This post is for The British Invaders Blogathon, a weekend look at classic British films that have had a lasting impact on popular culture here and across the pond. Hosted by blogger Shroud of Thoughts, be sure to check his site to find the links to the various movies and bloggers who have written about them. In America, there are three movies about a boy and an animal that influences his life and forces him to face changes that are not wanted or expected. The Yearling, Old Yeller, and Free Willy are the three films I can instantly recall that follow that storyline. It would be pretty arrogant to think that only we Americans could make such films. In 1969, the British film industry released such a film: Kes. In 1968, teacher Barry Hines wrote a novel, A Kestral for a Knave. The book impressed director Ken Loach and with his producer Tony Garnett, and Woodfall Film Productions, Hines’s novel was turned into the film, Kes. The protagonist of Kes is 15 year old Billy Casper. He is a slight, thin boy. With pale skin, blue eyes, and brown hair. He hardly ever smiles and no wonder! Dad has left the family. Mum works long hours at her job and is trying to find a new man. Older half-brother, Judd, is employed at the local “pit” or coal mine, and he is a brute to Billy. Billy often sits silently in the home as Mum and Judd yell at one another. School is just a place Billy has to go to and at least he gets to see his mates(friends) there. Many of the teachers are grumpy and seeing how some of them treat Billy and his classmates it made me wonder if those educators were the inspiration for British rock band Pink Floyd‘s We Don’t Need No Education! Life is dreary, and Billy just ambles along, trying to get along, and the only thing he knows for sure is that he doesn’t want to end up in the pit like so many of the men in his Yorkshire community.
One afternoon, Billy takes a walk through a local woods, throws pieces of wood into a pool of water, and enters a farmer’s pasture. On the farmer’s land are the remnants of an old stone building-I immediately wondered if it was from a former castle or abbey. Billy observes kestrals(birds in the Falcon family) flying back and forth in the sky. Billy sees that they have a nest high up in the stone wall. As he walks to the old wall, the farmer with his little girl in tow, sees Billy and orders him off of his land. Billy tells him about the kestrals nesting there and the farmer is intrigued. He warns Billy that the wall is very old and that he won’t let his daughter play near it. He bemuses aloud to Billy that if one were able to get a kestral one could train it and pursue falconry. After the farmer and his daughter leave, Billy climbs up the wall, puts his hand into the nesting area, and catches himself a kestral.
With lovely music created by John Cameron-often simple flutes that made me think of medieval court music, and cinematography by Chris Menges, we observe Billy in the Yorkshire countryside, training his bird, which he names Kes. We also see Billy showing Kes to interested townspeople as he takes her into a crowded business area to get her used to staying on his gloved hand and not to fly off in fear. We do get to see a bully-ish PE teacher that is too caught up in the football(soccer)game he is trying to teach the boys. Billy earns this teacher’s wrath due to not having the PE clothing kit as Billy’s mom can’t afford it’s cost. Billy has to make do with extra PE clothes that are much too big for him, he fails in being the goalie, he gets bored during the game and decides to climb on the goal posts like they’re monkey bars, and for all of that business, the teacher forces Billy to take a cold shower. However, the English teacher, Mr. Farthing, is a caring teacher and takes an interest in Billy. He encourages Billy, in a class discussion about Fact or Fiction, to create a factual story for the class and Billy opens up and shares about his kestral and all of the training he has done with the bird in the art of falconry. Later, it is this same teacher, with Billy’s permission, who comes out to the pasture to watch Billy work with Kes.
The main antaganist of the film is Judd, Billy’s older half-brother. He thinks himself a ladies man, but doesn’t seem to have had much luck in finding a girlfriend. He works in the pit and spends his earnings on cigarettes, booze, and betting on the horses. He is critical of his mother and lets her know his opinions as to how she is ruining her life and his life. He doesn’t have enough money saved up to move out on his own, so he ‘s stuck in the family home where he clearly doesn’t want to be. One afternoon, he leaves a note and some money for Billy. The note tells Billy to go to the local bookmaker’s and to put the money down on two horses for a race that will happen that day. Billy does as the note directs him to do, but the bookkeeper tells Billy that the two horses Judd wants to bet on are worthless. Billy leaves the bookkeeper’s and spends the money on fish and chips for himself, and some meat for Kes. Judd finds out later in the day that one of the two horses actually won a race and that Billy didn’t put any of the money down on that bet. Judd is very angry and goes to the school looking for Billy, telling Billy’s friends that when he finds him, he’ll kill him. Billy manages to hide in the janitor’s workroom. When he does reach home, there is a yelling match between Billy, Judd, and their Mum because of a tragic and evil deed that has been done.
When Kes first hit screens in Great Britain, it didn’t become an overnight sensation but through word of mouth, it’s audiences grew and now it is ranked #7 in the British Film Institutes Top Ten British Films list.
It didn’t fare well at all on it’s release to American audiences and that was due to the heavy Yorkshire accents. I watched the film on Youtube, and I wish there had been subtitles! Yes, these people are speaking English, but the accent is so heavy that the only people in the movie I could understand without straining my ears were the teachers.
One other small caveat, if you are thinking about showing this film to your kids, I would recommend waiting until your kids have turned 13, at least. There is nudity in the boys locker room after the boys are cleaning up from the PE class-not a ton-but it is there.
Director Ken Loach wanted to use locals from the Barnsley area of Northern England, and he also wanted actors who could easily speak in the Yorkshire dialect. He found them: David Bradley as Billy, Lynne Perrie as Mum, Freddie Fletcher as Judd, Brian Glover as the mean PE teacher, and Colin Welland as Mr. Farthing. Incidentally, Welland won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Chariots of Fire!
I can’t say enough wonderful things about young David Bradley who plays Billy. It was his first acting role in a movie and he really had to learn to train a kestral for hunting. He conveys the sadness Billy feels, but is also able to convey to the audience a boy who has tenacity, who will keep on going in life no matter how bleak it might be. So, if you want to see a British film that is highly thought of in Great Britain, seek out Kes.
Here is an original trailer for Kes, and I think the narraration was supplied by late actor, Richard Burton.