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Spanish Earth

Fighting the Good Fight: Ian Hart plays a British idealist who joins the war against the Fascists in Spain in the 1930s.

Ken Loach's 'Land and Freedom' refights the Spanish Civil War

By Richard von Busack

Comedian Mort Sahl used to call the Korean War "World War Two and a Half." The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) could also be called "World War One and a Half"--the early stages of the conflict that would later engulf most of the planet. Like WWII, the Spanish Civil War has acquired the reputation of a "good war," if anything, an even better war, in that there was no Dresden or Hiroshima to cast a shadow on its cause.

Ken Loach's new film, Land and Freedom, is a "good war" movie, in which the heroism of the antifascists is recorded. The inevitable nostalgia slows the story, but Land and Freedom has a certain lightness and excitement missing from post-Vietnam battle movies. Because the film pushes buttons anyone on the left has about the Spanish Civil War, it takes an effort to keep your head clear, and only the occasional forays into somewhat calculated sentiment clear it.

Loach draws the lines as clearly as the very concept of Us vs. Them itself. After Spanish army officers, led by Generalissimo Franco, overthrew the radical, democratically elected Popular Front government, the call went out for help to fight the Fascists. Volunteers from around the world came to aid a Spanish government in exile, recognized only by Mexico and the U.S.S.R.

Ironically, the left-wing fascism fighters were ultimately betrayed by Stalin, who first provided only meager support and then stamped out the tendency toward self-government among the left-wing combatants. In the end (as documented in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia), the ultimately victorious Fascists could stand aside while the hard-line Communists and the coalition of antifascists broke their backs butting each others' heads.

Loach begins Land and Freedom with the death of one old British fighter in the present day. His granddaughter finds among his possessions some photographs, newspaper clippings and a knotted bandanna full of Spanish earth. We flashback to David (Ian Hart) hearing the call. Loach is especially smart in his staging of a recruiting slide show in the 1930s--the moderator uncertain in English, his words failing him as he tells his story.

David volunteers, leaves England and is welcomed to the self-governing militia entrenched in the hills. He befriends his fellow soldiers, especially the cool and competent Blanca (Rosana Pastor).

The center of Loach's story is the attack on a village, the capture, mopping up and ultimate decision of what is to be done with the newly appropriated estates. This sequence, almost 45 minutes long, is the freshest and most immediate part of the film--the chaos in narrow stone streets giving way to a debate among the victors--and if the rest of the action had been so imperative, Land and Freedom would have been a great movie instead of just a good, engrossing one.

The meeting after the battle, spelling out what might be done in a time of revolution, also reveals the growing fissures in the Popular Front. Lawrence (Tom Gilroy), an American character, is the first to leave the independent militia for the International Brigade, the Communist-run organization. In a Stalinist movie, it would be the vaguely Jewish-looking fellow that betrayed the revolution; in a British socialist's movie, it's the Yank. Just as he's becoming frustrated by the shoddiness of weapons and conditions, David is wounded and shipped out to Barcelona, where he can see the betrayal by the Soviets at first hand--and return to his comrades in arms for the last stand.

It's an ambitious story--an epic, really--and Loach carries it off rousingly, even if he is opposed to la guerre and la gloire. Hart's quiet decency and euphonious North England accent make him an appealing hero. He displays a lot of the same tough innocence of Kevin Costner--without that sourness and stolidity that the years seem to have brought to Costner.

Land and Freedom is above all a partisan account. Loach does sometimes rely on the tropes of the war movie (the one-night romance that's meant to last a thousand years, for example). Yet these mainstream movie concessions leaven a brave film. Land and Freedom illuminates the left's finest hour--without sparing the infighting that, then as now, put brambles in its path.

Land and Freedom (Unrated; 109 min.), directed by Ken Loach, written by Jim Allen, photographed by Barry Ackroyd and starring Ian Hart and Rosana Pastor.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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