northern Ireland we would take to the streets and riot. Tales of dastardly deeds by Cromwell’s cloven-hoofed army make a nationalist’s blood boil but he happily forgets that we have done a pretty good job of oppression and exploitation ourselves. It was of no surprise to me to read that Bertie Ahern was a fan of The Wind That Shakes the Barley. There is nothing better for a government to deflect attention from its own failings than to rally the people up against a common enemy. George Bush went to 90% in the polls when a bunch of fanatics smashed up New York. Similarly, as an Irish audience watches nationalist propaganda cinema, it can blame the Brits for all our troubles.
What is really tragic about the irresponsible treatment of history in Irish cinema is how it has defined and excluded what is Irish. An old bag in a hovel, the working classes, ‘freedom fighters’ and peasants are portrayed over and over again as quintessentially Irish. When did we last see an Irish aristocrat or bourgeoisie on screen? Indeed the latter terms are an oxymoron by the rules of Irish nationalist thought. Great historic figures in Ireland such as Granuaile, who did a deal with Elizabeth I, Edmund Burke, who became a Whig MP and Daniel O’Connell, who was both a pacifist home-ruler and a monarchist, have all been ignored.
If we must do another film about the Troubles in the 1920s, let’s make the protagonist a Cork Protestant farmer fleeing his house from thugs indoctrinated by the ravings of Patrick Pearse. Or our protagonist could be a young unemployed Sunderland miner who joins the British army and finds himself in Dublin getting shot up by a bunch of middle class IRA medical students. While these two plot lines would run the risk of being issue-tastic at least they might challenge our self-righteous ‘oh me is the victim’ historical narrative.
To quote Oscar Wilde: ‘Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious’.
Director of the award-winning The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish and The Chronoscope.
What’s Wrong with the Nationalistic Epic: A Response
Kenneth Sloane responds to Andrew Legge’s article on what’s wrong with the nationalistic epic.
In the hopes of securing as broad an audience as possible Hollywood tends to eschew political and historical controversy. A simplified, Bush style morality emerges on the silver screen. The good are good, the evil are evil and audience is instructed to be ‘either with us or with the terrorists’. Consequently industrial cinema’s ability to engage on issues of political controversy and historical complexity are greatly diminished. One need only witness politically vacuous, yet critically lauded works such as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or Sam Mendes’ Jarhead to conclude that Hollywood is wholly incapable of, or perhaps uninterested in, addressing the major political questions which confront it.
Given this self inflicted institutional disadvantage in its capacity for political analysis one fears that Andrew Legge’s hope for a scrupulous degree of historical accuracy from a Hollywood director whose mainstay had been films involving alien invasions and rampaging giant lizards was always perhaps a forlorn one. But while Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot contained many of the lamentable clichés of the modern blockbuster, one suspects that the ire the film continues to arouse is less to do with demands for historical accuracy and more to do with the sensitivities of a group of commentators unaccustomed to and deeply uncomfortable with the suggestion that a treasured national institution, traditionally cast in a heroic role (in this case His Majesty’s forces) can on rare occasion be cast in the role of villain.
BBC Radio 1’s James King memorably fumed at The Patriot, irate seemingly for no other reason that it cast his countrymen in the role of the ‘bad guy’. An inexcusable unorthodoxy, King pointed out, of which Mel Gibson was now a serial offender having had the truculence to suggest that the English occupation of Scotland was an inharmonious one in 1995’s Braveheart. One can only imagine the heights to which Mr King’s blood pressure would have been driven regularly by Hollywood had he been born Russian, German or an Arab. On more sober analysis and contrary to the claims of many irate critics The Patriot did not depict an inherently evil ‘army of Redcoats’. Rather the villainy is personified by Jason Issacs’ rogue Col William Tavington (perhaps based on the real life Lt Col. Banastre Tarleton), whose sadism is at odds with the rank and file of the Redcoats and the bumbling, pompous but clearly civilised and ultimately kindly General Cornwallis played by Tom Wilkinson.
Indeed to its credit, The Patriot also gives a big screen outing to the rarest of cinematic characters, the American Loyalist, in the shape of Adam Baldwin’s Captain Wilkins, whose inclusion one might even consider a bold one given the constraints of the studio system and its woeful aversion to historical complexity. Historians estimate that perhaps up to one third of the population of the colonies remained ‘King’s Men’. Therefore one might think it surprising that American Tories have been all but invisible in the world of cinema, until of course one realises that such people can play no helpful role when included in the cast of the founding myth of the United States. Hence their ‘disappearance’ from the collective memory of millions of Americans, a disappearance one could argue is gently challenged by Captain Wilkins presence in The Patriot.
While it does inevitably deliver a simplified and rose-tinted view of the American Revolution, to single out The Patriot on a charge of insufficient historical accuracy seems unfair given the much more grievous affronts to history offered by U-571, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan or Inglourious Basterds. On the charge of demagogic nationalism surely The Patriot occupies a lesser place in this rogues gallery than We Were Soldiers, Black Hawk Down, The Green Berets, Collateral Damage, TV’s 24 and much of the works of self proclaimed ‘patriotic’ producer Jerry Bruckheimer to name but a few. All of the above surely merit more opprobrium than Emmerich’s unpretentious and by comparison historically impeccable blockbuster. Or perhaps for some critics, films which adhere to the traditional paradigm of foreign villains and Anglo-American heroes require no further scrutiny regarding their historical accuracy?
While The Patriot is susceptible to charges of chauvinism and historical myopia, to find the same charge levelled at Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley seems strange given that the two productions have little in common, apart perhaps from sharing the unorthodoxy of casting the King’s Men on the ‘wrong side’ of Mr Bush’s Good versus Evil divide.
Even as it entered preproduction Loach’s film was keenly anticipated by lovers of politically combative cinema, still perhaps getting over the disappointment of Neil Jordan’s decision to eschew the political nitty gritty and instead tell the story of the birth of the Irish state through the prism of a conventional love triangle in his own Michael Collins. Those familiar with the intensely dramatic course of Irish events of this period knew it not only contained great opportunities for filmmakers, but also that its most potent tragedy, the inexorably slide towards civil war, remained largely unexplored cinematically. While the War of Independence fits cosily into conventional nationalist narratives, the civil war risks the dual hazards of historical complexity and political controversy, traditionally avoided by more timid directors.
Many anticipated that Loach, free from the constraints of the Hollywood system, with a finely tuned political sensibility, and unafraid to engage in the hitherto cinematically taboo subject of the Irish civil war was the ideal director for the subject matter and that a cinematic work of historical significance and potentially huge controversy would emerge from the undertaking. Many would agree that this potential was realised as Loach’s film went on to garner weighty box office returns and a host of international awards, including the Palm D’Or and less famously the London Critics Circle Best British Film award, a curious accolade for a supposedly anti-British film. One sensed that Loach had truly communicated the intense tragedy of the civil war when jury member Helena Bonham Carter spoke with evident emotion about how the film continued to affect her profoundly days after its Cannes screening.
Unlike the majority of directors, Loach savours and seeks out complex and combative political engagements. In The Wind That Shakes the Barley he explores not only the parties to the wider conflict but also the tensions within and between the various tendencies amongst the Republicans. Its memorable courtroom scene, reminiscent of a similar sequence in Loach’s Land and Freedom, is a rare example of a director serious enough about his subject matter to allow a prolonged, contentious and, for the audience, potentially divisive political debate to unfold amongst the film’s previously united protagonists. Unlike his Hollywood counterparts, Loach refuses to usher his audience’s sympathies towards one faction or the other. It is at moments such as this that Loach compels his viewers to dispense with any lingering notions of the simplistic ‘good versus evil’ narratives that are the staple of the ‘nationalist epic’.
Consequently it seems bizarre that so iconoclastic a work should find itself accused of pandering to crude nationalist mythologies, much less representing the pinnacle of such films. It may somehow have escaped its critics’ attention but the climactic scene of The Wind That Shakes the Barley depicts Irishmen executing an Irishman with the British having long since left the stage. One would have thought that those demanding the consignment of oversimplified and self-righteous nationalist narratives to the ash heap of history would be championing such a scene as a watershed which ushered in a new era of cinematic maturity. How such a clear illustration of Irish responsibility for the subsequent course of Irish history has escaped the film’s detractors is puzzling.
Perhaps an explanation can be found in the fact that many of the film’s most vociferous detractors such as Tim Luckhurst of The Times, Simon Heffer of the Telegraph and Ruth Dudley Edwards of the Daily Mail formed and published their opinions of Loach’s film without the apparently unnecessary inconvenience of having actually seen it. One can conclude these commentators are either gifted with a cinematic clairvoyance that eludes most mortals, or more probably that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Seemingly an avalanche of ad hominem attacks on Loach, sprinkled with some political name calling and accusations of treachery and self-hatred were deemed a sufficient substitute for actual criticism of the film itself. Regrettably this novel approach to criticism seems to be partially continued by Mr Legge in his diatribe against Loach’s film. His description of ‘Loach’s evil, moustached landlord screeching at the peasants in his ridiculous accent’ raises the question as to whether Legge also has seen the film, as no such character appears in it. The accusations of ‘comic baddies’ is one observant viewers of the film are also unlikely to recognise. Certainly Mark Wakeling’s war weary and traumatised Somme veteran hardly deserves such an accusation, especially when contrasted with the pantomime villainy of characters such as Charles Dance’s Soames in Jordan’s Michael Collins. Beyond these two, arguably less than convincing points, Mr Legge seems to present no other specific criticism of the content of the film itself, instead digressing off into a rather unlettered digest of subsequent Irish history.
While one might perhaps largely agree with his tangential analysis of the political and social conservatism of the Fianna Fáil party of the 1930s and 1940s, what this has to do with Loach’s film or its characters is unclear given that by that stage Fianna Fáil governments were also executing Republicans in the courtyards of the nation’s penitentiaries. In any event the preceding Cumann na nGaedhael administrations, whom had traditionally positioned themselves to the right of Fianna Fáil on the political spectrum, were hardly noted for their secularism, liberalism or progressive social values and had already firmly establish the ‘sexually oppressed theocracy’ which Mr Legge seems to attribute to Mr de Valera. Indeed the heavy hand of the first Cumann na nGaedhael administration did much to asphyxiate the previously thriving Irish film industry with its draconian 1923 Censorship of Films Act and the appointment of Film Censor James Montgomery who ominously declared ‘I take the Ten Commandments as my Code’ prior to presiding for much of the next two decades over by far the most repressive censorial regime in western Europe.
Ultimately, many will share Mr Legge’s exasperation with the latent chauvinism and self-righteousness that is so often an ingredient of many nations national cinema and will applaud his call to leave behind adolescent notions of the evil ‘them’ and the blameless ‘us’, along with the perennial casting of traditional enemies in the role of villain that remains all too prevalent in these supposedly sophisticated times. On that journey to a more complex, mature, intelligent and self-critical understanding of Irish society and its origins The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a significant milestone, and should be acknowledged as such.
Film Historian and Lecturer in Creative Arts
Dundalk Institute of Technology
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