The title of Ken Laoch’s film comes from the source material, A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, and the author helped adapt the short novel for the screen alongside Loach and producer Tony Garnett. The novel’s title comes from a passage in the Book of St. Albans that attributes the proper bird to the proper owner in terms of class and rank, starting with an emperor, who’s allowed to train and keep an eagle, and going on to match a peregrine with a prince. At the very bottom, kestrels are matched with knaves, servants and men of humble means who were considered untrustworthy and undignified by their very nature. Were such people to actually take an interest in falconry, what would they ever be able to teach a saker, a gyrfalcon, or, God forbid, an eagle? They’d more than likely cook such rare and beautiful birds for Sunday dinner with potatoes and beans.
As Harold Wilson stood in Parliament, it was in fact the common youth of Britain that was being served up as cheap labor across the country in industrial towns where schools were largely a stopgap before heading down into the mines. In South Yorkshire, this has been the way of the world for ages, and when young Billy Casper (David Bradley) says that he will never dig coal, anyone within earshot recognizes it only as tragic youthful ambition. Billy’s older brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher, a menacing presence), awakes every morning in the bed he and Billy share and goes to work in the mines. There will be no surprise when Billy ends up in a similar routine. Their mother (Lynne Perrie) is too busy going out and getting drunk with her boyfriends to take care of much more than food and shelter; she, in fact, tends to get sauced in the same bars as Jud. She doesn’t notice when Billy begins reading about falconry, and she certainly doesn’t pick up on the fact that he’s taken a kestrel from its nest on a neighboring farm and kept it in their shed in the backyard.
The scenes in which young Bradley learns to train his eponymous falcon are riveting, unfolding with detail and elegant movement, but this delicate relationship serves as more of an escape in the film’s narrative than the focus. Kes itself is made up primarily of extended sequences that pit the ambitions of a young, penniless scamp against both an uncaring, rule-bound bureaucracy and a cruel social environment. Played almost entirely by nonprofessional actors from around South Yorkshire, who also acted as consultants on the script, the students at Billy’s school are as judgmental, vulnerable, awkward, and unreasonably confident as any other kids, but they’re far more supportive of one another than the staff generally is. “Yours is the generation that doesn’t listen!” says the school’s bullheaded principal (Bob Bowes) of Billy and his classmates, one of which is only there to deliver a message from another teacher and is unwarrantedly punished for attempting to speak up. Before that, in one of the best sequences to be found in Loach’s prolific oeuvre, a football coach (Brian Glover) incessantly and needlessly bullies his students, only to then torture Billy in the locker room by forcing him to endure ice-cold showers alone.
The politics of the schoolyard are more important than the politics of London in Kes, and though he finds himself continuously ridiculed, Billy can always come back to his beloved kestrel. The two forces collide when his English teacher (Colin Welland) forces Billy to go on at length about his training of the kestrel in front of the entire class and Loach smartly trains his camera on the blue-eyed Bradley, who exudes an excitement and inventiveness in his voice and mannerisms that has long gone without parallel in terms of child performances on film. The teacher befriends Billy after a fight in the schoolyard which, in a bit of surrealist symbolism, connects directly to a neighboring quarry where many of the school’s students will end up. And in a simple, breathless scene, the teacher stands in awe as Billy shows off what he has taught his kestrel on a wide patch of a green hillside.
Welland is the only professionally trained actor in the entire cast and his role here as the teacher who cares is no more or less rote than the rest of Loach’s setup. In fact, Kes’s narrative structure—a young boy finds hope and confidence through an art form and a nurturing adult—is terribly familiar at base level, but Loach stresses a sincerity in dialect, settings, and character development that is sobering in its lack of sentimentality. And while collaborating with the great cinematographer Chris Menges, he sculpts a natural, observational aesthetic that makes Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson look like disciples of Federico Fellini. So, when tragedy and heartbreak do surface in the film’s final quarter, in retaliation for Billy not placing a bet for Jud, it strikes hard and resonates fully. In his embracing of this emotional attentiveness, Loach was of a very rare breed of directors who saw beyond the boundaries of narrative and documentary filmmaking to look first and foremost at the characters and their internal lives, refusing to overplay their hand in any way.
The school of British filmmaking that Loach came up in indeed found more influence abroad, in America and Czechoslovakia specifically, but that’s not to say that they weren’t influenced and helped by the English directors that came right before them. Yes, early Milos Forman and Closely-Watched Trains can be seen all over Kes, but they did nothing to ensure the film’s production, which Tony Richardson did. As the story goes, Richardson secured funding from United Artists for Kes as a favor following a last-minute backout by Loach and Garnett’s original financiers; United Artists felt they owed Richardson some cred after he scored widespread success with Tom Jones. United Artists remained skeptical after the deal and only released the film in small markets, but thanks to audience reaction and boisterous critical support, the film would pick up a slew of BAFTA nominations and a few wins after it was widely released in 1971; in a decision no more or less embarrassing than anything the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has perpetrated over the years, it would lose to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for best picture. But there was a bigger triumph for Loach, as Kes has endured as a landmark not only in British cinema and with the critical contingency, but with every corner of the public audience, no matter their household income. If the concept of art for the masses means anything, it finds a masterpiece in Kes.
A stunning improvement over MGM’s DVD release of the film, which was only distributed in Britain, Criterion’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer retains the film’s 1.66:1 aspect ratio and brings out the best in Ken Loach’s masterpiece. The views of the green hillsides are crisp and vibrantly colorful, while the numerous close-ups of Billy and his classmates reveal fine detail and startling depth of image. The transfer upholds a nice layer of grain and there are no visual detriments worth reporting. The audio is just as impressive, with clear, crisp dialogue out front and mixed so that John Cameron’s subtle, lovely score and the atmosphere of South Yorkshire sound perfectly balanced.
In a better world, we may have gotten an Eclipse set of Loach’s fantastic early work, including his excellent debut, Poor Cow. As it is, we are given Cathy Come Home, a very fine entry in the BBC’s hugely influential "Wednesday Play" series, directed by Loach in 1966, at the age of 30. There’s also a solid 48-minute featurette on the origins of the project, the production, and its reception, filled to brimming with anecdotes and personal remembrances. An episode of The South Bank Show profiling Loach and his early career is quite informative and Graham Fuller’s essay on Kes’s potent emotional power is a quick, interesting read. The theatrical trailer is also included.
An axiom of unsentimental storytelling, Ken Loach’s masterful second feature represents a critical turn away from the popularized kitchen-sink realism of the 1950s and ’60s and toward a more improvised and unpredictable narrative style.