Brexit, the War, and the War of Words

Real history is much more complex than the nostalgic myths presented in Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour

By Tom Prasch

Mr. Dawson, the civilian captain of the Moonstone, a small fishing boat, is preparing to weigh anchor. The Moonstone is part of a flotilla of small ships coming to the rescue of the sailors stranded on the beach in Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk. Dawson explains: “They’ve asked for the Moonstone and they’ll have her. And her captain.” His young son chimes in: “And his son.”        

George, a boy helping them prepare to embark, hops on at the last minute as well. “What’re you doing?” asks the captain’s son. “You know where you’re going?” “France,” young George declares. “Into war,” Mr. Dawson warns. “I’ll be useful, sir,” the boy insists. So they carry on. Multiply that by hundreds, that’s the British spirit. 

Winston Churchill, in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, after struggling through most of the movie to cope with the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk–as well as with the backstabbing, appeasement-inclined political opponents within his own cabinet, Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, mostly–on a lark leaps from his chauffeured car and plunges into the Underground to complete his journey to Westminster. At the same time, his war cabinet, in his absence (and in intercut scenes), reads out their approved terms for a negotiated peace: “If Signor Mussolini will cooperate with us in securing a settlement of all European questions which safeguard the independence and security of the allies, and could be the basis for a just a durable peace, we will undertake at once to discuss, with the desire to find solutions, the matters in which Signor Mussolini is principally interested. We understand that he desires the solution of certain Mediterranean questions, and if he shall state in secrecy what these are, France and Great Britain will do their best to meet his wishes.” Goodness, hadn’t Chamberlain learned anything from his Munich debacle?

Meanwhile, Churchill sorts out the Tube–a girl at the map explains he’s one stop from Westminster, he just needs to take the District Line east– and an agape subway car full of ordinary citizens suddenly find themselves sharing a ride with their Prime Minister. All of them are white save one: Marcus Peters, a black man, presumably West Indian; why he would be  going west on the District Line rather than east (toward the capital’s political center, but away from most of the work) is less than clear, but then why the bricklayer would be on the tube in the middle of the workday is also unclear. And surely even in 1940 one heart-of-London stop on the tube would go faster than this scene, but never mind all that.

After introductions all around and a bit of cheery banter (“Madam, all babies look like me”; “Oh, a Jerome. My mother was a Jerome. I expect we are closely related”), Churchill gets to the point: “Let me ask you something that’s been weighing on my mind. Perhaps you might provide me with an answer. You, the British people, what is your mood. Is it confident?” They all murmur assent. “How confident?” “Very,” one declares. “Some say it’s a lost cause,” one dissenter notes. Churchill counters: “Oh, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” “Too true,” one woman chimes in. And then, to the real point: “Now, let me ask you this, if the worst came to pass, and the enemy were to appear on these streets above, what would you do?” The answers are unequivocal (even the “lost cause” guy chiming in): “Fight.” “Fight the Fascists.” “Fight them with anything we can lay our hands on.” “Broom handles if we must.” “Street by street.” “They will never take Piccadilly.” Churchill pushes further: “They will never take Piccadilly indeed. And what if I put it to you all, that we might, if we ask nicely, get very favorable terms from Herr Hitler, if we enter into a peace declaration right now. What would you say to that?” And they answer, uniformly: Never, never, no never.

The moment leads Churchill to wax poetic, reciting from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome: “Then out spake brave Horatius/ Captain of the Gate/ To every man upon the earth/ Death cometh soon or late/ And how can man die better/ Then facing fearful odds.” It is Marcus Peters—perhaps asserting his Britishness—who finishes the verse for him: “For the ashes of his father/ And the temples of his gods.”

Thus inspired, Churchill heads to meet his Outer Cabinet—notably bypassing the War Cabinet —where, naming his subway common-man consultants (he’s jotted their names down on a scrap of paper)—he lays out the case for continued war. By the end of it, the Outer Cabinet is echoing the “No, never” of the subway citizens, which sets up the climax, Churchill’s famous “Darkest Hour” speech before the House (here misdated; the movie tells us it’s 28 May, but the actual speech was given on 18 June, inconveniently a couple weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation was completed).

You know the speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets … we shall never surrender,” and all that.  If you had forgotten, both films remind us in their final acts: Churchill’s speech the finale of Darkest Hour, and read from a newspaper by one of the rescued sailors in Dunkirk.

Note, then, that both films limn a predictably nostalgic heroic picture of Dunkirk, transforming what was at best less of a disaster than it might have been into a moment of British triumph. Beyond such rose-glassed nostalgia, both films also make that moment an essentially populist one, in both cases through distortions of the historical record: in Dunkirk, through the exaggerated invocation of the civilians bringing boats to the rescue (more on that in a moment); in Darkest Hour, with the utterly invented subway scene.

And not just populist, but narrowly so, a thoroughly British self-celebration, conceptualized (with one single exception—Marcus Peters on the tube) as utterly white, and pointedly celebrating the insular. What’s that Churchill line? “Defend our Island home … if necessary, alone.” “Splendid isolation,” Max Hastings calls it in the New York Review of Books, recalling the late Victorian phrase. This is Britain away from, and mostly against, the Continent.

Ian Jack, writing in The Guardian, usefully warns against the sort of reading I am developing here, noting that, while both films were playing in 2017, in the wake of the Brexit vote, they had been some time in the making. Both scripts were finished in 2015, and Nolan has claimed his as a long-time obsession, going back over a decade more. But even Jack wonders: “Was there something in the air?” And we can add: Brexit cannot be reduced to a single moment, that voting day in June 2016. It was, after all, a campaign before it was a vote, and that campaign in turn played on long-term insecurities and restiveness that have always cut across party lines about the place of Britain within-but-still-outside the European Union (they kept their pounds, recall). In the making of Brexit, longer-term processes—Zadie Smith, in “Fences: A Brexit Diary” (New York Review of Books) notes the role of working-class discontent in response to both austerity and growing income disparities, issues nearly a decade in the making (going back to the market crash of 2008), plus white working-class anxieties over the entrenchment of multiculturalism, possibly going back even further—combined with shorter-term events, most notably connected to the migrant wave that hit as Arab Spring got wintery in 2013-14, with the Syrian civil war and the breakdown of the Libyan state. The promoters of the referendum, Smith also notes, used Brexit to promote agendas with far deeper roots (Michael Gove’s sovereignty issue, Nigel Farage’s array of rightist causes from anti-climate change and opposition to freedom of movement to gun control and xenophobic fears about immigration).
And, certainly, the uses of the films in the wake of Brexit suggests more than mere handy coincidence. Andy Stowe notes, in Green Left Weekly: “Nigel Farage tweeted ‘I urge every youngster to go out and watch #Dunkirk.’” Stowe concludes: “It is not possible to watch Dunkirk except through the prism of Brexit and the orgy of British chauvinism that made it possible.” Jack points to “headlines in the pro-Brexit press such as ‘For Brexit to work we need the Dunkirk spirit’ and ‘We will channel Churchill.”  Something, indeed, seems to have been in the air. But where do these films—and in particular the version of history proffered in these films—fit into all this?

The whitening of history reinforces the xenophobic tropes in contemporary Brexit debates.

To begin with Dunkirk, let me offer my modest dissent from the dominant red-carpets-for-the-masterpiece take on Nolan’s film.  Dunkirk does some things phenomenally well: it masterfully uses the machinery of cinema to give us an immersive experience of war; it balances its varied dimensions (the ground war, the air war, and the story of those boats) with precision, epic scale matched with individual tale, three distinct timelines kept in motion; Hans Zimmer’s timepiece-anchored score masterfully controls tension and release, even if Nolan leans on it over-heavily at times (and even if multiplexes played it WAY TOO LOUD); the key actors hold their own despite a nearly wordless screenplay; Nolan even makes some strikingly interesting choices of focus, like picking two shirkers as a central focus. But still….

But still the mythic whale that is Dunkirk, the great strategic retreat that anchored Britain’s wartime self-image, its spirit of hunkered-down carry-on survival mode, is utterly unchanged and unchallenged here. The story arcs–overall and individual–are utterly predictable (who doesn’t know, when the amount of fuel in the plane is first mentioned, where that story line goes?). They all lead inexorably to the heart-tug patriotic we’re-all-in-together moment when the small ships arrive. The moment works, hearts tugged sure enough, but it simultaneously annoys. Just this again? And then closing with that rescued sailor reciting Churchill, that famous speech, was for me the final nail. So obvious, so predictable, so simply sappy. But that is the film as film. How about its history?

As Joseph Coohill (so rightly aka’d Professor Buzzkill in his online columns) has noted, citing an array of recent scholarship: “The problem with what’s come down through the decades as the story of the Little Ships is that a lot of it isn’t true, most of it is greatly exaggerated, and that exaggeration (and the imagery of ‘average’ people providing the key to the Dunkirk miracle) covers up the stories of most of the true civilian heroes of the Dunkirk evacuation.” In fact, the salvation of the British forces was mostly in the hands of the Germans, who halted their advance, and who in any case were more focused on the French troops; two-thirds of those evacuated came via the large destroyers, not the little ships at all; most of those little ships were piloted by Royal Navy and Coast Guard personnel; and only about 10% of the rescued troops came on ships that fit the Dunkirk model. Less populist a tale than the myth has made it.

Perhaps more importantly, the true story is less white as well. Yasmin Khan and Sunny Singh have both underlined the erasure of non-white troops from the story. Khan, writing in the New York Times, emphasizes the absence of Indian soldiers (mostly Muslim, from territories that would later become Pakistan), and notes as well the contributions of Caribbean and West African colonials. Singh, in The Guardian, points to the presence of colonial forces in both British and French armies (the French drawing on colonies in North and West Africa).

Darkest Hour (save in that subway scene) shifts the terrain from the on-the-ground perspective of those actually involved in the evacuation to the official rooms where policies were shaped, and tells the somewhat more complicated double story of Churchill’s struggle against the appeasers within his own party while confronting the crisis on the beaches of Dunkirk as France collapsed before the German blitzkrieg.  Appropriately, then, it is a movie with a starkly split personality.

The cue is in the music. Listen for those swelling chords, when the score goes all stirring and the volume rises with it, and you’ll know what you’re in for: another bit of powerhouse oratory or some dramatic set piece calling us to battle against the forces of darkness, all nostalgic-for-imperial-greatness hope-and-glory simplistic and unexamined patriotic claptrap, if very elegantly done as such claptrap goes. But then things get quieter and the movie’s Jekyll comes forth, in a sometimes brilliant, quite witty, charming up-close-and-personal humanization of Churchill, a study of the private man behind those public pronouncements. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the personal portrait, and then, when the music swelled again, found myself wishing for something, a touch of Graham Greene perhaps–some darkness, some ambiguity, something not so utterly kneejerk–to make it all less treacly.

Gary Oldman is indeed brilliant as Churchill; less regularly mentioned are the excellent supporting roles played by two women, Kristin Scott Thomas as his long-suffering wife, Lily James as his suffering-not-quite-as-long secretary. Director Joe Wright, as in Atonement (2007), showcases an exciting visual style. His sky-to-ground (or vice versa) tracking shots get used a bit too often but are stunning nonetheless; the way he visually isolates Churchill (in elevators, for instance) is also quite nice. But how about the history here?

The focus on Dunkirk oddly erases the lead up to that moment, and in particular the decidedly disastrous decisions (based on misplaced confidence in France’s fighting plan) that left all those troops on the beach in the first place. The film’s portraits of Churchill’s appeasing opponents are, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft notes in the New York Review of Books, “coarse caricatures, outrageous in the case of Halifax, who was the least enthusiastic of the appeasers.” The whole sequence from adventures Underground through the rousing of the Outer Cabinet were pure fabrication; as Ian Jack writes: “No, he did none of these things. The scene was absurd.”

And Churchill’s climactic speech Wright frames again in terms of Englishness. “What just happened?” an MP wonders amid the unanimous cheers and tossed papers that greet the address, and Halifax responds: “He mobilized the English language and set it out to battle,” an ironic concession from the man who, earlier in the film had dismissed Churchill’s assertion that the Channel was “our moat, our battlement” with the declaration: “What is to stop Herr Hitler, then? Words, words, words, words alone.” The actual response was hardly unalloyed endorsement. As Wheatcroft notes: “the Tory benches were sullenly subdued through his first famous speeches in May and June.” But sullenness hardly fits the fusion of great-man and populist rallying of the (insular, white) nation that Wright’s film shapes.  

The whitening of history reinforces the xenophobic tropes in contemporary Brexit debates.  Zadie Smith, in her brilliant essay “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” writes: “The painful truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted.” Yet the problem Brexit presents is that it displaces and projects those divisions, turning those internal divides into an us-versus-them opposition between Britain and the world, and erecting a new fence as a response. Films such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, by entrenching populist, whitewashed, simplified, and insular myths for the complexities of real history, evade the necessary confrontation.