Why are we still obsessed with 1940? Anyone who experienced World War II as an adult is now nearly one hundred years old. Since then we have seen major wars in Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and Yugoslavia, and more Arab-Israeli wars than can easily be counted. We have experienced Suez, the end of Apartheid, the horrors of Pol Pot, Mao’s unhinged Cultural Revolution, the murderous attack on Manhattan in 2001, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the extraordinary drama of Communism’s fall. Each of these contains enough moral lessons to last us a lifetime. All were spectacular. And yet they cannot seem to eclipse, in the public mind, a morally ambivalent war that ended seventy-three years ago, which was fought with the utmost ruthlessness, and one of whose victors was an appalling despotism of lies and murder.
In the past few months two major Hollywood movies have returned, yet again, to the supposed finest hour of the English-speaking peoples. The first, a wearisome and noisy depiction of the evacuation of Dunkirk by a defeated British Army, bored me silly and left my ears ringing and my stomach faintly heaving. It had almost no story and reduced the complicated, upsetting event to spectacle. As I watched it, half-deafened by the racket and sunk in gloom by the ceaseless scenes of drowning, I began to long for the Germans to arrive, in the hope that they might bring a plot with them. Yet Dunkirk has been met with what seems to be genuine enthusiasm among moviegoers who are far too young to have any personal interest in the subject.
But this was only a foretaste of the still more incomprehensible enthusiasm for Darkest Hour—yet another film about Winston Churchill defying Hitler and fighting on. It is reported (though I’ve seen no exact locations named) that people in British movie theaters have been rising to applaud the closing scene, a rather damp and slow rendition of Churchill’s famous pledge to fight the Germans on the beaches, which did nothing for me. But, alas, most of this stuff does nothing for me—because I know what actually happened.
May I explain something important here, to forestall some of the responses I know I will receive? I think Winston Churchill was right to refuse to make terms with Hitler in 1940.
Everything else about the film is, more or less, rubbish. We are supposed to admire the fashionable actor Gary Oldman for impersonating Churchill, but I am really not convinced that this is such a great feat. Growl a bit, and smoke a huge cigar, and you’re halfway there. Someone will come along and plaster you with makeup and latex to make you look like a big baby. The good lines are all written for you.
Mr. Oldman himself seems an odd choice for the part. Albert Finney did a far better job a few years ago. Robert Hardy, who played the Last Lion so many times he almost became him, was alas taken from us last year and so not available.
Anyway, the choice fell upon Mr. Oldman. What manner of person is he? I do not know, but he recently told a London newspaper that Churchill was in some ways comparable to two other famous Britons he has portrayed on film. These are “Sid Vicious,” a punk rocker in a group called the Sex Pistols, in the noted film Sid and Nancy, and the, er, unconventional and original 1960s playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears.
“They were all anti-establishment and in their own peculiar way they were all eccentric,” Oldman said. “Churchill ate breakfast in bed along with a glass of champagne. He dictated memos from the bath. And, along with Vicious and Orton, Churchill shared that wonderful, dark British humour.”
Here is part of the difficulty. I am afraid I have not seen the films about Sid Vicious or Joe Orton. I hope I never have to, as I am unenthusiastic about either subject. But, though Mr. Oldman, who is for some reason extremely fashionable, may actually think that Churchill is in the tradition of Messrs. Vicious and Orton, I am not so sure.
Despite Winston Churchill’s bathtub dictation and his breakfast champagne habit, I do not think that the man himself, a lover, above all things, of grandeur, chivalry, and poetry, would much have liked the Britain of Joe Orton or “Sid Vicious” (a heroin abuser whose real name was John Ritchie, and who died aged twenty-two while on bail on a charge of assault). I do not think the British wartime prime minister would have seen the connection. Nor do I think he would have been pleased to think that he had helped to bring about a Britain in which such men’s lives were significant and even admired.
Most laughable of all the film’s many fictional scenes dressed up as fact is a visit by Mr. Churchill to the London Subway. There he boards a train and recites Macaulay to the common folk, who are overcome with patriotism and urge him to fight on. Churchill, an aristocrat and not embarrassed about it, was as likely to drink brown ale, smoke cheap cigarettes, and eat fish and chips in the street as he was to travel on the London Underground. And the British people in May 1940, as more accurately shown in a 1958 film about Dunkirk, were filled with doubts about the war. Its alleged purpose—the salvation of Poland—had disappeared months before when that country vanished from the map.
What Churchill knew, and they didn’t, was that Hitler’s peace terms would be initially attractive, insidious, and, in the long run, disastrous. Hitler would have made sure we were permanently stripped of the power and the wealth to fight him again. If Germany had then gone on to destroy the Soviet Union, we would have been powerless to resist being absorbed into Hitler’s new order, if only as a dingy, remote, and declining satellite. If the USSR had survived, it would not lightly have forgiven us, let alone helped to rescue us.
Actually, this danger lay in the near future, whatever Britain did. We had no army to speak of. We had no hope of returning to the European Continent by our own efforts. All our best weapons were defensive. France was supine. On the other side of the world our hopelessly vulnerable and complacent eastern empire was at the mercy of Japan. None of Churchill’s defiant speeches would have done much good against a triumphant Stalin or Hitler, in control of the whole European continent, the oil of Baku, the wheatfields of Ukraine, and the coal and iron of Germany, France, and Scandinavia. They would have been little use against the large and modern French Navy tied up in Toulon, and the sleek Italian Fleet. But if anyone became final master of all Europe, he would have had these resources.
So Churchill, thinking with great speed and acuteness, calculated that the only future for Britain was as an American client. He was one of the few Englishmen who knew much about America. Unlike most British people of that age, he had travelled to the U.S. often, had many American friends, and understood the country’s culture and politics. That is why he had few illusions about throwing himself on Washington’s mercy, though even he would be surprised by the coldness of the charity he eventually got.
By the spring of 1940, Britain had almost no money left, and it would soon be completely stripped of its life savings, as the American sheriffs came in to check that there was no gold hidden under the national mattress. Congress insisted on this before agreeing to the supposedly selfless and generous Lend Lease Act, whose official title (HR 1776) was a mocking thumb in the old colonial master’s eye. At one stage Churchill had to be persuaded by diplomats not to send a furious letter complaining about this humiliating means test.
But there was a reason for this. Britain’s World War I debt to America was still unpaid (shockingly, it is still unpaid to this day), and there were plenty in the House and the Senate who remembered this all too well. They also remembered the skilled but misleading British propaganda of 1914 and afterwards, which had persuaded many Americans that the war against the Kaiser was a crusade against unspeakable barbarism. Never in human history has the parable of the boy who cried wolf been more accurately borne out.
This time, there would be a reckoning. If we in Britain wanted American help, we must accept American desires. To stay in the war, Britain must cease forever to be an empire and independent world power. Of course this prospect was far better than the alternative. Churchill had the global and historical understanding to grasp this fact, and enough American in him to reckon that America’s chilly mercy would be better than Germany’s smiling triumph.
This story is largely unknown to this day in Britain, where a childish fable of brotherhood and love is widely believed. I would welcome a motion picture that finally dispelled this twaddle and introduced British public opinion to the grown-up world. In this world, the Finest and Darkest Hours were in fact reluctant but necessary steps down the crumbling staircase of national decline. They would end with our far-called navies melting away, our power and wealth gone, our government in the hands of the European Union, and the force and mind of our culture all too accurately represented by Sid Vicious and Joe Orton.
I would go farther, and point out that the 1939 conflict was a war of choice, on poor ground and at a bad time, which we then lost in all but name, handing it over to others—the USA and the USSR—to finish in ways that did not much suit us. Oddly enough it was Lord Halifax, portrayed in Darkest Hour as a feeble peacemonger, who had actively maneuvered us into a war with Germany ten days after Hitler had signed a pact with Stalin which completely undermined our whole strategy.
All this matters, above all, because the mistaken belief that the war was fought to save the Jews of Europe (which we failed to do) or “stand up to tyranny” (which cannot accurately describe handing half of Europe to Stalin) still haunts the national and international mind. And by doing so it feeds new and dangerous adventures, such as the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. Yet a film that told the truth about it, even now, would not just fail to win applause. It would probably provoke angry walk-outs.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.