“History is on every occasion the record of that which one age finds worthy of note in another.”
What is one to make of “Darkest Hour”? Is it only yet another chance to bathe in nostalgia for the Second World War, and to dredge up an old story, out of which the British come out smelling of roses, unlike in some other conflicts? Or is it a story which is too good to be false, and which needs re-working in order to be fully understood?
Rarely have two men been so savagely opposed, and so different in their formative experiences, though each had war experiences . Hitler (1889-1945) rose from nothing to absolute dominion over Europe, and fell like a stick; Churchill (1874-1965) started high, aimed higher, and after years in the wilderness achieved greatness. Within a year of the actual conflict beginning the worst was over, and after Barbarossa in June and Pearl Harbour in December 1941 the balance of power tilted. Even the D-Day invasion might have failed, but the Allies managed to win through. In retrospect it was only a matter of time before the Nazi regime collapsed, though it took millions with it as it did so.
So, the battle of wits between an ascendant 51-year-old Hitler and a last-choice, embattled 66-year-old Churchill is a story always worth telling, perhaps worth telling for ever. Churchill turned the course of history. The very first German biography of Hitler, by Joachim Fest, made the telling point that, for all his oratory, Hitler left little of note in the German language. Art Historian Burckhardt again: “The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity”. Churchill, on the other hand, lifted English to the sunlit uplands. He was a most quotable man. Does any of this matter, in the cold calculation of war? Yes. Rhetoric is worth many battalions. Language can move hearts because it is the supreme tool of thinking, putting the Olduvai tool set in the shade, though that collection of implements lasted 600,000 years.
Joachim Fest observed that of Hitler it could be said: “Here was a man who changed history”. As biographers of Churchill have noted: “Churchill also”. A truly titanic struggle. The film itself is carried by Gary Oldman, whose performance is a triumph. He becomes the part, from the first strike of a match, and never fails to convince. The rest of the cast is brilliant, a delight, but the star shines through. Lest it seem churlish not to mention it, I liked everything which established the feel of that distant time, known to me mostly from the picture of a relative who left Uruguay to die in the Pathfinders Squadron, and from the guarded recollections of a Spitfire pilot shot down and kept in near starvation in a German prison camp. The film costumes were fine, and so were the hairstyles. Everyone smoked, just like my parents did.
The film itself has to deal with a pressing issue. All this has been done before, and every Second World War film starts with the same shots of London streets, gas masks, bomb shelters and screaming sirens. Director Joe Wright and Director of Photography Bruno Delbonnel shoot the obligatory panning shots of Londoners, but these shots are themselves deliberately panned, as if in stylised slow-motion the director mockingly says: “This is a romantic re-creation, just like in all the other war films, but it really was something like this”. A crafty move, which keeps them in touch with a potentially sceptical war-film-weary audience.
The story is worth telling because to many it is forgotten or was never known. Schoolchildren now struggle to say who fought on which side. Will it be watched in Europe? It will be interesting to see the results. There is much they would wish to forget. The film has taken $131 million so far. It must seem strange to teenagers in Britain that their university studies or working lives could be interrupted by a request to fight a war and possibly die. An inconvenient death, not yet midway through the journey of their lives, all for a distant country of which they knew nothing, and cared less. Almost as much of a shock as being deprived of internet connectivity. Although the war is vicariously quite vivid to me, I still find it difficult to believe that I might have had to serve, and to be tested as that generation were tested.
Overall, this is a good film, worth seeing, and worth thinking about. Joachim Fest again: although Marxist historians have sometimes argued that historical events are inevitable because of major economic forces, and that historical biography is no more than courtly flattery, Hitler proves them wrong. His capture of the German soul and his face-saving explanation for their lost first world war proved all too powerful, with dreadful results. He was the spark in the methane swamp. In my view, if only the bloody, resentful man had been accepted into Art College we might have been spared oceans of misery. We are all allowed counter-factual speculations, are we not?
And on that point, historian Robert Tombs has put forward a good argument that Britain should have ducked out of the war, kept the Empire, and let the Nazi regime fail under its own dreadful contradictions. Conquering with lightening war is one thing, governing for the long term another. Empires are costly. Even subjugated peoples rebel from time to time. Policing them takes time, and saps profits. Ask the English. The audience was not convinced by this championing of prudent self-interest in the face of a barbaric regime, but it was a reasonable position in 1940, as the film, perhaps too vividly, depicts.
As per usual, you will expect me, in the midst of all this praise, to raise a quibble. There is a romantic lapse in the commitment to giving a truthful account, which the team excuse as something which might have happened. Of course, anything might have happened. The truth is that they made it up, in order to convince us about something. They imagined that Churchill would have gone down into the Underground tube system to get an impromptu democratic mandate for his policies from a random carriage-full of passengers. Nope. His mandate came from the House of Commons, where Members had been properly elected to represent their constituents. Britain was democratic, but it was not yet usual to canvas ordinary opinions on matters of foreign policy. Mass Observation was designed to measure morale, not yet to pander to lay opinion. If the ruling class had any interest in what the people thought outside of elections, they consulted their taxi driver. The scene in the Underground is a fiction designed to flatter the audience, and it has dramatic flair. Everyone has a Churchill story, and would like to have met him. The film cleverly caters to that all-too-human wish. In doing so, they try to fiddle a bit with history, but for noble reasons, you may say. It may be a dramatic bridge too far, a contemporary urge to rewrite history in the modern idiom.
It is hard to calculate the odds for an event which did not take place, but here is an attempt to do so. Imagine that Churchill did go down to an Underground station, rather than to visit the house of a friend in Richmond. What is the probability that a person drawn at random from the tube train passengers of 1940 will be of African descent, as depicted in the film? The population of Greater London in 1940 was 7,987,936. I cannot find estimates for the African descent population of London in that year, but it is asserted that in 1950 the total non-white population for the whole of Britain was not above 20,000. Given that that estimate is for the whole country, and would cover Indians as well as Africans, and is a decade later, an estimate of 10,000 Black Londoners is generous. The estimate for London, Liverpool and Cardiff at the beginning of the war is 10,000. Even if one assumes they were all in London, the chance of Churchill having met an African on his one visit to the Tube, as depicted in this film, is 1 in 800 at very best, and probably less. I have not worked out the chance of any Londoner having memorised Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge”, though it must be rather low. The chance of it being a Black Londoner who recites that poem word for word must be infinitesimal.
In effect, the directors are telling us: “This is what we in this age wish you to believe about another age, so as to make a point”. A harmless move, you may say, but in other matters they strove to tell the truth. In 1940, what they did in this film would have been called Propaganda.
Perhaps Churchill versus Hitler is the best story ever told, and will be told again and again, long after Alexander, Hercules, Hector and Lysander are all forgotten. It will enter world history as the greatest confrontation ever: two men fighting for Europe in a battle that spread across the whole world, dragging in others till the death toll reached 50 million. And, perhaps by chance, that was the last world war. Germany and Japan became democracies. France became France again, and not a German province with a dash of Vichy water. Peace reigned, sort of, so much so that Germany and France forgot what Britain gave them: their own freedom back, and in time their own dignity. The sorrow and the pity. All this at a cost that Britain may now, in view of recent ruptures, regret.
With a tow row row row row for the British Grenadiers.