Kes (1969)

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011 in Buddy Movies | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Some crude language, violence, and a naked boy.

Like the film’s young protagonist, Kes is a film that nearly no one thought would succeed. Even in its home country (England), distributors feared the authentic Yorkshire accents would turn viewers away. So when I say that America passed on screenings almost entirely – despite garnering its share of awards at film festivals – it shouldn’t be a surprise. And even today, unless you’re blessed with an excellent local library, Kes is extremely hard to find. If Americans have heard of Kes, it’s likely in reference to its historical importance as a turning point in British cinema. Yet, of all the boy-and-his-pet movies, Kes is a rare example of one that transcends the typically standard genre to symbolize something more.

Kes was an early film from Ken Loach (My Name is Joe). Sick of dealing with studios and looking away from television, Loach and producer Tony Garnett decided to create their own production company for the film. Teaming with Barry Hines, whose book A Kestrel for a Knave would be the basis for the feature, together they wrote the script and shot the film in eight weeks for just £157,000. Kes came during the era of social realism and French New Wave, a highly influential movement marked by low budgets, inexperienced actors, and on-location shooting. Loach and company followed suit for a grim yet reportedly accurate portrait of the mining areas of Yorkshire.

The film centers on the working kes2class, but more specifically, a young product of the system named Billy (David Bradley). The film pits the lad against a repressive school that favors the bourgeoisie and ruling class, and often abuses the working class. Billy’s only escape from an otherwise drab and painful existence is a young hawk, which he cares for and trains. With a plot like that, you could typically expect nothing but cut-and-dry drama with upper class villains holding down lower class saints, but Loach brilliantly paints a story filled with occasional humor and characters in varied degrees of gray, and few black-and-white villains or saints.

In general, the men in the film are tramps, thieves, and scoundrels. A perfect example is the warped phys ed teacher (Brian Glover), who seems to take pride in punishing the children that don’t succeed in playing football against him. Billy’s older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) is another one. Like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his most notable characteristics outside of the uneducated workday are fighting, drinking, and gambling. Indeed, the film satirizes masculine values and glorifies the few women. Both Billy’s mother (Lynn Perrie) and a classmate’s mum are portrayed as well-meaning and kind caregivers, looking out for their child’s future as much as they can.

As noted by writer and filmmaker Mike Robins, Kes is a film that remains a template for Loach’s abiding concern with the struggle of the British working class to achieve life’s basic needs. The character of Kes (wonderfully captured by cinematographer Chris Menges) clearly shows Billy’s admiration for freedom and individuality, two characteristics he certainly doesn’t exhibit. In a telling sequence that shows us what Billy is thinking during one of his many daydreams, he’s simply walking around town with the bird perched on his hand, as townsfolk stop to admire and envy it. Loach weaves images of the industrial town with that of the new developments to suggest the community’s generational divide. The theme is further emphasized by the headmaster’s private meetings with the youths (canings), and a shop owner’s sentiment that speaks for the opinion of his entire generation: “These kids today, they’re all the same.”

The film’s one glimmering male kes3figure is a teacher named Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), who learns to feel differently toward Billy after a moving speech. “Displaying an unexpected enthusiasm,” Robins explains, “(Billy) slowly opens up and offers great detail about flying the bird off-leash for the first time. It’s the type of sequence in which Loach demonstrates his prodigious directorial skills. Billy’s story begins in long shot with the boy slumped against his desk in the lower part of the frame. As Billy gains authority and presence throughout the tale, Loach cuts back and forth between the boy, Mr. Farthing, and the interested class. Each time Loach returns to Billy, he is framed tighter and the sequence ends with Billy in one of the film’s few close-ups. Without being diagrammatic, the boy’s rising enthusiasm compels Loach to move the camera progressively closer in a beautiful integration of form and content.” After a scuffle on the playground, Billy confides in the same teacher about his daily life. It’s clear that Billy knows the score. He’s of the lower class, and is treated as such. But what can he do about it? He’s a great kid in a shitty circumstance, and when that’s the situation, the film will either end sappily or crappily.

This whole concept may be foreign to Americans – well, it is, actually – and their only exposure to Kes has been Wes Anderson’s reference in The Royal Tenenbaums. Britons know it, though, and their film institute ranks it among the 10 best in the country’s history. And though I scolded distributors for not showing the film due to the accents, I will warn you that they are extremely thick and may require subtitles. The film has come to be known as standard use in Britain’s English classes for studying dialect, so that should tell you something.

I wish the film would be required for teachers everywhere. “Kes protests against an educational system which fails to recognize individual talent, and it suggests that this is a consequence of a capitalist society which demands a steady supply of unskilled manual labour,” Jacob Leigh writes. Our society has a clear agenda when it comes to valued subjects in schools, and Kes’ Billy is an example of a child who would no doubt be labeled ADD today, yet has the dedication, focus, and creativity to master something as difficult as training a hawk. Where do you find that on a test?

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