• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:February 15, 2020

Kes: A Boy and His Bird


Ken Loach’s second film as director became his breakthrough and Kes was well received in many other countries as well. When the turn came to the U.S., the film ran into an obstacle. In non-English-speaking countries, subtitles are natural and to be expected. Everybody in Kes speaks English, so the film was shown without subtitles in America. But the thick, peculiar Yorkshire dialect poses a challenge for non-British audiences (even some Brits had a hard time understanding the dialogue).

In a subsequent interview, Loach said that some American studio executives found Hungarian easier to understand than this dialect. Still, the movie survived and is now considered a classic, especially in Britain.

Young Billy finds a kestrel
Young teenager Billy Casper (David Bradley) lives in a Yorkshire mining community together with his mom (Lynne Perrie) and half-brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). His father is no longer part of their lives; Jud works in a coal mine and Billy goes to school where he doesn’t really pay attention to any teachers. Bullied by both Jud and his classmates, Billy shows no interest in anything. But when he comes across a kestrel, a falcon, on a farm and a book on falconry, he starts devoting as much time as possible to training the bird and finds great satisfaction in that hobby.

Far from inspiring community
The film came at a time when the British coal industry faced a downturn; that same year, an unofficial miners’ strike took place in Yorkshire. The community depicted by Loach in this film is far from inspiring. There isn’t much hope for the future, as symbolized by the brutal Jud who only cares about gambling, and Billy himself who is tormented by teachers and the school’s headmaster who beats the children while ranting about how this generation is lost while the older ones still show him respect. Still, Loach doesn’t drag us through misery without offering something else. Together with cinematographer Chris Menges and composer John Cameron, he often has a tenderly lyrical approach to this teenage portrait, not unlike that of his Swedish colleague Bo Widerberg who also chronicled working-class neighborhoods in a both stark and beautiful way. Billy’s life is hopeless, the way it seems to so many teenagers around the world, but he finds motivation and pleasure in training his kestrel.

The film also has absurd portions of humor, as in the sequence where Billy is forced to participate in a soccer game together with his classmates, led by a boorish teacher who’s not above cheating and fancies himself a regular Bobby Charlton. It’s fun watching young newcomer Bradley in his encounters with adults – he’s believable throughout, clearly showing how smitten he is with his kestrel, but also when he’s just pretending to listen to his teachers, eager to escape the boredom of school and life in his hometown. Other children in the cast are also terrific (that scene in the headmaster’s office is touchingly memorable), adding to the emotional weight of this drama.

Ken Loach struggled during the 1970s and ’80s, making documentaries, many of them for TV. His passion for the working class and miners in particular was obvious throughout, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that we started talking about him as a filmmaker again. Kes was the movie where Loach found his voice; he didn’t lose it, but it took a few decades before we listened again.

Kes 1969-Britain. 113 min. Color. Produced by Tony Garnett. Directed by Ken Loach. Screenplay: Barry Hines, Ken Loach, Tony Garnett. Novel: Barry Hines (”A Kestrel for a Knave”). Cinematography: Chris Menges. Music: John Cameron. Cast: David Bradley (Billy Casper), Lynne Perrie (Mrs. Casper), Freddie Fletcher (Jud Casper), Colin Welland, Brian Glover, Bob Bowes.

BAFTA: Best Supporting Actor (Welland).

Last word: “How often are ‘dreams realised’ in real life? I write about real people and show a section of their life. Without the Hollywood endings which rarely happen outside Hollywood. My memory is failing me these days and I cannot remember the exact details, but Walt Disney offered to make ‘Kes’. On the condition that the hawk recovered. Should we have sold out? I know which way would always be right for me.” (Hines, Yorkshire Magazine)



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