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March 13th 2018 print

John O’Sullivan

The Truth of Fiction

These are criticisms regarding matters of fact in both "Dunkirk" and "Darkest Hour", yet one leaves the cinema feeling these history lessons are well worth the cost of sacrificing a little accuracy to the god of poetic licence. To defend what is right, that is the solid and worthwhile moral lesson

blitzLondon in 1940 under the Blitz had its grim moments, but in the main it kept its sense of humour. One joke that ran around the capital told of an officer in a smart Guards regiment, recently returned from Dunkirk, who was asked at a cocktail party what the experience had been, well, like?

“My dear,” he said, raising his hands to indicate distress. “The noise! And the people!”

Those who have seen recent the Hollywood movie Dunkirk, from the director Christopher Nolan, can confirm the officer’s complaint about the noise (as, indeed, several of the few remaining veterans have done). But the film has a higher view than the Guards officer of the people there.

Dunkirk belongs to that category of story that has not one hero but several heroes who represent in different ways the heroism of the British people as they queue up on the beaches (as they were to do for many years of rationing at home) to be rescued by the Royal Navy and a flotilla of small boats manned by the weekend sailors among their neighbours.

One hero is a RAF pilot who after bringing down an enemy plane strafing the rescue, runs out of petrol, lands his own plane on the now empty beach, methodically burns it, and stoically surrenders into five years of captivity. Another is a weekend sailor who dutifully obeys the Admiralty’s call, sailing across the Channel, picking people up from the sea, restraining one shell-shocked soldier who struggles against going back to the beach to rescue others, dispensing commonsense decency as a sort of balm.

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Not everyone is heroic or uncomplicatedly patriotic. Some are afraid, the shell-shocked soldier for one, some are angry at official delays, some panicky, some hostile or suspicious, thus unjust, to those they don’t know. And how could it be otherwise? Not only is defeat in a world war (or what was soon to become a world war) a risk facing them, but so is the imminent prospect of their own deaths or imprisonment.

Yet the evacuation proceeds (more quickly in the movie than in real life), hundreds of thousands of soldiers are saved (for future deployment), the Navy rescues most of those on the beach (including many French soldiers guarding the retreat), the “miracle” of Dunkirk happens, and the British people start on the long march to victory. Dunkirk the movie doesn’t acknowledge this. It abjures our knowledge of this future to end on notes of realism and defiance.

“Wars are not won by evacuations,” says a soldier as he reads Churchill’s famous speech from a newspaper to his mates, going on to describe the “miracle” as a “colossal military defeat”. Through the soldier’s pedestrian reading, however, we hear the statesman’s firm promise that the fight will continue until, with the help of the Empire and the New World, victory will be achieved “in God’s good time”. As we hear the words, we see the civilians welcoming the dejected soldiers home and literally cheering them up.

Dunkirk is film about a people’s war, not in the socialist sense of a war for equality, but depicting a mixed bag of ordinary decent people fighting for themselves and their undramatic virtues and now ready to make heavy sacrifices for them. Churchill remains in the prompter’s box.

He does a great deal better in Darkest Hour, which depicts his arrival in Downing Street from the resignation of Neville Chamberlain to the Commons triumph of the speech read by the soldier in Dunkirk after the colossal military defeat. Dunkirk is as off-stage in this film, however, as Churchill is in Dunkirk. And even then the people edge their way into the action in Whitehall.

Both films have received strongly favourable reviews, but the reviews of Darkest Hour are tributes more to the film’s quality as a brilliant (and brilliantly acted) political drama than to its historical accuracy. Gary Oldman is Churchill to the life and screenwriter Anthony McCarten has given him some splendidly Churchillian lines.

Told at one point that the Lord Privy Seal wants to talk to him, Churchill replies: “Tell him that I am sealed in the privy and can only deal with one shit at a time.” Too salty for the great statesman? Churchill once responded in the Commons to a Labour MP, William Paling, who had called him a dirty dog: “Yes, and you know what dirty dogs do to palings.”

The plot is a simple one: Churchill has become Prime Minister without the support of his own Tory party, which still admires Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who still plot to restore the appeasement policy by responding to a peace initiative from Mussolini. I despair of historical justice ever being given to Chamberlain, but in fact he recommended to the King that Churchill be appointed prime minister because he was the only Tory who could lead a national government, and once Churchill entered Number Ten, Chamberlain gave him consistent support in the War Cabinet until he died from cancer in late 1940. Churchill’s eulogy of his old rival to the Commons is one of his greatest and most moving speeches.

And there are other historical inaccuracies. For instance, Labour leader Clement Attlee was a quiet pedestrian speaker, not the passionate ranter shown in the Norway debate that brought down Chamberlain. Attlee didn’t take part in the debate anyway; the Labour speaker on that occasion was Arthur Greenwood, to whom the frustrated Churchill supporter, Leo Amery, fearing Chamberlain would survive, shouted “Speak for England, Arthur!” in a moment of genuine parliamentary drama. That’s not in the movie, presumably because it would require too much explanation.

Do these minor inventions really matter? I am inclined to think they do because many people will get their only knowledge of these events from what is a wonderfully exciting movie. And not all the inventions are minor.

Though it’s true, for instance, that Churchill had to win over an initially sceptical Tory party in the few crucial days between acceding to power and the Dunkirk debate, he didn’t do so in anything like the manner depicted here.

Though Gary Oldman’s (or Anthony McCarten’s) Churchill is a dynamo of energy and passion, he is also shown as curiously self-doubting and introspective. Again, Churchill did suffer from the “black dog” of depression, but that was largely when he was becalmed out of power and unable to make an impact on great events that were going disastrously wrong for England. Power acted as a tonic on him. As he himself wrote later, he felt upon receiving the commission to form a government that his whole life had been “a preparation for this hour and this trial”.  And so did those around him. General Lord Ismay, who was Churchill’s chief military assistant at the time, once said that he knew Britain would win the war when he saw a senior civil servant running to carry out a prime ministerial order.

In the movie, however, when Churchill is wondering what to do in response to the plotting of the appeasers, he abandons his car and takes to the London Underground where he seeks counsel from a cross-section of ordinary Londoners who include a West Indian who quotes Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome to encourage him. It’s an affecting scene, but it’s not a true portrait of Churchill (who routed the Mussolini plan very easily and went on to dominate the Cabinet and the Commons) nor perhaps of the opinions of Londoners before Dunkirk had made a major impact on them.

These are serious criticisms, but they don’t contradict the essential truth of the view that Churchill and the British people strengthened each other at a moment of acute national crisis—Churchill by his eloquent and confident leadership, the people by their stoic willingness to fight on against great odds in the belief, perhaps an atavistic belief, that victory would eventually be theirs. Nor do they mean you shouldn’t see the picture. Even if it takes poetic licence a little too far for intellectual comfort, it’s in the service of a thrilling movie—and one, more­over, with a solid political moral.

No, it’s not that Brexit is a good thing and the way to go. Both movies have that subliminal impact, in my view, and since that’s plainly right (the behaviour of the European Union negotiators confirms the fact), I’m happy with it. But the film’s political moral is a more subtle one that may not have been intended by its progressive screenwriter: all of the arguments that Lord Halifax advances in the movie for working for peace with Hitler through Mussolini are the same arguments that the Left advances on every other occasion to weaken the West’s defences and to make risky concessions to the hostile power du jour. In Darkest Hour, those arguments are comprehensively and persuasively rubbished, and the audiences join in the satisfaction that Churchill defeats their advocates.

One leaves the cinema feeling this history lesson is well worth the cost of a little sacrifice of historical accuracy to the god of poetic licence.