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Kes
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Remind Me

Kes

Ken Loach has become a famed practitioner of politically aware cinema, so it's surprising to remember that his second feature was the 1969 drama Kes, about a nature-loving lad named Billy Casper and a wild bird he tames, trains, and cherishes. Looking at the film, though, you find it's not surprising at all. Billy is surrounded by the sort of environment that drives progressives like Loach crazy-a poor, dysfunctional household in a culturally dead working-class town. Yet his relationship with the kestrel falcon he calls Kes brings out an intelligence, loyalty, and conscientiousness that could make him a shining, productive citizen if his family, teachers, and schoolmates weren't so determined to stifle his good qualities before they have a chance to flower.

In addition to its sociological agenda, Kes introduces a number of Loach's stylistic trademarks. Unlike his one previous feature, the compassionate Poor Cow (1967), it takes place not in crowded London but in the English boondocks, where boys like Billy are steered to work in the local coal pits almost from birth. The main character is played by a fifteen-year-old whose acting experience consisted of some pantomimes at school. Various other roles were also played by nonprofessionals, and Loach made little effort to soften the broad regional accents heard on the soundtrack--or to render them more comprehensible to non-English ears; if you're unfamiliar with Yorkshire dialect, be prepared to listen very hard and use your imagination to fill in the bits you just can't get.

At the beginning of the story we meet Billy and get a sense of how hard his life is. His only real pleasure comes from his hobby of poking around the countryside looking for birds' nests, and he's excited to find that a young falcon is lodging in the area. Before long he captures it, makes a home for it in a backyard shed, and undertakes a long training process, during which he bonds more closely with the bird than he ever has with his quarrelsome mother and bullying half-brother. Maybe life isn't so bad after all.

Or maybe it's even worse than we've been led to believe. Billy dearly loves his adventures with Kes, but those enjoyable hours are outweighed by the routine miseries that confront him in everyday life. In grimly detailed scenes shot with the no-frills directness of a cinéma-vérité documentary, Loach shows the animosity and frustration that poison relationships in the Casper household; the flaws and failings of the education system, which cares less about developing kids' potential than conditioning them for lives of hard, unrewarding labor; and the petty tyrannies of a closed-in society where might makes right and brain always loses to brawn. Since it's hard to imagine how Billy and Kes could thrive under such circumstances, the outcome of their story seems as inevitable as it is sad.

Kes is based on the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave by English writer Barry Hines, who grew up near Barnsley, where the story takes place, and escaped life in the coalmines by doing well at school and becoming a physical-education teacher-an ironic fact, since a vivid scene in the film shows a phys-ed teacher bossing and browbeating his pupils like an overgrown child himself. After setting up a production company called Kestrel Films, in honor of their first project, Loach and partner Tony Garnett adapted Hines's book in collaboration with the author.

Going to various Yorkshire schools in search of boys with acting talent, Loach put his political views into action. He believed that "every boy and girl has huge potential," but this promise is often wasted because "there are pre-arranged slots ready for them as manual laborers," he told an interviewer. "We thought that, if our thesis was correct, within this group of boys, there would be one who could bring Billy Casper to life." The theory paid off when Loach found fourteen-year-old David Bradley, who-like the character he played-was the son of a miner, lived in a working-class neighborhood, and delivered newspapers for pocket money. The teacher roles were played by little-known Yorkshire performers, encouraged by Loach to speak the dialogue in their own words. The title character was played by three different hawks, one of whom was found on a nearby farm just three days before shooting began; much of their training took place while the camera rolled, according to Anthony Hayward's book about Loach and his films, Which Side Are You On?

Loach and cinematographer Chris Menges accentuated the docudrama realism of Kes by using narrow-range lenses (giving images close to natural vision) and keeping the technical crew at a distance from the actors, allowing the performers to move in natural and spontaneous ways. The film's only false note is the jaunty, '70s-style music that occasionally intrudes on the soundtrack. Loach wanted to shoot in black-and-white, but one of his funding sources-United Artists, which rescued the production from a financial crisis at filmmaker Tony Richardson's urging-insisted on color, so Loach compromised by preflashing the film stock, thus avoiding postcard-pretty views of the film's rural milieu. Principal photography went on for seven weeks; when the picture was finished and distributors balked at taking on a movie they had no idea how to market, Loach reluctantly redubbed some of the heaviest Yorkshire accents and got a limited release on the strength of enthusiastic reviews.

Kes became a commercial success in Britain and a critical success in the United States, where it played mostly in art theaters. Its reputation is still flying high, and Loach-winner of the top prize at Cannes for The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006-remains as committed as ever to the sociopolitical views that shape this early feature. Even the type of bird that Billy adopts is a symbol of the equality Loach believes in, since in medieval times, according to Hines's book, the kestrel was the one animal that people from all classes were allowed to own. That's just the kind of thing Loach loves to celebrate; as he put it in the interview book Loach on Loach, "It's the bird for the riff-raff of the world."

Producer: Tony Garnett
Director: Kenneth Loach
Screenplay: Barry Hines, Kenneth Loach, Tony Garnett
Cinematographer: Chris Menges
Film Editing: Roy Watts
Art Direction: William McCrow
Music: John Cameron
Cast: David Bradley (Billy), Colin Welland (Mr. Farthing), Lynne Perrie (Mrs. Casper), Freddie Fletcher (Jud), Brian Glover (Mr. Sugden), Bob Bowes (Mr. Gryce), Bernard Atha (employment officer), Robert Naylor (MacDowell), Joe Miller (Reg), Trevor Hesketh (Mr. Crossley), David Glover (Tibbutt), staff and pupils of St. Helen's County Secondary School, Barnsley, England..
C-111m.

by David Sterritt

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