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Movie's Take on Irish Independence Rattles England

JACKI LYDEN, host:

The movie that won top prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival open this weekend in New York and L.A. It's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," a story about the violent birth and subsequent splintering of the Irish Republican Army. The film is the latest from director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, who've collaborated before on stories of working class Britains and Americans. Loach's stance on the class struggle has made him no stranger to controversy, but he's drawn especially sharp criticism in England for his depiction of the struggle for Irish independence. Iris Mann reports.

IRIS MANN: County Cork, Ireland, 1920.

(Soundbite of film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley")

MANN: British troops, known as Black and Tans roust the occupants of a small village gathered in front of a farmhouse.

(Soundbite of film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley")

Unidentified Man #1: Right. I ain't made a sound of you bastards, you mick bastards been told. The Defense of the Realm Act, do you understand? All, pull these mickeys about.

MANN: In rebellion, the citizens form the Irish Republican Army and begin a bloody campaign to achieve independence. The movie has prompted many critics in England to accuse director Ken Loach, who is British, of glorifying the IRA and demonizing his country.

Mr. KEN LOACH (Director): I was accused of being worse than the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.

MANN: Loach says he doesn't want to propagate a point of view. Rather, he wants to expose Britains to a period in their history that he feels they don't really know.

Mr. LOACH: It's a pivotal moment in Anglo-Irish history. I mean before these events, Ireland was a colony. And after it, it had a measure of independence.

MANN: It was a time when Britain was still reeling from losses during the First World War and trying to maintain a hold on Ireland against mobile bands of Irish rebels called Flying Columns.

Mr. LOACH: Effectively it was a people's militia, organized in small guerilla outfits. And it was extraordinary that they were able to inflict this damage on Britain.

MANN: Loach collaborated on the film with his longtime screenwriter, Paul Laverty, whose mother is Irish. Laverty drew on stories he heard as a teenager from a relative who lived through the upheaval.

Mr. PAUL LAVERTY (Screenwriter): And he just explained how he used to trench roads, dig up roads to stop the British Army. And he said they were just a real tough violent bunch and they were very scared of being caught. And again, that coincided with my later research just prior to doing the film, and I spoke to sons and nephews of Flying Column members. And one old man in Cork told me about his uncle who actually was tied to the back of a Jeep after an ambush and he was dragged to the base and of course he was killed in that fashion.

MANN: But it wasn't until after the movie was finished that Laverty learned his grandfather was active with the volunteer army, passing information and keeping guns in his barn. At one of the early screenings of "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," Laverty got another surprise.

Mr. LAVERTY: An old man of 104, who had been a volunteer and lived way out in the Kerry - he didn't have any teeth left, but he had all his faculties, and he insisted that it's just how it was. So that was a great pleasure.

MANN: Despite what some British critics have written, Laverty says he and director Ken Loach took pains to avoid romanticizing the rebellion. In one scene, a young doctor, one of two brothers central to the story, has to become an executioner.

(Soundbite of film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley")

Mr. CILLIAN MURPHY (Actor): (As Damien) I've studied anatomy for five years, Dan, and I have to shoot this man in the head. And all Chris really can do is just turn. Aren't you at all concerned that what we're fighting for is worth it?

MANN: Actors Cillian Murphy, who plays the brother and grew up in Cork, says his character is almost destroyed when he has to shoot a friend who's become an informer.

Mr. MURPHY: The tragedy of it is that he's known this kid all his life. He's known his mother. And he has to go back and tell his mother where the body is buried. It's horrendous really. But there was no going back after that. He has to see his beliefs through to their ultimate conclusion.

MANN: That ultimate conclusion places the two brothers on opposite sides of the 1922 Irish Civil War. Former comrades fought over a treaty with England that gave Ireland a limited form of independence but partitions the country. Director Ken Loach says the splintering of an independence movement that united disparate elements against a common enemy is a timeless tale.

Mr. LOACH: There will be bourgeois elements in that there'll be raw nationalist elements in that, and it'll be maybe a socialist or a labor element in that, and maybe others, maybe a religious element. There will inevitably be all those elements. I guess there are in Iraq at the moment, aren't there, resisting the occupation of Iraq. And then the power that pulls out - in this case it was Britain that pulled out of Ireland - then tries to set up a deal that will strengthen those people it can do business with and weaken those people that it doesn't want to see step into their place.

MANN: And Loach's collaborator, writer Paul Laverty, believes the moral questions raised by the movie apply to everyone, including the British.

Mr. LAVERTY: I just wondered if, for example, the British population knew what the British army had done in occupying Ireland in the 1920s, if they had known what the British army had done in Kenya, where they had (unintelligible) prison camp, where there was torture, where there was mass hangings and mass beatings, I really wonder if they would have been persuaded so easily to go into Iraq by Tony Blair, who was determined to follow George Bush come what may. And I think really if we have a better understanding of our own history, I think we're less liable to believe the lies and the spin and the propaganda.

MANN: Writer Paul Laverty. He took the title for his screenplay, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," from a patriotic song about a young man who leaves his love to fight in an earlier Irish rebellion.

(Soundbite of song, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Was hard the woeful words to frame, to break the ties that bound us. But harder still to bear the shame of foreign chains around us.

MANN: For NPR News, I'm Iris Mann.

(Soundbite of song, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) And so I said, the mountain glen I'll seek at morning early and join the bold united men, while soft winds shakes... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Iris Mann