DVD Movie Review: Shankly: Nature’s Fire

By Tomas Barry 02.12.2017

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Shankly: Nature's Fire (UK Rating: U)

Releasing on DVD on 4th December, Shankly: Nature's Fire, directed by Mike Todd, is a fascinating and unique football documentary about much more than just the iconic Liverpool FC manager himself. It attempts to convey both Bill Shankly's personal journey, beginning with his upbringing in a small mining community in Glenbuck, Ayrshire, as well as a collective story, about the club and Liverpool itself. By outlining and considering the value of football to the working-class city, and aptly blurring the lines between this and the Scotsman's background and absorbed values, the film cleverly emphasises how they are holistically intertwined. As such, it is somewhat experimental in structure because of the way it darts between the two poles of this duality, also leaving plenty of room to lament the loss of the more grounded footballing world of the past. Hence, this documentary is sometimes maybe a little melancholic and dissonant, while also being extremely poignant and thought-provoking.

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It is interesting to note how little surviving footage and audio there is of Shankly speaking, either privately or publicly. That scarcity is certainly evident in Shankly: Nature's Fire, where in the rare moments that he is shown on camera, or his steely voice is heard, it is always in his official capacity as Liverpool manager - yet with a decided 'man of the people' tone. In the modern footballing world, there is such an abundance of cameras and media surrounding all players and managers that personal characterisation is something nobody in the game can really avoid. By contrast, part of this documentary's melancholic tone seems to derive from Bill Shankly's strong resistance to this sort of thinking, which involves elevating one individual over the collective community. This, too, certainly makes it clear how disapproving he would be, if he were around today to see the state of the upper-echelons of football.

In one of the first scenes, Shankly's niece, Barbara, shows the drab plot of land where he and his nine siblings were born and raised in Glenbuck, amongst two tiny rows of houses, which are no longer standing today. She reflects on their neighbourly values, which were so crucial to these tight-knit mining communities, explaining that if ever there was someone in desperate need of something you had, it would be given without thought, because you would never know when you might be desperate for something yourself. Through a small cast of his family descendants, as well as one or two experts on these communities, a great deal of insight is provided into how deep-set Shankly's egalitarian principles were, which he in turn bestowed on Liverpool FC in the sixties and seventies, with huge success.

Shankly: Nature's Fire hand-picks a lot of small but revealing moments, which together convey a lot about how the principles of his upbringing, and his selfless humility, made Liverpool FC such a force. The first time they won the FA Cup, in 1965, for example, Gerry Byrne was forced to play the majority of the match with a significant collarbone injury, because, as Shankly told him at half-time, "it's only broken." Back then, of course, there were no substitutions, and Shankly wouldn't entertain the possibility of playing the rest of the game with ten men. Another good one - after being knocked out of Europe by Inter Milan in the semi-final later that week, following some very controversial refereeing decisions, which brought allegations of possible corruption, Shankly calmly steadied the ship, telling the players they were never going to win anyway with that referee.

Moments like these convey the club ethos Shankly installed, quite expertly, largely because of such a well-selected cast of key players like Ian St. John, and later Kevin Keegan, who reflect on those days with palpable nostalgia - both are almost in tears at times.

There is also some very interesting footage of the working-class city of Liverpool. While not exactly in an abundance, it's fascinating to see footage of people on the streets being told the breaking news that Shankly had left the club. Perhaps the only criticism of such moments is that an appreciation of the club and the city's heritage is needed in order to appreciate the understated pathos of these fragmentary moments. In other words, viewers who aren't fans of Liverpool or have no interest in the city itself, and are perhaps primarily watching to get an insight into the football of the mid-sixties to early seventies, may react impatiently to some of these techniques.

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However, it is certainly worth persevering, since the second half of the film, which has a broader subject matter - concerning how successful organisations should handle the transfer of power to the next generation - will appeal to a wider audience. There is also heartfelt lamentation about the loss of truly community-centred football in the upper realms of the game today. Some of this is achieved directly through the group, Nature's Fire, that campaigns against the profit-driven nature of football now, and the resultant inaccessibility of the game for the working-class. This is also indirectly explored by discussing the acrimonious resignation of Shankly from Liverpool, on 12th July, 1974, which came as a shock to all associated with the club.

This is another source of the film's melancholic tone, since it doesn't shy away from portraying the unresolved inner turmoil that the shock departure created in the man himself. This always was best illustrated, of course, through the famous shot of Shankly standing defiantly amongst fans in the Kop - after it was clear the club wasn't going to welcome him with open arms in any official capacity. Shankly: Nature's Fire works powerfully through its eclectic cast of family, footballers, and fans, all of whom, quite fittingly, have equal voice, and serve to speak for him in an indirect sense. Perhaps this is another reason the film is sometimes so sombre, since this format speaks of the selfless nature of the LFC manager, and his lack of personal resolution in his departure only heightens the sacrifice he made. After all, as it is pointed out, "he didn't live for himself."

Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10
Overall, Shankly: Nature's Fire is without question one of the most thought-provoking football-related documentaries ever made. While it is somewhat fragmented in structure, and lacks final cohesion because it broaches so many large and significant matters, its experimental style succeeds to a surprising degree. It underlines how Shankly's values cultivated a deep connection between Liverpool FC and its fans in the working-class city, and shows how that was the basis for the club's rich history of success the sixties and seventies. As such, it succeeds in narrating a collective journey, as well as a personal one. While the documentary isn't perfect, particularly due to the difficulty the younger audience might have in appreciating its painful air of nostalgia, it is a fascinating representation of a many-layered history. It is well worth a watch by all true fans of football, especially those who feel that the game today is in significant danger of losing its soul.

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