Original release: April 27th, 2007
Running time: 101 minutes
Writer and director: Shane Meadows
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Joseph Gilgun, Andrew Shim
Combo Draws the Line: 0:40:29 to 0:48:52
I see it on the front page of newspapers every week. Immigrants cost us money; immigrants steal jobs; Muslims want to ban Christmas; Muslims want Sharia law; anyone who isn’t white hates Britain and wants to destroy us. Floods of immigrants; tsunamis of benefit guzzling foreigners are threatening to drown our little island.
In Woolwich a white British soldier is murdered and the media go into a frenzy, calling it terrorism. Barely two weeks before, an elderly Muslim man is stabbed in the back in a racially motivated attack and it goes largely unreported. Racism is everywhere and it’s fuelled by a biased media and people in power stirring up hatred. The elite keep us snapping at each other so the working and middle classes stay divided as we fall into a pit of fear, prejudice and hatred.
Shane Meadows knows all about racism and the power of the media and leading politicians to affect a generation. His slightly autobiographical tale of growing up as a skinhead in Yorkshire sees 12 year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), Shane’s substitute, adopted by a friendly gang before things take a turn for the worse. Meadows admits he was taken along to his first National Front meeting in a living room of a house at age 11. The men there talked of going to coastal towns and fighting off the immigrants that would arrive on ships from foreign soils. Instead they packed into cars, looked for scrawny looking brown faced kids and beat them up like pathetic, cowardly little bullies.
This Is England takes place in 1983 when the skinhead movement that grew out of working class lads listening to ‘black’ music devolved into renewed hatred, resentment and segregation. The original skinheads had been a subculture of white and black youths aligned by their love of the Jamaican rude boy styles and particularly ska, rocksteady and early reggae music. However towards the end of the 70s with Thatcher in power and the rise of far right movements such as the National Front, racism permeated and infected skinhead culture with many young skin heads turning their backs on the reggae and ska inspired roots and turning it into a subculture of vicious racist thugs.
In This Is England Shaun is taken under the wing of Woody and his gang of mates. Milky is the only black character in the group and is Woody’s best mate. All’s well until old friend Combo returns from prison and begins a process of turning the friends against each other, ranting about race and calling the youngsters to arms. The scene in question is a pivotal moment in the film where Combo literally and metaphorically draws a line, between those that reject his ideology and those that stand with him. Stephen Graham gives the performance of his career as the enraged Combo with Woody, Shaun and Milky all caught in a difficult and dangerous position when faced with this threat to their group.
Combo and his prison buddy Banjo have invited the group round to Combo’s flat. Previously, Combo had gate crashed a party and told a racist story while the rest of the group looked on helplessly; Milky and Woody intimidated, others amused. Combo begins at the same level as the others who are all sitting on the floor of the flat. He lures Woody into calling him a ‘bastard’ for his recent behaviour and then strikes. Rising from his lower position, he stands over them, calling Woody a serpent from the Bible. He chastises Woody in front of his friends and most importantly in front of Milky for not sticking up for him during their previous encounter. The seven members of the group sit in submissive positions on the floor as Combo towers over them, his burly mate Banjo standing in the corner like a bouncer ready to kick them out one by one if they misbehave.
Combo challenges the leader in front of his friends and his girlfriend Lol, the girl it’s later revealed Combo is in love with. In their seated positions, they’re all forced to look up at Combo. He chastises them and then singles out Milky for further interrogation. Seeing the world in black and white, Combo asks ‘do you see yourself as English or Jamaican?’ Clearly intimidated, Milky answers English to the hollow, empty sounding applause of Combo and Banjo.
Needing no further excuses, Combo launches into a tirade about immigration, the proud men who built this nation, the ‘Pakis’ he despises and finally the Falklands War. He uses emotive language like a tabloid come to life, arguing the country has been ‘raped and pillaged’ and spitting the word ‘Pakis’ out with venomous abandon. The camera looks up at Combo as he rants and raves, putting the audience into the position of the group members and forced to watch and listen. The close ups on the group; Woody, Lol, Shaun say it all. Lol is disgusted and concerned for Shaun, Woody wants to get out and Shaun looks to Woody for guidance. Like Derek Vinyard in American History X, Combo recycles facts and figures to justify his racist hatred. He speaks for the unemployed millions who cannot get work due to the ‘cheap and easy’ labour force that immigration provides.
He blames not just immigrants but also Thatcher in her ‘ivory tower’. He seems to have been spoon fed ideas and in a decade where unemployment was huge and young men found it hard to get jobs, he’s looking for any scapegoat to blame. His scapegoat is most notably the immigrants who he deems have taken the jobs but he neglects to explore the real reasons for mass unemployment in the 80s. Thatcher’s policies and her shunning of the idea of society led to a fall in manufacturing, a rise in inequality and poverty, and two recessions and actually more people leaving the UK than entering. Combo’s facts on unemployment may be correct but his targeting of immigrants as the people to blame is way off.
When he moves on to Thatcher and her phony war in the Falklands, he might as well be talking about 2004 and the invasion of Iraq. We see the same thing happening in the past decade with our leaders taking young men off to wars in foreign lands for dubious reasons and people at home terrified of each other from media scaremongering.
Little Shaun objects to Combo’s calling of soldiers ‘dickheads’ and swings at Combo. Seeing the potential in young Shaun, Combo’s attention is caught completely. He recognises the fatherless rage in Shaun, the desire to fight and the fearless attack. When Combo spits on the floor and draws a line, Woody, no doubt inspired by Shaun’s brave display stands straight up and confronts him. Woody won’t be brain washed and attempts to gather his friends and get the hell out of Combo’s path. But some wish to stay. Combo’s words have resonated and their desire to be something bigger and stronger than what they are manifests in staying to join Combo’s fight.
Woody’s leadership has been challenged and even Milky thinks twice about leaving with him. Meadows has so far created a completely realistic scene dominated by Combo, Stephen Graham’s performance and the script that captures a man’s anger and his desire for change. Only as Shaun decides to stay does Meadows infiltrate with music; a sombre piano piece that perfectly complements the hopeless and gut wrenching mood in the flat. Shaun wants to make his Dad proud and has become another casualty of anger, resentment and brainwashing.
With young men marching in the streets and the rise in parties like the BNP, UKIP and further to the right, the EDL, This Is England gains extra contemporary relevance. The papers still proclaim the immigrants are to blame for modern Britain’s shortcomings, the pointless, phony wars are still being fought in other countries and young men are still quick to lap it up and take up arms against those they perceive as threats. Sadly, this is still very much England.
Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.
If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.