Note: Land and Freedom is not available on Region 1 DVD. It is, however, available on YouTube. You can watch it here.
It can be difficult to mix movies and politics. The needs of telling a story don't always jibe with the needs of making a detailed coherent argument. It also has to be condensed into close to an hour and a half. A book can do a better job at making detailed arguments, especially a non-fiction book. But with movies, you usually have to compromise. That's the rule. And Ken Loach's Land and Freedom is the exception.
Land and Freedom is about the experiences of an unemployed Liverpudlian named David Carr who fights for the POUM (Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista) militia in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. It details his conflicts with both Franco's fascists and the Stalinist leadership of the International Brigades.
When people talk about the Spanish Civil War, especially in the US, there are two common views. On the one hand, there are those who try to place everything in terms of fascism vs. democracy and ignore the crimes of Stalinism. On the other hand, there are those who recognize the crimes of Stalinism in the War, but portray it as a case of the "insidious communists" trying to subvert the republic. Any other movie about the Spanish Civil War would take one of those two sides. But Ken Loach knows that the real situation was more intricate.
Loach based the story for Land and Freedom off of George Orwell's autobiographical book Homage to Catalonia (AKA the George Orwell book Ann Coulter and Chris Hitchens would rather pretend doesn't exist). While Orwell wasn't an unemployed Liverpudlian, he did fight for the POUM in Catalonia and came into conflict with both the fascists and the Stalinists.
One thing that both Land and Freedom and Homage to Catalonia make clear is that the Spanish Civil War was not just a defensive battle against fascism. There was a socialist revolutionary uprising in Catalonia that could have spread throughout Spain doing away with not only fascism but capitalism in general. But the Communist Party and the republican government suppressed it, demobilizing the struggle and allowing Franco to win.
So, if you see the Spanish Civil War as a clear-cut case of fascism vs. democracy, this begs the question: why did the Communist Party suppress the socialist revolution? And if you see the Spanish Civil War as a case of the "insidious communists" trying to subvert the republic, this begs the question: why did the Communist Party suppress the socialist revolution?
The fact is the Stalinist leadership didn't want a revolution in Spain. They were tied to the totalitarian dictatorship in the Soviet Union that had recently suppressed the Trotskyist left opposition. In 1937-8, Stalin carried out a series of show trials against anyone who was still connected to the Russian Revolution. If there was another revolution in Spain it would threaten to shake things up in Moscow.
When it came to Spain, the Communist International took its time before even setting up the International Brigades. When they did start intervening, they operated on the principal of the "popular front", in which people were supposed to lower their banners in favor of the "progressive bourgeoisie", i.e. the French and British governments, and solve things diplomatically. Trotsky, on the other hand, argued for a "united front", in which the Trotskyists, Stalinists, social democrats, POUM-ists and anarchists would be allowed to advance their own programs, but work together in action. Trotsky's description was "march separately, strike together", which is the exact opposite of what the Communist Party did.
So, what about the movie's portrayal of all this? It was filmed in Spain, and doesn't use any fancy special effects. There are fighting scenes but they aren't about spectacle. Even when characters are clearly being heroic, risking their lives to save a village from fascism, this is never portrayed as clichéd movie heroics (no slow motion, no pounding scores, no extreme close-ups). It's all portrayed as dirty work. At the same time, there is no Paul Greengrass-style shaky cam to create unnecessary chaos. Loach assumes the audience is intelligent enough to figure out that liberating villages from fascism is good, but not necessarily fun. Good for him.
The real weapons come out at the 43:49 mark. This is after the POUM has liberated a village, and they're holding a meeting to discuss what to do about it, and we come to one of the best individual scenes in cinema. Some people want to collectivize the land. Others want to maintain private property so as not to alienate the British and French governments or the Spanish republican leadership, arguing and "You're scaring them away".
This results in a big debate, in a mixture of English, Spanish and Catalan, that covers the issues at hand in great depth while somehow managing to be both realistic and exciting. As one character argues "This is not the time for these textbook arguments on socialism or land reform", we get precisely that in a way that flows so perfectly, you'd almost think it was unscripted. That's a difficult task to accomplish, but Loach and writer Jim Allen have a way with things like that.
Although the village votes in favor of collectivization, all is not well, as the Stalinists start to assert their power. David Carr eventually feels compelled to join the International Brigade which is far better equipped than the POUM militia. But when the anarchist CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) take over the Telefónica building in Barcelona and the International Brigades are ordered to fire on them.
During a stalemate in this battle, Carr has a conversation with a Mancunian CNT-supporter on the other side of the barricade, who asks "Why aren't you over here with us?" to which he replies "I don't know". This scene gets at another important part of the movie. While Loach is clearly opposed to Stalinism, that doesn't mean he disrespects the rank-and-file people who fought in the International Brigades.
Now, it's unreasonable to expect that every movie should have such a worked out message. Even a Spanish Civil War movie. For instance, Pan's Labyrinth is also a great movie, albeit one that limits itself to fascism vs. democracy. Both movies serve their purpose. Land and Freedom has a lot to offer in the way of political vision that Pan's Labyrinth doesn't. But Pan's Labyrinth also has things to offer that Land and Freedom doesn't, for example, a creepy demon with eyes on his hands who terrorizes little girls.
It should also be noted that, as in depth as Land and Freedom gets, there are still many issues that it doesn't discuss. It doesn't talk about the role of Azaña or the social democratic PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español). Nor does it deal with the mistakes made by the POUM and CNT themselves, who eventually gave in and joined the Popular Front government even as it was suppressing them.
This doesn't stem from any weaknesses in Ken Loach's understanding of the Spanish Civil War, so much as the fact that there would be no way to fit all of that into the movie without either losing the naturalism or making it really long. If you are looking for a detailed history of the Spanish Civil War, the best place to look would be Felix Morrow's book Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain.
Once again, this does not mean you should read Morrow's book instead of watching Land and Freedom. Land and Freedom has stuff to offer that a non-fiction book doesn't, like romance, banter and, of course, a replication of what it was actually like to be there. You can't provide everything in a movie, but Land and Freedom comes close.