REVIEW: The Spirit of ’45 (2013) October 20, 2015Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
THE SPIRIT OF ’45
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2015
One of the more universal human traits is a tendency to watch the past through rose-tinted glasses. So, when someone mentions “old times” during conversation, it is more likely than not that those words would be accompanied with “good”. In the sphere of politics, this phenomenon was usually associated with the Right. That would make sense, because it is usually the old people who are more conservative or afraid of younger generations’ potentially dangerous and catastrophic ideas. There are, however, even some people on the Left who are also prone to nostalgia. One such example could be found in Michael Moore, whose Capitalism: A Love Story presented surprisingly sympathetic view of Eisenhower era – period until recently portrayed by American leftists as incarnation of everything wrong in American society. Even more telling example could be found in The Spirit of ’45, documentary by Ken Loach, British filmmaker known as one of the more outspoken and radical leftists among in today’s cinema.
In this film Loach deals with the events that arguably represent the greatest achievement of British Left in 20th Century. In Summer of 1945, only few months after the victorious end of WW2 in Europe, British voters rejected Conservative Party of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill. Instead they enthusiastically embraced Labour Party which had explicitly named socialism in their electoral platform. New government of Clement Attlee in next few years implemented series of far-reaching economic and social reforms which included mass nationalisation of railways, coal mines, electricity and other public services and also introduced new system of housing and National Health Service, thus creating modern welfare state.
Loach argues that two things made this monumental change possible. First was war, which, by its nature, mobilised British masses into huge collective action; its outcome – victory over Fascism – convinced most young people that everything was possible. The other, even more important reason for Labour landslide victory were memories of interwar period, marked by poverty, austerity and, most of all, broken promises for veterans of World War One and their families. New generation simply didn’t want return to pre-war status quo nor it would allow that their wartime sacrifices be in vain just as their fathers’ had been.
The Spirit of ’45 tells this story through combination of documentary footage of the period and interviews with some of the people who witnessed those events first hand. Both segments are made in black-in-white, probably for the sake of consistency. The interviewed people, who are in their 80s – nurses, miners, workers – through various anecdotes vividly describe unimaginable poverty and hopelessness of pre-war period, the way impoverished masses began to organise through trade unions and Labour Party and, finally, how their struggle finally bore fruit in electoral victory and seemingly small changes that made their lives exponentially better. Many of those stories are quite moving and film is quite convincing and making its point, even for viewers who are aware of radical leftist that Loach wears on his sleeve.
Loach is, on the other hand, less successful when it comes to explaining why post-war socialist utopia failed to materialise or why Labour failed to expand on their ambitious programs. Some of the interviewees point to reforms simply being in the form of state taking over companies from private owners, while leaving organisation, practices and even some of the old cadre intact. Loach hints that the changes simply weren’t radical enough, just like in Land and Freedom, when he blamed defeat of Republic in Spanish Civil War on its leaders’ reluctance to embrace people’s self-organisation and self-rule.
The last part of the film shows what happened three decades later, with arrival of new Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and how her government systematically rolled back all or most of post-war reforms. Public services were reprivatised, workers’ rights abolished, trade unions suppressed, sometimes with massive use of police power, like in the case of great mining strike. Loach also accuses modern Labour leadership of being too close to middle and ruling class, and forgetting their working class roots. This part of the film simply repeats what many leftist intellectuals and artists were telling about Thatcher and her years in past three decades and in many ways looks like Loach is preaching to the choir.
The biggest flaw of his film is, however, in what it failed to tell the audience. The Spirit of ’45 never bothered to show that Attlee’s Labour government lasted for only one term and that consequent Conservative governments actually accepted its policies, not attempting to change until Thatcher years. General consensus about post-war welfare state and Keynesian economy began to unravel only in 1970s. Loach doesn’t show economic and other problems that led British voters to turn to Thatcher in 1979 in a same way they had chosen Atlee in 1945. Because of that, The Spirit of ’45 looks incomplete or, to be more precise, it looks like a great story made small by all-to-familiar selective use of historical facts. It is still a good and at times powerful, documentary; as a history lesson, at least for those who don’t share Loach’s political views, not so much.