One of my Facebook friends suggested that instead of drinking green beer and getting violently drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, people should watch The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I decided to take this advice, and I’m glad I did. Ken Loach’s film about the Irish War of Independence is a remarkable work. Not only is it a stirring depiction of armed struggle against oppression, but it is also a disturbing examination of the moral dilemmas that such a struggle entails.
The year is 1920. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor about to leave for London to work in a hospital there. When a friend of Damien’s is murdered by the Black and Tans, his friends urge him to join the Irish Republican Army, but he dismisses their cause as hopeless. At a train station, however, he sees British soldiers beat up some railway workers who refuse to let them on the train. He changes his mind and joins the IRA, where his brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), is an officer. Together, they fight against the British. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, Teddy supports it. He argues they have no choice but to accept it, since the British threaten all-out war if it is rejected. (Considering that Churchill was not opposed to genocide, I don’t think this was an idle threat.) Damien, however, sees it as a betrayal of the Republican cause. They find themselves on opposite sides of the ensuing civil war.
It seems that in every revolution, there comes a moment when one group decides that it has gone as far as it can possibly go, while another group is equally convinced that the revolution must go further. The most famous example is the split between the Girondists and the Jacobins during the French Revolution. What is less appreciated is that such a split actually happened three times during the Russian Revolution: first between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, then between Lenin and the Workers’ Opposition, and finally between Stalin and Trotsky. The Wind That Shakes the Barley illustrates how the Irish War of Independence followed this pattern, with tragic results for those involved. This film doesn’t present either side as being entirely right or entirely wrong. Like Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan, it presents us with an open-ended question.