Kes (1969)

There’s a beautiful moment in the final act of Kes, Ken Loach’s humanizing portrait of a young boy growing up under the shadow of coal mining in North England, when Billy Casper, the young boy we’ve come to know through the film, stands at the front of his class and excitedly tells his classmates about the first time he flew his trained hawk free. Billy is a silent figure throughout most of the film, choosing to bury his hands in the pockets of his tattered blue jeans, lean his frame against a wall or a desk, and pipe up with a Yorkshire-infused ‘I don’t know’ when summoned by one of his teachers to finally speak. But the spark that’s lit when Billy speaks about seeing his bird, Kes, fly over to him for the first time untethered is a glimpse into what we’ve known about Billy all along, and that the teachers and the adults in his life must be blind to ignore: there is much more to Billy than meets the eye, and the innocent spark of passion we see ignited here is hovering just below view all day, not unlike the way his hawk flies along the surface of the ground before meeting him in the field behind his home, a natural instinct to avoid detection.

The teacher who prompts this side of Billy to emerge is his English teacher, Mr. Farthing, played by the only professional actor in the film, and perhaps he’s a worthy choice as such: he stands out on screen with the weight and presence of a trained actor, just as his character stands out among the flighty, insensitive adults in Billy’s life as the one who’s grounded and listening. Mr. Farthing is an exception in Billy’s world, someone who sees potential in the young boy, sees him as something more than a reticent lad destined for the coal mines (if he’s lucky). The other adults are far less kind: there’s Billy’s cruel and immature gym teacher, who forces him to take a freezing shower because he let in too many goals in a football game mostly played on the field of the teacher’s ego; there’s the principal of the school who’s whips Billy’s hands because he could barely stay awake during the principal’s tiresome lecture, having run his paper route and looked after his bird that morning since 6 AM; there’s his non-existent father, a glaring hole in Billy’s life which leaves his violent older brother as the man of the house after coming home from the mines; and there’s his mother, who’s too busy with her own desperate attempts to find a new husband at the pub to see or encourage the spark of life in Billy’s eyes. They’ve all acquiesced to the life afforded to the working poor in Yorkshire at that time (not that it’s much different now); there’s not much hope in this mining community and if it exists at all it’s in the way Billy lights up when he talks about his bird.

In the scene after Billy’s speech, Mr. Farthing breaks up a fight between Billy and the towering school bully MacDowell, who seems a bit jealous of all the attention Billy and his bird are getting. Again, Mr. Farthing sees the situation for what it is: a bully picking on a young boy who stands up for himself, and after Farthing pushes MacDowell into the wall and lets him know what it’s like to be bullied, he walks over to Billy who’s covered in soot (they were rolling around of a pile of coal) and asks him why everyone seems to have it out for him. “Are you a bad’un?” Farthing asks. “I know stacks of other kids that’s worse than me, but they seem to get away with it.” Billy tells Farthing about getting caned that morning by the principal, and how his teachers seem perfectly oblivious to the state their students are in: “Teachers, sir, they’re not bothered about it, sir. If we fall asleep they think we’re numbskulls and owt like that, sir. And when they have time, they’re always looking at their watches to see how long there’s left of the lesson. They’re not bothered by us, and we’re not bothered by them.”

Billy has summed up the major thought behind Loach’s film. Loach gives us a glimpse, through exquisitely human performances, and camera work that sits well at the back of the action, observing without describing, of the incredibly rich inner life of a young boy who likely will not be able to avoid a life in the mines, despite his sensitive talent for understanding and training a hawk, something which we’re told is rarely accomplished by adults, let alone fifteen year olds. But nobody’s bothered indeed.

In fact, ‘they’re not bothered by us’ could be the mantra of the British working class for the decades since the release of Kes. The infamous miner’s strike of 1984 left the coal industry more desperate than ever for good pay for their work, and it seemed that Margaret Thatcher had only alienated the lower class farther from any type of societal respect. It’s been a common refrain, and has led Britain now to the extremes of Brexit, which was of course hailed, at least before the referendum passed, as a sure victory for the working class. Interviewed about the film, Tony Garnett, the adapter of Kes’ script, compares the government’s actions toward the working class to the training of a hawk. “You can’t tame a hawk, but you can train it…or you can kill it”. It remains to be seen what effect Brexit will have on the working class that Loach sympathizes with in much of his work, but in this metaphor, who are the Brexit politicians? Are they like Mr. Farthing who listens to Billy and sees his true potential, or are they like Billy’s older brother Jud, who Billy looks up to in earnestness, but when his back is turned, takes away the one thing that made Billy happy.

Loach’s film is a stern condemnation of the way England ignores its working class, and has a powerful and sad ending to that effect, but nonetheless it is, to me, a hopeful film. When Billy is burying the bird in the yard out back, he is devastated of course, as a lone flutes plays a quivering dirge in the background. It’s a very moving scene. But as a coda to his story, this scene shows us that the hope we feel isn’t in where we think Billy’s future seems to be going, it is more in the fact that we had a chance to meet him, and to experience his joy at seeing a hawk fly free by his side. After all, growing up isn’t about gaining things, it’s about losing them, so Billy is going through a necessary rite of passage, even if the way it happened was anything other than necessary.

The hope here also lies in the fact that there are boys like Billy in the world, if only we would listen to them. In a featurette about the film, Dai Bradley, who played Billy, is interviewed fifty years after the making of Kes. It’s at first a bit of a shock seeing him directly after watching Kes – he’s old now, gray headed and bespectacled, but much is the same in his demeanour. His whole body still quivers when he gets excited about what he’s saying, as if he could shake the feelings out of himself that are too big for his narrow body to hold – just like how Billy speaks to his class about his bird. Seeing Dai Bradley explain about training the birds for Kes and the joy he had while making the film, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of relief: some boys like Billy really do make it out of there alive. Where Brexit will take them, however, is anyone’s guess.



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