Cast & Crew
Billy Casper, a 14-year-old boy living in the industrial town of Barnsley in Yorkshire, delivers newspapers to help support his mother, who has been abandoned by Billy's father. Bored with school, he excels neither in classwork nor soccer. One day Billy discovers a kestrel's nest and takes one of the fledglings from the nest as a pet. He names the bird Kes and trains it with the aid of a book on falcons, which he shoplifted from a local store. Soon the bird has learned to return to Billy's hand on command and seize a lure in mid-air. Mr. Farthing, one of Billy's schoolteachers, asks him to tell the class a story, and as Billy relates the training of Kes, Mr. Farthing begins to realize the boy's potential. When Billy's brutal stepbrother Jud asks him to place a bet for him at a horserace, Billy keeps the money instead and uses it to buy food for himself and Kes. The horse wins the race, and Jud, furious with Billy for not placing the bet, seeks revenge. Unable to find Billy, he takes out his revenge on Kes. Billy finds the dead bird and sadly buries him.
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..
by David Sterritt
Kes - KES - Ken Loach's Landmark 1969 British Drama on DVD & Blu-Ray
The prolific Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) had been directing English TV for several years, commercial product like Z Cars as well as gritty plays about life in the working class. His first feature Poor Cow (1967) starred Carol White as an unhappy woman married to a petty criminal (Terence Stamp). Kes was adapted from the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. A high school dropout, Hines worked in the mines near his South Yorkshire hometown of Barnsley at age fifteen. Quitting that job, he trained as a teacher and wrote novels in the school cafeteria after hours. Kes was filmed for just $384,000 under the auspices of Tony Richardson's Woodfall Films, the company that had previously given aid to Kevin Brownlow for his pioneering It Happened Here. The cast includes a couple of professional actors, but the all-important role of Billy went to young David Bradley, who had only acted in school plays.
High schooler Billy Casper (David Bradley, a.k.a. Dai Bradley) finds life barely tolerable. He has no desire to join his older brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher) and work in the coal mines. Jud is a selfish lout who uses Billy for a punching bag when he's not picking fights with his working mother (Lynne Perrie). The trio lives in poverty and Billy delivers papers for a newsvendor before and after school. As he isn't very big, Billy is the target of bullies at school. The coach also singles him out for abuse when he hasn't money for football gear. When asked what he wants to do after graduation, Billy has no prepared response. His future seems so bleak that he barely listens to his counselors. Regularly punished by the school disciplinarian, Billy expresses his independence by pilfering from his employer and cadging his breakfast from the morning dairy truck.
All that changes when Billy catches and trains a young falcon called a kestrel. He studies up on falconry and scrimps for meat scraps to feed it. Teacher Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland) stumbles upon Billy's interest in his "Kes", and discovers the spirit that lies untapped within what all assume to be a coarse and undistinguished slum boy.
We know that Kes is a special movie when Billy doesn't behave like one of the deserving disadvantaged youngsters typically pictured in socially progressive dramas. Billy looks woefully undernourished, and his stare of sullen resignation around authority figures betrays no hidden ambition or inner poetry. Some of Billy's teachers are appalling misfits. A football coach bullies the whole team and uses Billy as a whipping boy, forcing him to take a cold shower when he isn't feeling well. The vice-principal then punishes Billy for coughing in a school assembly. Billy's hands are caned, a punishment he shares with kids caught smoking as well as an utterly innocent boy merely bringing a message from a teacher. At home Billy stays on the sidelines while his brutish brother and exhausted mother exchange sarcastic, disrespectful remarks. Billy receives little if any love but a great deal of disapproval, distrust and outright psychological abuse.
The feisty little hunting kestrel is of course a symbol of the freedom and dignity denied Billy. Kes shows his great affection for the bird without distorting the story into an Animal Love tale -- Billy is not Claude Jarman Jr. in The Yearling, insisting that a frail wild animal become his personal pet. Billy Casper has his own way of getting what he needs. Turned away by the local librarian, he obtains a book on falconry by stealing one from a used bookstore. He explains to his teacher that Kes cannot be tamed, only trained. That observation pointedly applies to Billy as well.
In 1970 Kes was something new and special, an alternative to "magic teacher" movies like To Sir, With Love. The United Artists representative was apparently accustomed to uncommercial art fare from Woodfall Films, and showed little enthusiasm. A sub-distributor opened it on only a few screens in Northern England. To the surprise of all it did record business -- audiences responded to the film's sense of humor, engaging characters, and the sense of authenticity in the performance of young David Bradley. Kes became a favorite of critics and a special event at film festivals. Despite the on-screen nudity and frequent swearing, censor John Trevelyan said that he "was enchanted" and passed the film with a personal note of approval. Even Variety called it "unusual and worthwhile."
Kes did finally play London. The distributors found the Yorkshire dialect impenetrable and asked Loach and producer Tony Garnett if they intended to add subtitles. An alternate dialogue track overdubbed in a more standard English was prepared for international use.
Kes consistently scores high on lists of best British films -- the British Film Institute lists it in an impressive seventh place, before The Red Shoes and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Author Barry Hines reported in the late 1990s that Barnsley is still much the same as represented as in Kes, except that the local employment situation has worsened. The region's coal mines began to close only ten years after the movie was made, during the economically oppressive Thatcher years.
Criterion's attractive widescreen presentation of Blu-ray of Kes will impress viewers that have seen the film only on 16mm nontheatrical prints. Both soundtracks are present, the international re-dub and the original with the thick regional dialect. Optional English subtitles are essential on this particular title. John Cameron's music score features some pleasant themes played on the flute.
Disc producer Kim Hendrickson has assembled an interesting variety of extras. Critic Graham Fuller's insert booklet essay is an excellent overview of Ken Loach and his impressive career as a filmmaker with a social conscience. A new docu gathers Loach, producer Garnett, cameraman Chris Menges and the actor David Bradley for nearly an hour of fascinating discussion. A British TV show from 1993 also profiles Ken Loach. A special extra is Loach's full 1966 TV feature Cathy Come Home, starring Carol White, from the controversial anthology series "The Wednesday Play". An original trailer for Kes finishes the impressive package. The disc is also available in a standard DVD edition.
For more information about Kes, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Kes, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Kes - KES - Ken Loach's Landmark 1969 British Drama on DVD & Blu-Ray
Filmed entirely on location in Barnsley, England. Opened in Doncaster, England, in March 1970.
Released in United States November 1969
Released in United States September 13, 1970
Shown at London Film Festival November 1969.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 13, 1970.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1970
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1970
Released in United States September 13, 1970 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 13, 1970.)
Released in United States November 1969 (Shown at London Film Festival November 1969.)