The film's narrative unfolds in a long flashback. David Carr has died at an old age and his granddaughter discovers old letters, newspapers and other documents in his room: what we see in the film is what he had lived.
Carr, a young unemployed worker and member of the Communist Party, leaves Liverpool and travels to Spain to join the International Brigades. He crosses the Spanish border in Catalonia and coincidentally ends up enlisted in a POUM militia commanded by Lawrence, in the Aragon front. In this company, as in all POUM militias, men and women – such as the young and enthusiastic Maite – fight together. In the following weeks and months he becomes friends with other foreign volunteers, like the French Bernard and the Irish Coogan, and the latter's girlfriend Blanca - with whom David Carr later falls in love - also a member of POUM, and also the ideologue of his group.
After being wounded and recovering in a hospital in Barcelona, he finally joins – in accordance with his original plan and against the opinion of Blanca – the government-backed International Brigades, and he encounters the Stalinist propaganda and repression against POUM members and anarchists; he then returns to his old company, only to see them rounded up by a government unit requiring their surrender: in a brief clash Blanca is killed. After her funeral he returns to Great Britain with a red neckerchief full of Spanish earth.
Finally the film comes back to the present, and we see Carr's funeral, in which his granddaughter throws the Spanish earth into his grave after speaking lines from "The Day Is Coming", a poem by William Morris.
Join in the battle wherein no man can fail,
For whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail.
Afterwards she performs a raised fist salute, honouring his beliefs.Ian Hart – David Carr
Rosana Pastor – Blanca
Frédéric Pierrot – Bernard Goujon
Tom Gilroy – Lawrence
Iciar Bollain – Maite
Marc Martínez – Juan Vidal
Andrés Aladren – Milita member
Sergi Calleja – Milita member
Raffaele Cantatore – Milita member
Pascal Demolon – Milita member
Paul Laverty – Milita member
Suzanne Maddock – Kim (David's granddaughter)
According to Ken Loach, the most important scene of the film is the debate in an assembly of a village successfully liberated by the militia, which highlights one of the great strengths of Loach as a director in that it is a truly compelling encounter. People from the actual village where the film was shot play peasant parts in the film and express their thoughts freely (despite language difficulties), and a debate ensues about whether or not to collectivise the village land and that of the recently shot priest. An American with the POUM militia argues that the war effort must come first, suggesting that collectivisation and other revolutionary actions might hamper that effort. He mentions that if such actions and the slogans accompanying them continue, they will not gain the support of the capitalist democracies such as the United States and Britain ("You're scaring them," he says). The necessity of a contemporaneous war and revolution is expressed by a German militiaman, who says that 'in Germany revolution was postponed and now Hitler is in power'. In the end the villagers vote for collectivisation, thereby taking steps on a revolutionary path. In the anarchist and socialist controlled areas this kind of expropriation of land was common, as the civil war was accompanied by a social revolution.
As in the above scene, various languages: Spanish, English and Catalan are spoken throughout the film, and subtitles are used selectively. Carr arrives in Spain without knowing any Spanish, but gradually picks it up – and luckily for him English is the lingua franca in his militia.
The social revolution was opposed by both the Soviet-supported communists and the democratic republicans and as the war progressed, the government and the communists were able to leverage their access to Soviet arms to restore government control over the war effort, both through diplomacy and force. An historical event, the bloody fight between Republicans and Anarchists for controlling the Telefónica building in Barcelona, has been chosen by Loach as an emblem of this internal conflict (See Barcelona May Days). Carr's progressive disenchantment starts from this meaningless fight, which he fails to understand because both groups were supposed to be on the same side. At one point he is guarding the Communist Party headquarters in Barcelona and engages in banter across the barricades with the anarchists opposite. He asks a Mancunian among them "Why aren't you over here with us?" In reply his compatriot asks him the same question and Carr answers "I don't know".
Another important moment inspired by actual events is the execution of a village priest for acting in favour of the Fascist side: he has broken the seal of confessions, telling the fascists where the anarchists were hiding and causing their deaths. The priest is also shown to have a bruised shoulder from firing a rifle.
Most critics and viewers noted the similarity between the story narrated in this film and George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia, in which the author wrote one of the more famous accounts of the war, that of his own experience as a volunteer in the ILP Contingent, part of the POUM militia.
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 94% user rating based on 5,285 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10, as of August 2017.
The film has a rating of 7.6 out of 10 on IMDB as of August 2017.
David Armstrong, cinema critic for The San Francisco Examiner, stated in SF Gate that "Veteran British director Ken Loach continues to toil in the fields of a now largely, and unjustly, eclipsed tradition: European social realism. Working in a near-documentary style that emphasizes the grit of everyday life, the cynical secretiveness of political leaders and the nobility of small people with big dreams, Loach makes feature films of uncommon gravity and integrity".
Philip French writing in The Observer said, "scripted by his regular collaborator, Jim Allen, Loach's movie is a visceral, emotional and intellectual experience, and among the finest films of the decade.".
It has been criticised as mimicking a Hollywood film with the anarchists as the "good guys" and the Stalinists and fascists as the "bad guys".