The last film of 1969, and indeed of the sixties, is “Kes” by Ken Loach, a director who is still very active today.
If you are familiar with the movies by Ken Loach it will come as no surprise that “Kes” is about a working-class boy in Northern England who is having a shitty life. The boy, Billy Casper (David Bradley) lives at home with his single mother and his abusive larger brother Jud (Freddie Fletcher). Short on cash, Billy has a morning job as a delivery boy for a shopkeeper before he goes to school. Everywhere Billy goes he is met with abuse and suspicion. His brother, the shopkeeper and at the school. Particularly at the school. Apparently, Billy has a past with some theft, and he does still have a very flexible attitude towards property rights, yet it is difficult not to see the abuse he is suffering as excessive.
One day Billy finds a nest of kestrels in a ruined tower. He becomes fascinated with the idea of training a kestrel and starts studying falconry. Soon he has his own kestrel in a shed at home that he feeds morsels of meat and trains to hunt.
The kestrel is obviously a metaphor for escaping the dreary life in Barnsley and the values Billy assigns to the kestrel are all those he wishes for himself. When Jud kills the kestrel as a payback for Billy making him miss a betting win it is not just the kestrel that dies but Billy’s hopes for a better life.
This is a very depressing movie. Everything stacks up against Billy. Although the movie is shot in a realistic style, the bigotry is so extreme that it even gets farcical. If not already earlier it certainly went over the top in the scenes with the PE teacher who insists on taking part of the football game as a player and a referee, bending the rules in his favor and sending off any student who dares to complain. Billy, he forces to stay in the cold shower indefinitely. That idiot coach actually made me laugh. Another example is the school principal who is so caught up in berating the school offenders that he refuses to recognize that one of the boys were simply sent to him with a message from a teacher and whacks him on the hands as punishment.
I know the purpose of the film is for us to be socially indignant and feel sorry for Billy, but the exaggeration is so rampant that it was difficult to take it entirely seriously. I have no doubt life in those regions were miserable and that child abuse is also sadly common today, those are serious topics, but this was just too much of a no-hopes movie and misery smeared too thick.
“Kes” is heralding the style and theme that became very typical for the seventies, the social realistic drama and while I generally like seventies movies, this is a genre I can easily get too much of.
I am not sure I would recommend that to anybody but those who are thinking of moving to Barnsley or another of the industrial cities of Northern England.
Note: “Kes” lack of success in the US was attributed to the thick Yorkshire accent. Supposedly people found it hard to understand what they were saying.
And thus ends the sixties.