The Spirit of ’45

Michael Prescott
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The Spirit of ’45 – the new documentary from British filmmaking icon Ken Loach – hit cinemas nationwide over the weekend. It is recommended viewing for all. Whilst it may not necessarily be enjoyed by all, given its firm old-school socialist stance, the majority surely will. The man who has given us films from Kes in 1969 to Looking for Eric forty years later, certainly knows what targets to aim at, and does so with no less assurance than Katniss Everdeen.

Covering an array of topics including housing, health, transport, diet and [un]employment, the film delivers a sweeping look at Britain’s general state and mood, as well as its quality of life, during the post-war years of 1945 through to Thatcher’s era (prompting audience boos) and beyond. What it helps to do is to provide an insight into an otherwise unimaginable way of living for the generation who associate Big Brother with reality TV rather than an Orwellian nightmare.

Fortunately, the copious amount of archive footage means that this is done well in a Senna-like manner, with the interviews often taking the form of voice-over (they serve as narration, essentially, rather than subjective interpretation) as Loach seeks to construct a rhetoric which is vehemently anti-Tory values (capitalism, privatisation, etc). Not that anyone’s complaining about that.

Loach would have been 9 in ’45 and therefore this significant turning point in British (and human) history, in reacting to WWII, is particularly relevant to the man behind the camera. It shows. If the first half of the film attempts to contextualise the general feeling (at least amongst the working classes) in 1945 via a fascinating insight into the general election, then the second half moves on to the specific issues of the NHS, transport and other potentially lucrative commodities that would be seized upon by the 80s government.

It’s rather apt given the struggle that the city has endured with Thatcher, tragedy, joblessness and a label of ‘self-pity city’ that it was Liverpool FC legend Bill Shankly who once remarked that “the socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards”. There could be no greater vindication as to the worthiness of the cause than to have the likes of Shankly and Loach support it so ardently.

For what it comes down to is a passionate plea to the silent majority via those affected – many of whom hailed from the North East, the North West, Wales, etc – to engage in a socialist society over a capitalist dream which has, it could be argued, failed. This could be no more relevant given the collapse of the high-street, the global financial crisis, the surge in unemployment, and so on.

It throws off the shackles of political alignment through distancing itself from the current Labour party and policies in their ideals, which are far from the socialist principles that once grounded them. Instead the philosophical nature of the film invites questions as to the success of capitalism, to what extent the British public are prepared to fight and to embrace or provoke change, and more, in this political confrontation of policy, practicality and personal pride.

The issue of preaching to the converted is a salient one, though this is a problem for the vast majority of films. The intention here does not appear to be satisfaction with its own opinions without engagement, but rather the opposite. Whether it will find the audience it deserves is another question altogether, but the well-crafted, honest and passionate qualities of the documentary are difficult to refute. At its heart appears to be the seemingly incompatible notions of capitalism versus socialism, though it’s never quite as simple as that.

It feels impossible to ignore the fact that the eras of the 40s and the post-technological revolution years of the 21st century are worlds apart. An ever-growing population, environmental concerns and an incompatibility between welfare and capitalism that’s now global instead of national appear to contradict the proposals of unity and collaboration put forward. But at the same time the same old problems resurface, employment being just one of them, and so the task is to balance between both eras by recognising the similarities.

Ultimately it’s a film that presents a dialogue between itself and the viewer, allowing those that watch it to take from it as much as they put in. A young audience owes it to the generation of the forties to view the world through their eyes for an hour and a half in an attempt to re-create a different way of living and thinking, whilst the elder members of society too deserve a place in the political and societal debates that influence everyday matters so much.

The end result is less of a political plea than an appeal for a thread of togetherness to run right through the social order from top to bottom, which is more of an instinctive and evolutionary idea (as counter-intuitive as that may sound) that engages with the philosophical concepts of morality. It’s this argument which makes it a truly rich filmic experience.

Though Loach’s accuracy isn’t as pinpoint as the Girl on Fire’s, the position of 1945 that is urged to be revisited in 2013 and into the future is an interesting and timely exploration of Britain’s history (with some unashamed digs at America’s medical system). Judging by the narrative and recent doc Fire in the Blood (which tells the story of Western pharmaceutical monopolies ensuring large-scale profit despite large-scale deaths, and which comes highly recommended), there’s certainly a discussion to be had over the merits and failures of capitalism and ‘classic’ socialism.

The truth, though, is that the real legacy of the film – and indeed of the 2012 Olympics – is the celebration of the National Health Service. Loach serves up an experience that’s rewarding and stirring, and how refreshing it is to see the country lauded, our systems praised, and even politicians (if not all of them) trusted and revered through the Spirit of ’45.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott