The following essay contains spoilers for Kes.
“Kes! C’mon Kes, c’mon lass!”
In Britain, just as the 1970’s were on the horizon, Britain was a little behind in the times. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that things really started to switch, and in that case, they certainly didn’t go well, making way for skinhead gangs and brutality, which has only continued since, even to present day. In 2017 Britain, I, being only fourteen at the time, watched Kenneth Loach’s 1969 film, Kes.
Kes centres around a young boy in a lower class family, who finds a great freedom and love when he stumbles across a Kestrel and begins to train it. I believe that’s something we can all relate to, we all had our own hobbies, our own freedoms as a child. They’re what every child needs, an escape from the burden of school and a home life, a freedom. Kes, in this film’s case, is that freedom.
We see Billy Casper out on great fields, as Kes glides through the air with no troubles, elegantly. Kes can fly away at any time, she has that freedom, yet Billy can only long for it. As the tagline of the film states: “They beat him. They deprived him. They ridiculed him. They broke his heart but they couldn’t break his spirit.”. Despite the fact that Kes is a huge part of Billy’s spirit as the film progresses, and her harsh departure at the hands of Billy’s cruel older brother, Jud at the end of the film would surely break any typical young man, Billy Casper is not any typical young man. He has been forced to grow up surrounded by hassle, he has become numb to it whether it be from his uncaring teachers, his menacing brother or his harsh schoolmates, and this has toughened him to a point wherein he can bear the death of his one true friend in the awful world he lives in.
I don’t think you could see much post-1970 cinema without seeing the ripple effect that this film had on British film, and British culture in general. You can see little bits of Kes everywhere, and no that isn’t a pun related to the bird’s unfortunate death. Look at, for instance, some of the films of Terence Davies, particularly his early career. His short film trilogy, which painted a startling picture of the director’s own childhood in Children, and then went on to seemingly predict his own future, is as startlingly honest and stark as the Loach film, as are some of Davies’ later features, particularly Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), both of which present realistic, yet more poetic and visually focused than Kes, views of British family life.
Kes, shot much like a documentary at times, (it reminds me greatly of Allan King’s documentary style, of a fly on the wall whilst still being able to feel incredibly intimate), feels so personal – maybe because we can all see ourselves in it to a certain degree, maybe because of the realistic and carefully constructed performances, or maybe out of pure nostalgia. Whilst you can’t go far into British cinema without spotting Kes’ influence, I’ll bet you also can’t show many Brits this film without having one of them say “that’s happened to me!”, especially when it comes to the somewhat comedic football game at Casper’s school, where the PE teacher seems to think he’s Gary Lineker.
Kes is, quite clearly, one of the key films to the British Kitchen-Sink Realism Wave, and one of the most favoured almost 50 years later. The film looks at the state of current affairs in the late 1960’s, and seems to be against them to a certain degree. We can see, quite clearly, that the young Kasper is neither physically or mentally fit for a working environment yet (this is emphasised further when he arrives late to his job interview, too), he has a lot of maturing to do, and yet there is a pressing force throughout the entire film that tells him he must find himself a job, for the sake of his family. It’s not the future that Casper wants, made evident by his occasional moaning about it, and I don’t believe that it is the future that Loach wanted for the boys of Britain at the time, either.
Of course, Loach would go on to many, many more political films as his career continued, notably his most recent film, I, Daniel Blake (2016), which certainly has a few things to say about the state of the country financially and how he feels it should be fixed. Loach is a man unafraid to show what he truly thinks, a brave character who will share his stance and doesn’t care what others may think of it. Even if you don’t agree with him, I dare you to say that he doesn’t care for the country, and even now, almost 50 years later, Kes may still be his most passionate, most caring and most tender film to date.