I wrote about the film yesterday; now I’ve been listening to the director’s commentary – or rather a joint commentary by Ken Loach and Donal O’Driscoll, a historian from the University of Cork.
They are very keen on stressing the historical accuracy of the film. Time and again they cite a real-life parallel to an incident that is shown. They answer complaints from English critics about the distressing scene of torture – the Black and Tans pull a man’s fingernails out with pliers – by appeal to the historical record, and by citing cases of even more extreme cruelty. Part of the evidence, they say, comes from photographs of torture victims taken by the British; they bring out the parallel with Abu Ghraib.
One man is tortured by a mock execution – a soldier pulls the trigger, but the gun is unloaded. That, says Loach, was a terror tactic used by British troops in Northern Ireland in the seventies.
The commentary explicitly stresses the relevance of the film to what the occupying armies are doing in Iraq. Loach says, “The British were the US of the time.” The film’s repeated theme, that during military occupations, violence produces reprisals, which inspire more violence, certainly seems very relevant to the current situation.
Suffusing the work is a nostalgia for the socialist ideal, and the commentary makes a plea for better knowledge of the forgotten history of radicalism – such as the role of Trades Unions in the Irish battle against English power, possibly inspired, as O’Driscoll says, by English unions’ refusal to co-operate in military action against Soviet Russia. Loach sometimes seems like a voice from a bygone age – but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth listening to.
Authenticity extended to the casting. All the IRA men were from County Cork, and were bonded together into a team by military drilling by instructors from the Irish Army – getting about as much training as the average IRA recruit would have received in the twenties.
The British soldiers, on the other hand, are all acted by ex-soldiers from the British army, some with experience of dealing with hostile populations. Loach says he asked them not to overplay the roles, or be more brutal to the civilians than they would have been in actual situations.
One point that the commentary raises that could have been dealt with in the actual film is the fact that many IRA commanders in the 20s had been in the British Army during the War. Maybe this is a fact that could be considered in the light of George Mosse’s theory of the brutalisation of Europe in the War – expressed in an increase in crime and extreme radical politics. In Fallen Soldiers Mosse seems to think that this applies less to England than to most European countries. But in Ireland? Is it possible to disentangle the legacy of the war from earlier political brutalities (on both sides)?
Something else with Great War resonance is the scene of the execution of a traitor. He’s a hapless victim, who has been bullied into betraying his friends. The rules say he should be shot; human feeling says let him off. It raises many of the same issues as the executions of deserters in the Great War. The scene is deeply painful. As one of the IRA men says, “ I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it.”