The Churchillian Myths of 1940

Gary Oldman as Churchill in “The Darkest Hour.”

Thanks to my membership in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I am the recipient of a virtual wheelbarrow of DVD’s sent out by studio publicists hoping to sway my vote for best movie at our annual awards meeting on December 9th. These are generally films I tend to avoid through the year so I look forward to seeing them if for no other reason to help me pass judgement on the likely finalists in our deliberations. No obscure neorealist, radical, foreign-language films are likely to make the cut.

It turns out that two of the films are set in 1940 and have to do with the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk, a city on the coast of France. The first is Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, a film that I would never spend good money to see since I detest his work. It is still playing in theaters everywhere. The second is “Darkest Hour”, a biopic about Churchill that opens on December 21. Like Nolan, director Joe Wright is English. After seeing the two films, the only award that I would consider making is for best work by a makeup artist. Whoever turned the lean and angular Gary Oldman into the spitting image of Churchill in Wright’s film deserves one. Needless to say, Oldman did not have to work too hard at conveying Churchill’s character since he is every bit as racist and reactionary, stating in a 2014 Playboy interview that Mel Gibson’s reputation as an anti-Semite was unfair but to be expected in a “town run by the Jews”.

For Nolan, the decision to make “Dunkirk” was probably not that different from making a film about Batman. He told Indiewire: “Dunkirk is something that you grow up with as a British person. The telling of the story that you get is simplistic and mythical in a way, almost like a fairy tale.” I can’t gainsay this. His film is simplistic, mythical and almost like a fairy tale.

As for Joe Wright, he told the Guardian that his portrait of Churchill is a rebuke to Donald Trump. Why? Because “He kicked and he screamed and got a lot of things wrong in his career, and in his personal life, but one thing he got right was he resisted the tide of fascism, bigotry and hate. And that seems to speaking to America now, and Britain, too.” Naturally, Wright made a film that emphasized Churchill’s ostensibly heroic and lonely battle to take the war to Hitler, resisting the cowardice of his fellow Tories Nevil Chamberlain and Lord Halifax who serve as his foils in the same way that Francis Preston Blair served as Lincoln’s foil in Spielberg’s biopic. Like Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, Blair was soft on the enemy, hoping to engage the Confederate government in peace negotiations just as the other two sought a peace treaty with Hitler that would allow him to control Europe as long as Britain remained independent. It is apparent that Wright had little insights into the overarching motivation of all three Tory politicians: to destroy Bolshevism and preserve the British Empire.

Turning to the films themselves, “Dunkirk” is not much of a war movie, as Nolan forthrightly admits. Instead, it is a film about withdrawal from war—not that England had any choice in the matter. Even if wasn’t a war movie, there was little justification for it being so bereft of character development. What will make a classic like “Sahara” outlive “Dunkirk” was the vivid portrayal of the men in its tank battalion led by Humphrey Bogart whose backstory was much more interesting in many ways than the battle scenes. Since the screenplay was written by CP’er John Henry Lawson, it is not surprising that the characters are imbued with such humanism—all except of course the hateful Nazi prisoner.

“Dunkirk” keeps shifting between three different scenes that are supposed to epitomize the drama of the evacuation. Tom Hardy plays a British RAF pilot who engages in dogfights with Nazi fighter planes throughout the film until he runs out of fuel and lands on the beach at Dunkirk to be captured by the Nazis. If you like staring at fuel gauges, machine gun tracers, and that sort of thing, this is your kind of film. We also meet an unnamed shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy who has been rescued from a sinking ship departing from Dunkirk by a small craft piloted by Mark Rylance. When he learns that Rylance is headed back to Dunkirk, he goes berserk and stages a mutiny that costs the life of a youngster on the boat. Finally, there’s a group of soldiers trapped inside another sinking ship who are trying to figure out a way to save themselves without being gunned down by the Nazis once they reach the surface. I confess to finding this less exciting than the vastly underrated “The Poseidon Adventure” about passengers trying to make their way out of a capsized luxury liner. You really can’t go wrong with a film featuring Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine that is based on a Paul Gallico novel, about which the NY Times wrote: “Mr. Gallico collects a Grand Hotel [a reference to the 1930 Vicki Baum novel] full of shipboard dossiers. These interlocking histories may be damp with sentimentality as well as brine—but the author’s skill as a storyteller invests them with enough suspense to last the desperate journey.” Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan’s storytelling skills are rather poverty-stricken by comparison that fail to be compensated for by wide-angle shots made by a 70 millimeter camera.

In a way, Nolan is very good at telling stories in the sense of making things up at least when it comes to the historical incident he has decided to dramatize. Most film critics neglect to comment on the film’s veracity, assuming that it was exactly like it happened. But Nolan unwittingly revealed the film’s inaccuracies when he spoke of simplistic fairy-tales.

Despite the wide divergence between the neoliberal New York Review of Books  and the British radical daily The Morning Star, they both provided much-needed alternatives to Nolan’s version.

Writing for the NY Review, the Telegraph’s one-time editor-in-chief Max Hastings notes that the German army hardly interfered with the evacuation, nor was there any ground fighting in the town itself. Since Nolan’s film begins with a frantic escape by a British soldier fleeing oncoming and overpowering Nazi infantrymen on those streets, you can understand why Hastings found the opening scene “spurious”.

He also dismisses the notion of small craft rescuing the 250,000 stranded British soldiers out of hand. “In the film, all the big ships seeking to rescue troops are sunk in dramatic circumstances, leaving small craft to do the business. This is a travesty. The Royal Navy sent thirty-nine destroyers to Dunkirk, of which only six were sunk, although many were damaged. Two thirds of all the men brought home sailed in big ships, notably including the destroyers, just one third in smaller ones.”

His comparison between “Dunkirk” and “Saving Private Ryan” endears Hastings to me no matter his other more questionable views on British politics that veer to the Conservatives. “It possesses many of the virtues and vices of Steven Spielberg’s epics, wrapped in a Union flag instead of the Stars and Stripes.” As a matter of fact, both films offer the same flag-waving nostalgia so dangerous in a time when the increasingly toothless British and American empires might strike out like a cornered rat.

Writing for The Morning Star, Ian Sinclair pokes some more holes with even greater contempt for the official story drawing from a variety of “revisionist” sources:

After the Germans had started cutting off supply lines “stealing from civilians soon became official policy,” according to Nicholas Harman in his 1980 book Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. And with morale at rock bottom and troops under extreme physical and psychological stress, historian Glyn Prysor notes there was “widespread British antagonism towards refugees and other innocent bystanders.”

Prysor records the story of artillery NCO William Harding who remembers a fellow soldier shooting an old woman in the street in Calais. When challenged by Harding, the perpetrator replied: “Anybody dressed as old women, nuns or priests or civilians running around get shot.” Harman notes that “British fighting units had orders to take no prisoners” except for interrogation.

Turning to Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour”, you are faced with the same genre found so frequently on PBS’s Master Race Theater. This is a film replete with overstuffed furniture, men in waistcoats, and all the other accoutrements of forgettable dramas such as “Victoria” or “Downtown Abbey”.

The film begins with Winston Churchill being served breakfast in bed while in his pajamas and a lit cigar dangling from his fleshy mouth. Churchill is played as a lovable but cantankerous character of the sort that Lionel Barrymore perfected in the 30s and 40s. It is May 1940 and he has just learned that will be replacing Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister.

“Dunkirk” ends with a rescued British soldier reading Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 speech about “We shall fight them on the streets” that is also the finale of Wright’s film. With his bulldog like appearance, Churchill is a perfect symbol of British resolve so much so that the “Churchillism” of this period was embraced by the entire political spectrum throughout the war and even lasted into the 80s, with Margaret Thatcher striking Churchillian poses as if poor bedraggled Argentina’s bid to regain the Malvinas that had been stolen from it in Victorian times had anything in common with Hitler’s vast military machine.

The film’s drama, such as it is, consists of Churchill sparring verbally with Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax who are trying to win a majority of his War Cabinet into supporting a sit-down with Mussolini who volunteered to negotiate between the rival imperial powers.

Starting out as a fire-breathing warrior, Churchill begins to waver as news of the stranded British army begins to unfold. He begins to consider the possibility that such a deal might be in Britain’s best interest but forsakes it after his hatred for Nazi totalitarianism overcomes his Hamlet-like indecision.

Fifty years ago such a portrayal of Churchill, problematic as it is, would have been out of the question for the simple reason that the archives of the War Cabinet had been kept in secret. The popular view of Churchill, buttressed by his own self-aggrandizing writings, would have not even allowed for what amounted to a momentary hesitation about going to war with the Nazis.

In the Fall 1993 edition of World Affairs, there’s an article titled “Churchill in 1940: Myth and Reality” by David Carlton that provides copious detail about Churchill’s affinities with Neville Chamberlain, whose “appeasement” had more to do with unleashing Hitler against the USSR than anything else.

Carlton’s article is basically a review of “revisionist” historians who challenge the dominant narrative of Churchill that Wright’s film only departs from by a fraction of an inch. Besides Churchill’s own presentation of that history, the other major source is A.J.P. Taylor who called him the “savior of his country”.

Among them is Clive Ponting, who is one of my heroes. He wrote “The Green History of the World” that belongs on anybody’s bookshelf as a source of how capitalism began destroying the planet in the name of progress. Ponting is not a historian by trade. He was a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence who sent two documents to Labour MP Tam Dalyell in July 1984 about the British sinking of an Argentine navy warship, the General Belgrano, that was widely regarded by the left and anti-war activists as a war crime. For this act, Ponting was charged with Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act of 1911. Facing a long prison term for this courageous act, he was acquitted by a jury not swayed by Thatcher’s Churchillism.

Ponting’s revisionist history is titled “1940: Myth and Reality” and contains this summary of the closeness between Churchill and the so-called appeasement faction:

It is clear from the widespread evidence of war  cabinet discussions and approaches via the  Swedes and the Americans that in May and June 1940 not only did Britain seriously consider making peace with Germany, but that some members of the government went as far  as to ask what terms the Germans would offer. Within the war cabinet there was a spectrum of views: from Halifax who favoured trying to  make peace before the military situation became even worse; to Churchill, who wanted to fight on for a few months.

Let me conclude with a reference to Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a most controversial book written in the “revisionist” spirit of Howard Zinn and Clive Ponting. While Baker is a novelist by trade, this book is nonfiction assault on the bogus reputation of the “good war” with Winston Churchill and FDR getting the brunt of his well-researched darts. I want to particularly call attention to this vignette on Churchill:

Winston Churchill was readying his book Great Contemporaries for the press. It was August 1937. In it was his article on Hitler, written a few years earlier. “Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms,” he said, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” Despite the arming of Germany and the hounding of the Jews, “we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age,” Churchill wrote. He was doubtful, though.

Churchill also included a short piece on Leon Trotsky, king in exile of international bolshevism. Trotsky was a usurper and tyrant, Churchill said. He was a cancer bacillus, he was a “skin of malice,” washed up on the shores of Mexico. Trotsky possessed, said Churchill, “the organizing command of a Carnot, the cold detached intelligence of a Machiavelli, the mob oratory of a Cleon, the ferocity of Jack the Ripper, the toughness of Titus Oates.”

And in the end what was Trotsky? Who was he? “He was a Jew,” wrote Churchill with finality. “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.” He called his article “Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein.”

Winston Churchill, the Mel Gibson of his day.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.