New films about the Second World War peddle fantasies of national greatness—and capture the mood of Brexit Britainby Piers Brendon / June 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few months ago I was asked to talk to the cast and crew of a feature film entitled Darkest Hour (out this November), starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife Clementine. The director, Joe Wright, wanted me to provide a biographical analysis of the prime minister and some historical background to the crisis engulfing the country at the end of May 1940. Then, as France was collapsing under the German onslaught and the Dunkirk evacuation was taking place, Churchill imposed the decision to fight on, alone if necessary, despite pleas within his own war cabinet, notably from Lord Halifax, that Britain should seek a negotiated settlement with Hitler.
I tried to provide a helpful character study of Churchill in the context of this existential drama. But I suspect the occasion was more interesting to me than it was to my audience. In the wake of our session, I was asked what I thought of some large photographs of Churchill pinned up at the back of the room. Peering at them myopically, I expressed surprise that I had never seen these images before. This got a good laugh at my expense because they were, in fact, pictures of Gary Oldman in character. I was fooled not only by the familiar props—hat, cigar, bow tie and stick—but by Oldman’s uncannily Churchillian expression. He was the British bulldog to the life, an incarnation of strength, courage and tenacity.
These qualities will be badly needed as we stand alone once again during the Brexit debacle. Indeed, the difficulty of negotiating a happy outcome plainly emerged from Theresa May’s election mantra about strong and stable leadership. Her slogan “Forward Together” also echoed a famous Churchill poster. And while she didn’t get the majority she wanted, May still managed to garner more than 13m votes. So it may be more than a coincidence that at least three other films dealing with the war, all of them British or British-supported productions, are released in this non-anniversary year.
In April came Their Finest, starring Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy, which tells the story of the making of a morale-boosting movie about the miracle of Dunkirk for the Ministry of Information, set against the background of the Blitz. In mid-June came Churchill, a study of the great man, ageing and harrowed by memories of the disastrous landings at Gallipoli in the First World War, as he confronts the prospect of D-Day, with Brian Cox in the title role supported by Miranda Richardson as Clementine. Finally, to cap them all, is Dunkirk, an epic treatment of the evacuation directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar) and starring Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. It is billed as the most ambitious war film since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). But perhaps Ridley Scott’s Battle of Britain, plans for which were recently unveiled, will in another year or two prove to be equally spectacular.