Telling the Missing Stories of Working Class Culture in Cinema: ‘Peterloo’ and ‘Nae Pasaran’
It is a rare occasion when two films are released on the same day about working class histories of Britain. This weekend sees such a situation with the release of Mike Leigh’s much awaited ‘Peterloo’ and Felipe Butos Sierra’s ‘Nae Pasaran’.
‘Peterloo’ is the story of the infamous massacre at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, when fifteen people were killed in cold-blood by the authorities, demonstrating naked power and to remind them of their place.
It is cause for celebration that a mainstream film has finally been made about this important event in British and working class history. ‘Peterloo’ occurred at a time of radical ferment in Britain, in the years immediately after the Napoleonic Wars when, despite the defeat of the French, the British ruling classes were still in mortal fear of rebellion and the example of the French revolution.
This is brilliant material for storytelling. Despite this, and the many talents of Mike Leigh, ‘Peterloo’ has a strangely old-fashioned style. It has a non-sensational feel when it should be sensational, and an implausible feel when it should have the opposite. What it misses is any real sense of character and even, despite the events, real drama.
There are many things to admire about the film: the indepth exploration of working class agitation, self-education and political literacy and organisation, while the sheer confusion and arrogance of the authorities and ruling class is amply displayed. Yet, even in this terrain there is an element of caricature; the local Manchester magistrates are all dressed in black and shout ridiculous phrases at each other such as ‘the rod is all they understand’. And while the sitting monarch, King George III, was an out of touch contemptible figure, Leigh manages to reduce him to the equivalent of something from a Harry Enfield period drama.
Perhaps the biggest issue in the film is the lack of context, assuming of its audience that they know what ‘Peterloo’ was and what happened. But that seems a self-limiting proposition in terms of audience and storytelling, restricting yourself to preaching to the converts.
Thus, the film after opening on the battlefield in the aftermath of Waterloo, switches to the Houses of Parliament, with Lord Liverpool proposing a generous financial reward for the Duke of Wellington. But it never explains who Lord Liverpool or his Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, are. Similarly, when it comes to the protestors – the main character, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, who was the draw that day in St. Peter’s is never fleshed out beyond his vanity and ego. And this is despite Hunt being an important historical figure in the parliamentary reform movement; he is jailed for two years as a result of ‘Peterloo’ and becomes an important figure in the Chartist movement, neither of which are mentioned.
Even more, we don’t get the context of what Tory Government repression entailed: the Riot Act is cited but never explained; the suspension of habeas corpus is at least described, while the Gag Acts and Combinations of Workmen Act (which banned independent trade unions) that sprang from Peterloo are never mentioned. In this Leigh has not learnt from the most recent example of the Churchill industry, ‘Darkest Hour’ which, despite our collective familiarity with Winston Churchill, contextualised the fabled events of 1940 – from explaining who Chamberlain and Halifax were to giving space to key Labour figures.
‘Nae Pasaran’ is a very different film, testimony and documentary, one that vividly recounts the story of organised labour and human solidarity. It tells the tale of a group of Scottish trade unionists working at the East Kilbride plant of Rolls-Royce in the 1970s on engines for Hawker Hurricane fighter planes.
These happen to be the very same planes which were used by the Chilean air force and which play a major role in the military coup which overthrew the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. The trade unionists staged a boycott of Rolls-Royce engines in Hawker Hurricane planes, thus contributing to slowly denigrating the Chilean air force capacity.
This story might sound dry in the round, but it is told through the eyes of the surviving trade unionists: Bob Fulton (93 at the time of filming and a former ‘Desert Rat’ in the Second World War whose experience led him to detest ‘dictatorship), Robert Somerville, John Keenan, and Stuart Barrie, who took a stand in the aftermath of the coup in March 1974. Their acts had major consequences thousands of miles away, some of which are only revealed through the film.
Belgian-Chilean director Felipe Butos Sierra draws several strands together, getting numerous testimonies not just from Allende supporters, but the ex-Commander in Chief of the Chilean Air Force and former pilots. The ex-Commander talks candidly about how irksome and troublesome the Scottish boycott was, depriving the Chileans of critical technological and engineering input, and showing his annoyance to this day, comparing the Scots’ idealism to Islamic extremists.
Where this film becomes superlative is how it weaves together several stories – with today’s Chilean authorities honouring the Rolls-Royce men years later in Glasgow City Chambers. If that were not enough the film tracks down the Rolls-Royce engines in question which are found in a Chilean backyard; one of them is by chance the first engine which began the 1974 Scottish boycott, and it is shipped back to East Kilbride to be met by the men who began this story of protest and principle.
This is one of several moving aspects in this uplifting, affirming, very humane film that, despite its subject matter, never retorts to lecturing or grandstanding. The story is just too vivid, vital, and of universal significance – the rights of workers to take a stand, and to show concern and solidarity for others in different lands. But the real stars of the film are the surviving Scottish trade unionists, who have such grace, dignity and humility, as well as a wee smile and sparkle in their eye. They know they were part of history and made history, but they also know, like most of us, that there was a randomness about how they ended up playing such an important and mobilising role in the international campaign against the brutal Pinochet dictatorship.
These two films could not be further apart in their style and how they convey their message. One similarity is that in both the dimension of gender is stark in its significance, these both being overwhelmingly blokey films; in ‘Peterloo’ with the exception of one brief women’s union meeting, the women are reduced to sniping from the sidelines and telling their men folk off for believing they can change the world. And for all the charm of ‘Nae Pasaran’ this is a film nearly entirely of men reminiscing about what they did as younger men: the only prominent women being Sheila Cassidy, a British subject tortured by the Pinochet regime, and Judith Hart, a Labour minister at the time.
Another similarity is that both films have already faced being patronised and ridiculed by establishment circles. Hence in the run-up to the release of ‘Peterloo’ Daniel Finkelstein in ‘The Times’ argued that not only was Peterloo not that important in British history, but that marching and protesting never changed anything much – which is clearly how elite opinion sees the world. This week in an overall favourable review of ‘Nae Pasaran’, the ‘Financial Times’ said dismissively of the film’s title: ‘If you can’t pronounce the title ‘Nae Pasaran’, neither can I. The words are never spoken nor explained in this documentary from Chile’s Felipe Butos Sierra. My best-informed guess: it’s Scottish Gaelic for “This shall not pass”’. This is just snide ignorance and condescension – and one which does not seem to care about understanding cultures beyond its own.
These are important films in an age where commercialised, globalised culture bears down on remembering the local and specific, let alone anything radical, subversive and dangerous. Both films explicitly make the case for working class self-organisation, the importance of trade unions, and the power of collective action and mobilisation, and for remembering and understanding our past in all its complex colours, from defeat and disaster to triumph.
Critical in these stories are men and women standing up for principles against all the odds. The ‘Nae Pasaran’ film never invokes the heroic workerist traditions which has dominated too much labour movement mythology on the left and in Scotland, and which seems to often embrace titanic, vainglorious defeat such as the General Strike of 1926, or to continually invoke the same narrow slither of working class activism, such as the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in or the ill-fated miner’s strike of 1984-85. It is a liberation to see a film about organised labour and trade unions (including the various tensions in trade unions) which carries itself with a profound lightness, and in this the film has some similarities in style to ‘Made in Dagenham’.
‘Peterloo’ is an important film and it is good that it has been made, but it is a strangely unsure film in many respects, or maybe too sure that we should all know why its story is meant to matter so much. Mike Leigh, a master storyteller, manages to leave his narrative without ever telling us how many people actually died at Peterloo, or even naming and honouring them, giving them a platform. That seems a glaring omission in a film where the victims should have finally been given centrestage.
Having said all that this is a rare moment in British cinematography, and one we can only hope will be repeated in the future. There are so many untold stories of the common people and working class struggles and cultures that could keep what remains of the film industry going for years.
These two films have a connected thread of the coming together of working class people to challenge arbitrary power from dictatorship to the authoritarianism of 19th century Britain, and they show what that power can do united and determined, even crossing continents and changing lives. Implicitly, they also tell us that this fight never ever fully ends: the British ruling class are as self-interested and ruthless as ever, and for all the hold of the Whig version of British history and trying to incorporate the Chartists and Suffragettes, Britain never fully became a democracy, and not even a fully fledged political democracy. We are not then spoilt for subjects for future films about the citizens of the UK taking on power.