Two films portraying the dramatic events in France and England in the spring of 1940 were recently released
The film Dunkirk was released first. This tale is set on the beaches and sea approaches to Dunkirk where the collection of British, French, Belgian and Dutch forces are trapped by the German Wehrmacht, which has encircled them using Blitzkrieg tactics. They are evacuated during a fierce battle.
Historically accurate, right down to employing three-bladed Spitfire propellers rather than the later four blades, this Christopher Nolan film presumes you know enough history to understand what is at stake in the fight. My father remarked that a young man such as his grandson would see the film and never know the importance of stopping the Nazi advance across western Europe. I share his concern that the latest generation has apparently left school with only a vague understanding of the threat fascism posed to liberal democracy during WWII.
Yet I enjoyed the film, shot as Director Nolan does, repeating the same event as seen from several different points of view, and there were many in the remarkable evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk so that England would have troops ashore at Dover to defend itself should the Germans attempt to land on the island.
In one scene, a Spitfire is forced to land on the French beach and the pilot sets fire to his aircraft. In May 1940 the Spitfire was the most advanced fighter of either side of the conflict, and Dunkirk represented the first time the Germans encountered the Spitfire in large numbers. It could not be allowed to fall into their hands to reverse engineer. The pilot lands because he runs out of fuel, another historically accurate fact well-played here, as the Spitfire and the more numerous Hurricane, an earlier fighter, were designed to defend England, not for offensive sorties over Europe and so were built without considering range of operation.
The second film with a WWII theme is called Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman plays one of the best Churchills I have seen in cinema, but considerable liberties have been taken with actual historical events. The worst transgression of the film is implying that Churchill’s famous “Fight on the Beaches” speech took place May 28, 1940, when the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force was underway from Dunkirk and by no means certain to achieve success. The film literally puts the date in bold, screen-filling declarations.
In truth, the famous speech was delivered in the House of Commons on June 4th, after the army had been successfully evacuated and returned to Dover. It is this fact which perhaps gave Churchill confidence to declare they would fight on the landing grounds, the cities and towns, and never surrender, because at that point they had an army in place to defend the homeland.
I was put off by the portrayal of Churchill as weak and dependent, reliant on others rather than a consistently defiant character often acting alone. Here, he seems to gain his emotional stamina from: The King, of course; his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas); the people of England; and even the young woman who types his dispatches, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).
In one scene, Layton sits in the gallery of the House of Commons gazing at Churchill as he delivers the Fight on the Beaches speech, mouthing the words he has dictated to her. The Prime Minister turns to gaze at her while delivering the speech. This confused and uncertain Churchill displays confidence on May 28th only because Miss Layton is there and Clementine is listening to him on the wireless, while in actual history his inspiring speech was delivered on June 4th and his gamble to send private craft across the straights of Dover to retrieve the British Expeditionary Forces paid off.
In contrast to the film’s portrayal, consider what Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State 1947-1953, said about the man he knew personally:
“President Truman often spoke of Churchill as the greatest public figure of our age. This I believe is an understatement. One must go back four centuries to find his equal, for one cannot find it merely in a soldier, a statesman, or an orator, or in a combination of the three. There must be added a ‘romantic attachment’ which, as Sir John Neale has pointed out, existed between the English people and the great Queen, and for which he added, ‘the closet parallel in our history is that between Englishmen and Winston Churchill in our own time’. In both cases this flowed not only from great qualities of heart and brain, indomitable courage, energy, magnanimity, and good sense, but from supreme art and deliberate policy. These fused the other elements into the leadership that alone can call forth from a free people what cannot be commanded and enabled the English people to face and fight alone the greatest military powers of two ages.
“…What Churchill did was great; how he did it was equally so. Neither action nor style could have accomplished result alone. Everything felt the touch of his art – his appearance and gestures, the siren suit, the indomitable V sign for victory, the cigar for imperturbability. …What we are discussing here is not merely the direction of great affairs, but the creation and development of personality. Napoleon understood it. So did Franklin Roosevelt. General Washington did not.
“Churchill mastered it. His speeches were not only wise and right in content but were prepared with that infinite capacity for taking pains that is said to be genius. ”
Pages 595-96 Present at the Creation, Acheson 1969
So I was turned off by this portrayal of Churchill as weak, and believe the script did the man a disservice. That said, Oldman deserves the Oscar.
Alas, like Oliver Stone’s JFK, this film will likely become the new historical narrative for a generation who believe nothing really important occurred prior to 1990. That narrative will not be that Churchill was the Last Lion, (as William Manchester wrote) but instead that he was a pussy cat.
Still, I think the film should be viewed by the latest generation so they at least have some idea these marvelous European vacations they now enjoy might not be available had there not been considerable sacrifices to sustain the Western Civilization.
Additionally, I thought it particularly helpful and historically accurate to include the scene where a man from the Caribbean encounters Churchill in an underground coach while making his way to Westminster to deliver his speech. While I am unaware of any incident where Churchill employed public transportation in May 1940, his interaction with a black man underscores a significant reality of Britain many do not wish to acknowledge, that all of the places Britain colonized are populated by persons who think of themselves as British. England didn’t have enough men after World War I to fight World War II, so she called out to the dominions. Churchill referenced the same in speeches given at the time. Some Royal Air Force photos from the war show integrated bomber crews, and a deep dive into research will reveal men from the West Indies piloting Spitfires, British subjects loyal to their sovereign. They came to England to defend the realm, making Britain what it is today, a racially mixed and diverse society.
Modern Britain is a country of color, and it is not the red, white and black of the Nazi flag. Perhaps this is why it is important to see both of these films now, a time of rising powers ruled by men adverse to our democratic way of governance.[Cover photo: A Spitfire in flight, courtesy Museum of Flight.]