IF, LIKE me, you can engrave everything you know about the Spanish Civil War on the nose of a bullet, then Land and Freedom (15) is the history lesson you've been waiting for. You couldn't find a more lucid pair of tutors than the director Ken Loach and his writer, Jim Allen. It's not just that they are fluent in the political arguments which tore the Left apart during that war. What most impresses is their ability to render those arguments in reso- lutely cinematic terms. In other words, this is political history made ... well, if not exactly simple then certainly moving and pertinent. And coming from someone who did little more than doodle on his GCSE history paper, those intimidated by the subject matter should take this as a resounding recommendation.

The film scrutinises the war through the eyes of David Carne (Ian Hart), an unemployed Liverpudlian who joins the struggle to defeat Franco after a visiting militiaman screens emotive footage of murdered Spanish trade unionists. David is roused by the images of forgotten bodies piled on wasteland, and by the man's stirring rhetoric: "Whatever nationality you are - make our fight your fight." Enlisting gives him an opportunity to prove that his commitment stretches beyond keeping a Communist Party membership card warm in his wallet.

This brief scene establishes a disconcerting two-way mirror effect: there's Hart, awkwardly, boyishly natural, his scoundrel's eyes widening with the epiphanic realisation that the potential for change sleeps within him. And there's us, the audience, witnessing his enlightenment with the sort of cynicism and malaise hindsight can inflict. At a time when we are urged to be ruthlessly competitive, this young idealist's altruism feels oddly anachronistic.

On his arrival in Spain, David encounters optimism and camaraderie. But after he has joined the militia serving the POUM, an anarchist group, the cracks in the movement begin to reveal themselves. The most destructive of the squabbles which dog the party arises over the pressure to be as- similated into the communist-led Popular Army, a decision which would mean a guaranteed arsenal for the POUM, but also the relinquishing of their more extremist elements. The movie allows itself a succession of oblique jibes at today's neu-tered Labour Party. (You wouldn't expect anything less from a Trotskyite like Loach.) "We don't want to scare the capitalists away," a voice blares (or rather Blairs) during an argument about collectivism. "If you want their help, you have to moderate your slogans."

Although Loach roams trenches and battlefields and rooftops crowded with snipers, he shoots 1936 Spain as though he were still probing the council estates and DSS waiting-rooms of Ladybird, Ladybird. He doesn't colour the battle scenes with glory either. When the militia seizes a Fascist- held village, their gun-fire comes in cautious dribbles; they clearly haven't much clue what to do beyond pulling the trigger. And the early trench-bound shoot-outs are less like The Wild Bunch than a playground fracas (there are more colourful insults traded than ammunition). Any poetic images are entirely accidental, and lurk at the edges of the screen, like the woman whose first reaction upon discovering a comrade's corpse is to untie the wrists that his killers have bound. It's a fiercely unsentimental film; the woman seems to have strayed into shot by mistake. Her tenderness stings all the more for being uninvited.

The movie's only problems lie in its framing device, which has David's granddaughter Kim (Suzanne Maddock) studying his letters and cuttings from the war, unravelling his story in flashback. She gets two major scenes - discovering David in his grim council flat after he's suffered a stroke, then later seasoning his coffin with Spanish soil - which book-end the film. The function of these scenes is to fire an arrow into the future, placing Kim as a messenger for socialism, and to emphasise continuing political struggles (racist graffiti lead us up the stairway to David's flat, in case we've forgotten who the enemy is). But by reiterating a message that's already woven into the film's fabric, Loach and Allen betray a fleeting condescension. Thanks all the same chaps, but even we history flunkies don't need that much help.

With its slim new animated feature Pocahontas (U), Disney also looks to the past in an effort to abort future error. It tells the story of Captain John Smith (blandly voiced by Mel Gibson), who leads a crew to the New World in 1607, convinced that the indigenous tribes will happily surrender their land and freedom. Once they've docked, Smith goes rambling and meets Pocahontas, the daughter of the local chief. And before you can say Dances With Wolves, they're in love, which is a bit of a pain really as Smith is supposed to be up first thing in the morning to hammer the natives into submission.

For a film which has been heralded as painstakingly PC, Pocahontas's conscience stretches only to portraying American Indians as human beings which, in 1995, hardly qualifies as a particularly sophisticated perspective. And it has distracted the film-makers from the fact that political correctness in a Disney feature is no substitute for a solid story, memorable tunes and baddies to hiss at. Without those components, there's little to busy the mind, young or old. In the absence of a menacing villain, a tangible chill lingers over scenes of soldiers digging for gold, tearing into the earth with pick-axes. We're clearly a very long way from "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho", in more ways than one: if you leave the theatre whistling anything, it'll be the popcorn jingle.

The other new releases provide an inventory of disappointment. There's My Family (15), a tediously worthy saga of Mexican immigrants taking root in Los Angeles. It's all fajita and no filling. The week's two thrillers also stick to the roof of the mouth. Assassins (15) stars Sylvester Stallone as an ageing hit-man who finds psychotic young whippersnapper Antonio Banderas stealing his trade. Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner has slowed this action thriller down to the pace of Tokyo Story, and shot it all in close-up - he thinks he's made an art movie! Perhaps that's how he duped Julianne Moore into appearing. As a lonely computer boffin, she emerges with dignity intact. Just.

Sandra Bullock fares no better, playing a variation on Moore's character in The Net (12). Cocooned in her house with only the faceless ghosts on the Internet for company, she's ill-prepared for the danger that greets her when she stumbles upon a political cover-up. (It takes her a whole evening to realise that, yes, that is a gun in her boyfriend's pocket and no, he's not pleased to see her.) With her records wiped from the computer network by Internet terrorists, she is plunged into a world where she simply doesn't exist. There's a perfect symmetry to the picture: like its heroine, every last smudge of identity and character has been carefully removed, leaving a gaping vacuum where a movie should be.

Cinema details: Review, page 84.

Quentin Curtis returns next week.