Spirit of ’45 (2013)
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Ken Loach
Summary: A look back on Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945, and how it’s fulfilment of its socialist manifesto irrevocably changed the live’s of the ordinary working people on the UK: as told by those who witnessed it.
Never again. Never again shall we let fascism darken so many hearts. Never again shall we let our world be ravaged by war. Never again shall we let ourselves be plunged into the dread of 39-45, and never again shall we return to the class division and poverty of the 1930s. That was the promise on everyone’s lips as the globe slotted back into peacetime, and was the adopted mantra of those in the forces whom had returned to the UK from the bloodied battlefields of mainland Europe. The labour party of the era fulfilled these promises and lifted the masses out of destitution whilst rebuilding the country. Ken Loach’s powerful talking heads documentary Spirit of ’45 (2012) is this story.
Unlike Ken Loach’s usual kitchen sink dramas, Spirit of ’45 is a proud documentary in all its stock footage and talking head glory. The movie works to transport you to the post-war era and effectively places you in the shoes of those who lived through this revolutionary period, and it achieves this right away with laughing faces, embraces, kisses and old timey war music in footage of the troops finally returning home after an allied victory. Presented as if the version of history we are supposed to accept, Loach masterfully pulls back the curtain to expose the squalor and poverty of the depression era. It’s jarring. Filthy slums, barefooted and malnourished children, lice infested beds sleeping up to five kids and piles of tiny coffins at the cemetery. Within 10 minutes it becomes clear as to why the people at the time were determined to never let this happen again.
The documentary systematically and logically breaks down the events and causes of Labour’s election win in 1945 in an extremely informative yet entertaining narrative built from a mixture of experts, historians and people who lived through this period of change. Even though it is only an hour and a half long, it goes through this series of events quite thoroughly, leaving you with a satisfied understanding and empathy for what brought such a revolution in social standards and care. It starts with the people’s new found understanding that they can do anything now that they’ve defeated fascism and couples it with Churchill’s plummet in popularity after the war as the working class remembered how he used to treat them and the movements of their unions. All of the other great historical events seem to snap into place neatly: a nation inspired by Labour’s outright socialist party manifesto, the government’s resolve to follow through their promises leading to the formation of the welfare state and the nationalisation of several industries and businesses including the railways and mines. The manner in which these historical events are unfolded before your eyes absolutely succeeds in leaving you in complete awe – a testament to the incredible story and Loach’s mastery in film-making, his majestic storytelling through the blending of astonishing truths from different sources giving food for thought but also occupying your heart. I was genuinely shocked and surprised by a lot of the news reel footage and the Public Information movies of the time which paraded the unashamed socialist ambitions of the Labour party and the working man (something so unheard of in our current capitalist, individualistic society). The apparent integrity and altruism of the 1945 government was further supported by snippets of the party’s manifesto included in the film:
“The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people”
I cannot express in words how unbelievable these statements would be to a modern audience. The idea of British politicians flying in the face of capitalism and the free market is almost completely unheard of, and for it to be backed to the hills by people all over the country seems just as tough to comprehend. In this respect, Spirit of ’45 is uplifting yet cautionary; happy yet sad.
What truly moved me were the personal recounts of ordinary people: the horrors of beforehand and the joys of afterwards. The thought of hardy miners shedding tears at Labour’s victory really puts into context how life-changing this news must have been for them and it is these tales which gives this movie its heart and also its power. An account of a young man losing his mother, reduced to begging to God to bring his mam back just shamed me completely. One recounting tale of a young boy witnessing his mother cry at no longer having to pay for the doctor to visit her sick child will always be food for thought.
Of course, the editing and soundtrack were paramount in taking the audience along on this emotional rollercoaster. All footage and images are carefully picked to illustrate the talking heads’ plights and triumphs – slums and piles of bricks in bombsites mirrored against the new and generous post-war council housing which can be recognised as the quintessential abodes seen in British suburbs. The instantly recognisable notes of “Jerusalem” that played during the telling of the socialist spirit that swept through the nation filled me with patriotism I have only felt during the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. And, by the same means, I was filled with unbridled anger upon seeing Margaret Thatcher quote St Francis of Assisi upon her 1979 election win: “Where there is discord, bring harmony”, and as soon as those words are uttered you see a terrible montage of everything that Clement Attlee’s government achieved being destroyed as privatisation marches through all public owned services and industries. The only one left standing today is the NHS. Amongst the cold hard facts of privatisation, images of police brutality towards protestors and strikers is stirred into the narrative. It kills the hope and optimism of the post-war period with a bludgeoning night stick that hits harder than in almost any other documentary I have witnessed. I almost wish I was there to join in with the boos that almost drowned out Thatcher’s first victory speech.
One criticism that this movie could be given, and has most likely been given by various strings of right-wing news media, is that it is all emotional socialist hog-wash, using only the most tear-jerking stories to dirty logical and sensible capitalism, but that is not a criticism I shall be giving this movie. Amongst the chaos we are all currently experiencing, there is a lot of unneeded coldness. The validation of austerity to help heal the free market and economy being perhaps the most widely accepted act of inhumanity within our immediate society. I feel this movie is the perfect antidote to this blind worship of the free market; no other documentary I have ever seen has laid down so clearly the human cost of politics. From the words of one of the film’s interviewees, the people of the 1930s were duped – Britain sat on the throne of the biggest and most prosperous empire the world has ever seen, yet its own citizens lived in the worst slums of Europe. That was not an unfortunate truth, it was a disgrace. In comparison, Clement Attlee’s labour government who was dedicated to improving the welfare of its citizens through its policies can be credited with dragging the greatest mass of people out of poverty and can be held responsible for the current wealth and prosperity of the British people today. It therefore is such a bitter pill to swallow that this has largely been undone by the poison of the love of profit that was at the heart of Thatcher’s tory government. In an effort to free the economy through privatisation, livelihoods and communities were destroyed, a fact confirmed by first-hand accounts.
Like ‘I, Daniel Blake‘, Spirit of ’45 is an absolute credit to Ken Loach’s warmth, compassion and humanity. Many of the interviewees were telling very tragic and personal stories and although he was behind the camera, you can see the amazing trust and rapport he must have built with them all. I almost welled up just to see an elderly gentleman call him “Ken” and reach out to touch his hand when trying to be emphatic in a story that obviously gave him much sorrow. This makes the film unique amongst other documentaries, relying on warmth and simplicity rather than sensationalism.
The movie is of the extremely good production values but there is a definite certain desperation underlying everything within the picture. In 2012, this was pretty much the last chance to get these people’s accounts in person, as this historical event has almost passed out of living memory. In the 5 years since, the movie has become more relevant than ever before. After the NHS has endured its worst winter in its whole existence, there are worries that the current conservative government is getting ready to slash, trash and privatise it enitirely. Spirit of ’45 shows us why we must not let this happen. We must never let us go back to the poverty of the 1930s, where children were lined up to buried and people were living on top of each other with no help and no hope. If you are like me, and are terrified of a possible future of unaffordable health care, please watch this movie – I implore you. To say it’s inspiring is an understatement. It has poured petrol on the fire of resistance in my being, and I know that the NHS will be saved if us, the ordinary masses, rise up together in the same spirit of those in ’45, and fight.