Thursday, February 16, 2012

100 Movies - No. 48: Kes

48. Kes (1969)
Drama, 110 minutes
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring David Bradley, Colin Welland and Brian Glover

Kes is a very British film, winning two BAFTA awards from its five nominations. Colin Welland won for Best Supporting Actor and was the only professional actor in the film. David Bradley won for Most Promising Newcomer.

The story deals with a troubled young boy, Billy Casper (Bradley). He is bullied by his older brother at home and treated similarly by his peers in school. He’s insolent, not above lying or stealing and does little to encourage people to like him. He’s a loner.

The setting is Barnsley, Yorkshire, in the north of England. If you have ever seen this part of England depicted in other films, you’ll know that it’s a poor area populated largely by working-class people. In the 1960s, that was very much the case. Billy’s brother worked in a coal mine, as did most of the town. The two had to share the same bed, so you can imagine how poor they were.

Anyone unfamiliar with British accents may find the thick Yorkshire dialect hard to follow. It’s the main reason that Kes wasn’t given a wide release outside England. I’m completely at home with the accent because my grandfather came from Barnsley. He often talked about his tough upbringing and it gives the film additional meaning for me. His father was a miner and my grandfather only escaped that fate by joining the army.

We see Billy on his paper route, taking time off to read his comic. He also steals eggs from the milkman. When his mother and brother go out to a bar on the weekends, Billy is left at home on his own. His brother beats him and the house is generally filled with the sound of his mother and brother arguing loudly. He doesn’t say much at school, but is often the target of bigger boys.

Early in the film, Billy is taking a walk through the countryside and spies a kestrel. He watches for a while and sees that two kestrels are taking food to a nest. After stealing a book about falconry from a local bookstore, he climbs up to the nest and takes a young kestrel. The bird provides an escape from his unpleasant existence and quickly becomes the focus of his life. This seemingly uneducated boy has discovered his passion. He reads the stolen book and trains the kestrel.
One day, in class, he is asked by a teacher, Mr. Farthing (Welland), to tell the other kids a true story about his life. He’s reluctant and says that he doesn’t have any, but one of the kids mentions his kestrel. This leads to one of the strongest and most emotional scenes in the film. He’s disinterested in everything he is taught and the people around him, but talking about the bird is a different matter.

Billy comes alive when he describes how he devotes his time to feeding and training the bird, who he names Kes. Farthing is engrossed in the story and sees for the first time that there’s more to Billy than he imagined. He starts to look out for the boy and even visits him to watch him train Kes. It’s a strong performance from Welland and he deserved his BAFTA award.

The other teachers wouldn’t have a job in modern society. They shout continually and are deeply suspicious of the kids’ behavior. The headmaster uses the cane and doesn’t seem to mind whether those being punished are truly to blame. The gym teacher cheats at soccer and punishes Billy with a cold shower for conceding a goal. Farthing is the only one who looks at the kids as if they are young people with a chance to make something of their lives.

There’s a strong political message in the film, confirmed during interviews in the special features, that many kids have no chance to escape their miserable reality. Billy visits a careers officer who only seems interested in placing him in a pigeon hole. He’ll either work in an office if he has the aptitude, or he’ll become a miner. The writers talk about how two-thirds of their generation suffered a similar fate. When we see Billy so animated, talking about Kes, it’s a sign of his true potential. Will it be recognized or will his life be written off by others as insignificant? This is the essence of the film, along with how Billy substitutes friendship with his love for Kes.

The kestrel seems to be a metaphor for children growing up in England during the 1960s. When nurtured, it thrives. It's capable of flying free and being a thing of beauty. But when reality intervenes, it's life is bleak and continually threatened.

Billy’s dishonest nature eventually becomes a problem for him and there are some extremely sad scenes. 

The story is based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. Bradley was 14 when the film was made and was chosen from pupils who attended the school mentioned in the book. All of the children came from one of three schools in the town. The gym teacher (Brian Glover, Alien 3) was a real teacher at the time and Kes was his first film.

If you like Kes:

In many ways, Kes has a lot in common with The 400 Blows. It shows a troubled boy and depicts a tough existence. The school scenes always remind me of one another. Both films were mentioned by Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique) when the editors of Sight and Sound magazine asked him to name the 10 films which had most affected him. Both are very human stories dealing with childhood.


  1. Lovely review. Had never heard of Kes before but it's on my watch-list now :)

  2. Hi Fernando,

    Yes, it's pretty obscure if you are not British. I first saw it on TV as a kid. Great film about childhood.