Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published Fwbruary 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
In the name of the Father
Dir: Jim Sheridan
|Conlon: calm before the storm|
In the Name of the Father tells the story of Gerry Conlon, based on his book Proved Innocent. This film has already been surrounded by controversy. Months before it was released, there were smug proclamations that the truth was pushed aside in the name of drama, that the film is mere emotional propaganda and there are factual inaccuracies.
It is a fact that the Guildford Four spent 15 years in jail. It is a fact that they were innocent. It is a fact that confessions were extracted from them by mental and physical torture. It is a fact that the British police and judiciary knew they were innocent from the beginning. That is what In the Name of the Father is about and that is why it is being attacked. This is an exceptional film. It exposes the entire British justice system as ruthless and corrupt to the core.
It begins in Belfast where Gerry, a petty thief mistaken for a sniper by the British army, is shot at and a riot ensues. This is dealt with concisely, portraying perfectly the normality of such a situation in Belfast in the 1970s. When Gerry meets an old school friend, Paul Hill, on the boat to England they go to stay in a squat in London with Paddy Armstrong, Carole Richardson and various bohemians. Parts of the film are very funny indeed, particularly the spectacle of Conlon and Hill attempting to pass themselves off as vegetarians, and Hill being renamed 'Sad Moon' by one of the inhabitants.
The whimsical mood alters immediately when Gerry Conlon is dragged from his bed, a blanket thrown on his head, and brought back to the police station, where he is held for seven days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and subjected to mental and physical torture. The initial disbelief and growing horror and realisation of what is happening to him are depicted stunningly by Daniel Day Lewis. This is no 'one bad apple' depiction of police brutality. It's not a case of a few cops overreacting.
This is a police force whose job is to get confessions no matter what, regardless of the means, regardless of innocence or guilt. They are sophisticated, well trained and experienced at this work. Conlon eventually cracks when a cop threatens to kill his father, Guiseppe Conlon, and he signs a false confession.
Guiseppe, who comes over to London to see his son, is arrested along with Annie Maguire, Gerry's aunt, and her entire family as the bomb makers. They are all imprisoned. These events are depicted with black humour and outrage. The sheer incredulity of what is happening to them leads them to alternate angry outbursts and fits of laughter in court.
In prison Gerry's relationship with Guiseppe changes from one of uneasy embarrassment to a supportive respect without the use of sugary sentiment. He meets IRA man Joseph McAndrew, who told the police that he did the bombing. They knew all along the Balcombe Street gang--not the Guildford Four--planted the bombs.
When Guiseppe dies in prison the previously resigned Gerry begins to fight to clear his name. Gerry Conlon's 'crime' was to be a working class Irish man in Britain in the 1970s. Between 1974 and 1984 over 5,900 Irish people were held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Less than 7 percent were charged with any crime. The Act is still in place.
Not one policeman has ever been disciplined over the Guildford Four case. The film shows not only police brutality, but the solidarity of the prisoners, who at one stage riot to proclaim the Conlons' innocence.
In the Name of the Father is an unequivocal attack on a brutal and vicious state machine. It is a superbly acted, perfectly paced, sharp and angry film. Run, or at least walk at a very brisk pace, to your nearest cinema.
Heaven and Earth
Dir: Oliver Stone
|Le Ly Haslip: Her point of view?|
Finally Hollywood has produced a film from a Vietnamese woman's point of view. Heaven and Earth is the final part of Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy, and like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July it is beautifully made.
It is based on the true story of Le Ly Haslip, who finds her village destroyed by the French and then by the Americans. She is raped by members of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), who believe her a spy, and is left outcast by both Vietnamese and American society.
On some levels it is a powerful film. Stone exposes the brutality of the American war machine. US soldiers are shown burning villages and throwing prisoners from helicopters. Even Haslip's future husband is a secret American agent torturing and murdering civilians.
However, the film is ultimately unsatisfactory. With the exception of Haslip, Stone fails to develop his characters. None of them can be related to and most remain stereotypes: the fanatical NVA, the cruel American GI or the mixed up GI. Everything is reduced to being good or evil.
It was once said that America's biggest monument to the Vietnam War was the 100,000 former servicemen locked away in mental institutions. The war left a generation of men scarred emotionally and physically. Stone, a war veteran himself, is trying to answer, why did the war happen?
He ends up relating to the person trapped in the middle--the grunt in Platoon, the disabled marine in Born on the Fourth of July or the peasant in Heaven and Earth. By portraying the war as a battle between good and evil, Stone leads himself to a dead end.
The real motivation for the war was imperialism, to preserve US dominance in south east Asia. In the end, Stone hasn't made a film from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese, he has fudged it. Even today, the war opens up too many wounds for American society. The weaknesses of Heaven and Earth show that Hollywood will not make such a film.
A Bronx Tale
Dir: Robert de Niro
A Bronx Tale, Robert De Niro's directorial debut in which he also stars, is set in an Italian neighbourhood in 1960s New York and tells the story of a boy learning values in the process of growing up.
Nine year old Calogero Anello's loyalties and imagination revolve around two figures--his father Lorenzo (De Niro) who is a bus driver and Sonny (Chazz Palminteri) who is a gangster. Calogero is the sole witness to an incident where Sonny shoots a man dead over a parking space.
Should Calogero rat on Sonny when he is interviewed by the police? Instead, Calogero and Sonny become good friends. As Sonny's 'special friend' Calogero discovers and enjoys a newfound attention in the neighbourhood.
Lorenzo, concerned by this development in his son's life, tries to explain that it is not out of love, but fear, of Sonny that Calogero enjoys the neighbourhood's attention, and that it is the working man who grafts an eight hour day who is the real hero.
Next it is 1968. Calogero, now 17, hangs around outside his club. Against all respectable social convention and peer group pressure he falls for Jane Williams, who is intelligent and beautiful, but black.
What chance does romance have in a neighbourhood reeking of racism and prejudice? In 1968, change may be blowing in the wind, but not before we learn how easy it is to hurl racial abuse or that the oppressed can sometimes hurt innocent whites. De Niro at no point equates racist bigotry with the fury against racism. Calogero's white racist friends set out to attack a club in a black neighbourhood with guns because their club had been pelted with eggs.
Calogero is extricated from his friends' influence by Sonny who saves Calogero from what would otherwise have been a tragedy. Sonny's advice is that if you feel that you need to judge a girl, test her on the basis of her character and not her skin colour. Calogero has learnt from two very different men about life and love and accepting people for what they are.
Bhaji on the Beach
Dir: Gourinder Chadha
Bhaji on the Beach is the kind of film you laugh out loud to. It's the first feature length film
in Britain to be directed by an Asian woman and features a mainly Asian cast.
At first the storyline doesn't seem too promising. A group of Asian women take a day out from their lives and head off to Blackpool in the local Asian women's centre's minibus.
The film is refreshing because it doesn't just view the women as victims of racism, or entrapped in a male dominated world, but as being able to break out and contradict expectations. And in doing so it springs a few surprises.
The conflicts in the lives of the women--all from different generations and backgrounds--run through the film. Rekha, visiting from Bombay, is dressed up to the nines in Western clothes, discarding the traditional clothes her counterparts in Britain cling to. Middle aged Asha finds romance with a veteran white actor she bumps into on the beach. Hashinda is pregnant by her black boyfriend and has to work out her future. Most hilariously portrayed are the two teenagers, out for a good time and in constant battle with the other women.
The main criticism I have of the film is that it tries too hard to make its points. So incorporated in the plot we have rebellious teenagers, a pregnant student, a grandmother, a feminist and a woman on the run from her violent husband who, along with his brothers, chases her to Blackpool. You end up feeling a bit bombarded with issues, however funnily they are dealt with.
This month there are a whole set of promising new releases. Watch out for The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan's enjoyable novel about the experiences of Chinese American women, and Short Cuts, Robert Altman's (director of the The Player) new film about contemporary American life.
And Martin Scorsese's new film, The Age of Innocence, promises be a cut above the average costume drama. Towards the end of the month Steven Spielberg's film about the Holocaust, Schindler's List, has its awaited British release. Socialist Review will be running a special feature on the film and the issues it raises in our March edition.
by Michael Hastings
One of the myths about the Second World War is that from the outset the British people were united as one behind the fight to destroy Nazi Germany.
In fact there was considerable hostility to the war. The Communist Party denounced it as an imperialist war and backed the call for a 'people's peace' and a 'people's government'. This had some resonance among workers.
But there were other forces wanting peace. As Hitler's plans for the invasion of Britain in the summer of 1940 got underway, fascists prepared to welcome the German forces. The Nazis were in contact with a home-based puppet government and a New British Broadcasting radio station took to the airwaves in southern England.
|Shipbreaker, Chittagong, Bangladesh; photographed by Sebasiao Salgado whose exhibition 'Workers: an archaeology of the Industrial Age' is showing at the Royal Festival Hall, London until 13 February. Don't miss it|
This play focuses on events in a country house in the long hot summer of 1940. It is a symbol of tradition, of the continuity of British life and everything worth defending. But the aristocratic family to whom it belongs, together with their guests, a bishop and a woman police commander, are plotting the success of the planned Nazi invasion.
Their attitudes and behaviour are by turns idiotic and sinister. They drawl on about a 'third way' that harks back to rural Saxon ways and the need for a classless society (a society free of class antagonism).
At the same time they are absurdly snobbish, bitchy and dependent on their servants, particularly the butler whom they suspect of informing on them.
The son of the house exercises the traditional prerogative of his class by seducing the maid and then kicking her out when pregnant. He too is full of cant about wanting to be in touch with the working classes.
The unfinished business of the play's title refers to the fact that this is no quaint episode from the past which is over and done with. The play is cast in the form of the son, now an old man in the nursing home which his country seat has become, recalling events to his nurse.
A querulous, self-pitying invalid in the opening scenes, he is still dependent on those beneath him. Just as he used the maid as a young man, he now uses the nurse. He is unrepentant, rejoicing in the present day revival of fascism.
A rather far fetched coincidence at the end of the play reinforces the point that fascism is still active and exploitative, trading on weakness while despising it.
The image of fascism that comes across is not very political. It is conveyed as a fairly grotesque collection of upper class pasties, more absurd than a threat, more to be pitied for their personal inadequacies than to be fought.
So it is difficult to see that the play goes anywhere once the basic conflict is established. And the butler's behaviour, on which so much of the theme of social dependency depends, is frankly not very convincing. Despite some really comic moments, it's a bit of a disappointment.
Unfinished Business is now showing at the Pit, Barbican Centre, in London
An Inspector Calls
by J B Priestley
It is 1912. A young working class woman brought to her knees by poverty and ill treatment decides that she can bear it no more. A bottle of disinfectant is consumed as she dies agonisingly in hospital. Nobody grieves--yet!
Inspector Goole arrives at the house of a rich and prospering capitalist family, the Birlings, in the midst of a dinner party. This is the scene that J B Priestley sets for An Inspector Calls.
Priestley wrote the play in the winter of 1944 with an eye to the growing discontent amongst workers in Britain as Hitler's Reich collapsed. The working class began to question what sort of society would follow war and depression. Should capitalism continue when it had led to such barbarism and poverty?
The year 1912 was deliberately picked by Priestley to unfold his plot. This was the period of the Great Unrest, of mass working class revolt. As competition dragged the world towards a brutal war, workers in Britain launched a powerful series of struggles. From 1910 a mass strike wave developed, culminating in a number of local general strikes, barricades and shootings as the army entered the scene to defend the government. Enormous class conflicts continued up to the very beginning of the First World War.
The backdrop to this was growing class polarisation in which workers were left poorer. One estimate suggests that between 1900 and 1914 average wages fell by 10 percent.
It is against this background that the complacent and uncaring Birlings dine. Their shortsightedness on the eve of war is brilliantly summed up in Arthur Birlings drunken dinner table speech, in which he talks of progress making war impossible. He then cites, in support of his thesis that capitalism is magnificent, the fact that the Titanic, just built and about to sail, is 'absolutely unsinkable'. An iceberg gave a flash of light to his thesis and was an omen for the system.
With the arrival of Inspector Goole, all becomes tense. His persistent inquisition begins to show how their exploitation of working class lives has forced one poor woman to pay the ultimate price. Goole is the eyes of millions of workers looking upon their rulers, wretched and naked before them. His anger at what has passed and his contempt for the Birlings as they seek to blame each other is that which bore the Great Unrest. It is the anger and contempt which followed the Second World War and prompted Tory MP Quintin Hogg, in fear, to demand, 'Give the people social reform or they will give you social revolution.'
The poignancy of the present production of this play is that anger and contempt are in the air again. The last decade has left workers bitter and alienated from the political structures by which the capitalist class rule--monarchy, parliament--in a way that resembles the period of the Great Unrest.
Bitter class conflicts look set to erupt as Major's weak and vicious Tory government seeks to offload the bill for squandered wealth on Britain's workers. If you can scrape together the money, go and feast yourself on An Inspector Calls. Feast also upon excellent performances and direction that bring the play to life. Above all heed Inspector Goole's message when he cries: 'We are responsible for each other. The time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.'
Our modern day Birlings are served notice.
An Inspector Calls is at the Aldwych Theatre, London, prices £9-£20
In November Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary, gave the green light to a new round of television mergers and placed a new and even nastier breed of money men firmly in control of British television.
Michael Green, head of Carlton, is typical of the new species. His bid for Central Television will almost certainly succeed and leave him in control of 30 percent of total British airtime revenue. One of the darlings of the Stock Exchange in the 1980s, he started out in the print and photography business, and has never shown any public interest in television programmes. His rise to prominence has been put down to ruthless business sense and large donations to the Tory Party.
Gerry Robinson, chief executive of Granada, seems to share Green's complete lack of interest in production--he once referred to his station's programmes as 'software supplies'. And like Green he knows how to make money, increasing Granada's profits by 129 percent in his first year in charge by means of a costcutting programme.
This new breed does not yet have the confidence to flaunt its wealth and power in public like the classic media moguls, but give these people time. Green's office is apparently crammed with expensive art, and he drives everywhere in a customised Bentley.
The takeover of the moneymen is the logical outcome of Tory broadcasting policy. The current state of television should be a lesson to anyone who ever believed the market could be a beneficial force.
In the 1980s we were told broadcasting needed to be 'freed up' because it was a potential growth area. A decade later the number of jobs in the industry has plummeted, even taking into account cable and satellite. The Tories said the old regulated independent system led to monopolies and discouraged new talent. Since their reforms the fat cats have cleaned up, and two or three 'supercompanies' are dominating the field. The old system was once called 'a licence to print money'. Nothing has changed on that front. LWT has been handing out huge bonuses to management and shareholders alike, and Carlton has cleared £8.6 million in its first year of operation.
The Tories' rhetoric about 'freeing up and diversifying' the media was just that rhetoric. The real reason for the drive to the market in broadcasting is simple--British television is a significant export earner. To help realise its full potential as a profit earner, market forces were necessary to push down wages and help create companies big enough to compete in rapidly growing world markets.
The pressure has been on, then, to treat television as a commodity pure and simple. And this approach of course runs into problems. The mass media has two main functions for the ruling class. One is to make money, the other is to strengthen ruling class ideas through notions of shared values and national identity. These two functions can come into conflict.
The prospect of international networks is seriously worrying some ruling class traditionalists. These concerns have emerged in public in the rather pathetic row between Peter Brooke and Carlton over News at Ten. Brooke believes, incredibly, that News at Ten is an important part of our national heritage.
Much more seriously, the debate explains the halfhearted nature of the reforms that are taking place. Most commentators have complained that the recent liberalisation doesn't go nearly far enough. At the same time it is clear that there is indecision verging on paralysis at the top of the BBC. One month it is all up for sale, the next the licence fee has been confirmed for the next ten years.
Socialists should not take sides in the argument between the traditionalists and the market men. Both sides have been united in cracking down on the media unions, making cuts and trying to root out any traditions of critical journalism in television. But the creation of international broadcasting networks is excellent news in the long run, because it loosens each individual state's control over information. The Romanians and East Germans learnt a great deal about their own governments from foreign media.
In the meantime, the arrival of the money men, the attacks on conditions and the debates about the future shape of broadcasting has created a bitter and politicised atmosphere among workers in the media
Dir: Benjamin Britten
Gloriana was first performed as part of the celebrations of the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, and was met with indifference and hostility. Forty years on, Opera North's production is being met with well deserved acclaim. This does not mean Britten's music has suddenly become more popular, but that his opera depicts a society in flux, which relates more closely to the Britain of 1994 than it did to the Britain of 1953.
The opera charts the personal and political relationships between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex in the years after the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Essex tries to make his name by quelling a rebellion in Ulster. He fails utterly and, his ambition thwarted, attempts rebellion on his own account. He is executed for treason. Throughout, there is a scarcely concealed passion between Elizabeth and Essex.
Elizabeth's anguish at having to sign her lover's death warrant underlines the conflicts tearing her society apart. Her relationship with Essex is itself part of the struggle of contending classes, old and new, for influence and power. These tensions and conflicts which had been kept in check for years by Elizabeth's power were to explode into civil war, revolution and the triumph of a new ruling class within 50 years of Elizabeth's death.
Such images of conflict and decay did not fit while Britain's postwar boom was still largely intact. Elizabeth even seems at war with herself, embodying reaction one moment and progress the next: she is not an independent actor on her own stage, but is subject to the same contradictory forces as the rest of society.
All the while, others are waiting for Elizabeth's end. King James of Scotland hovers in the wing denying, Kenneth Clarke like, that he is impatient to occupy the throne.
Offstage we can hear a chorus professing loyalty to the queen, but reminding us of the far larger numbers who will shortly take centre stage of English history in order to make a revolution.
Yet Gloriana is not some right on political allegory linking 1600 with 1994. The principal characters have genuine depth, and magnificent performances ensure it is difficult not to sympathise with them: even with Elizabeth who, as she declines personally and politically, is forced to kill her lover and sees her world crumbling around her.
Gloriana is touring to London, Nottingham, Manchester, Norwich and Hull during February and March