Michael Gove in The Times:
Whenever a Brit takes on the world in some international contest or other, our duty appears clear. Cheer on the hero who’s flying the flag. But what happens when the hero concerned is using the flag as a dartboard? Can we really feel a surge of patriotic pride when Ken Loach wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a film which dramatises “the exploitation and the oppression of the British State”?
Of course, Loach isn’t the first film-maker to depict the Brits as callous, cottage-burning, woman-torturing imperialists defeated by a freedom-loving citizenry. In Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, the British are also black-hearted and villainous oppressors. And in Neil Jordan’s IRA epic, Michael Collins, the agents of the Crown are wickedly murderous.
But while Gibson was an Australian, of proudly Irish descent, and Jordan was a son of County Sligo, Loach is as English as they come, a pensioner from Nuneaton. Therein lies his appeal for the Cannes jury. After awarding the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11, Ken Loach was the obvious winner this time round.
The judges in Cannes have shown that they enjoy rewarding directors who rubbish their own countries, and that enjoyment is all the greater when the countries being rubbished are America or Britain. What makes the enjoyment positively exquisite is when a contemporary political lesson, preferably about the folly of the Iraq war, can be read into the award. Giving Michael Moore the Palme in 2004 for his anti-Bush polemic was almost too obvious. But I’m glad to say the French feting of Moore did have the predictable, and desired political effect. President Bush was re-elected that year with the highest number of votes ever.
Should the parallel have eluded anyone, Loach himself collected his award with a clenched fist and a barely-coded request, “maybe if you tell the truth about the past, you might tell the truth about the present”.
It’s an invitation which is hard to resist. The truth is that films like Loach’s that glamorise the IRA give a retrospective justification to a movement which used murderous violence to achieve its ends, even though the democratic path was always open to it. They help legitimise the actions of gangsters who have been torturing innocents for decades, and lend enchantment to an organisation which aspires to govern part of the UK although it remains enmeshed in criminality.
And if it’s the truth about the present that Loach wants, let him consider just who the insurgents in Iraq are. Whom would he want us to empathise with most, and see as modern equivalents of idealistic young Irishmen? Those terrorists who were officers in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party for whom torture was a route to promotion? Or the Islamists who wish to impose a totalitarian version of their religion in Iraq and irrigate the ground on which they wish to advance with the blood from the hostages they behead? The hard truth is that a genuinely innovative, ground-breaking and artistically challenging film would be one which bothered to tell the truth about the British Army — the bravery of men under fire in Ulster, the courage of those who restored order to Sierra Leone, the coolness and aplomb of those who helped bring peace to the Balkans, the ongoing sacrifice of those bringing peace to Afghanistan and Iraq.
When Ken Loach was a boy, we produced film after film in which British servicemen were contemporary heroes, but now it is inconceivable that such a film would ever be made. Perhaps the most important question we can still ask the cultural establishment is a simple, “Why?”
The real reason is that, after years of practice in Hollywood, British actors can only play villains.