Tuesday, 23 January 2018

'Darkest Hour': The Continuing Romanticisation of Winston Churchill

by Mark Docherty

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill is the man who won the War for Britain. His premiership saw an upturn in the fortunes of the country and he almost single-handedly kept the morale of the nation positive despite the horrors of wartime. When Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister, Churchill was the only man who could have taken power, and he duly stepped in to save the country. 

That is the view given in Gary Oldman’s Darkest Hour, anyway.

Churchill is a national hero and history will always place him amongst the great British Prime Ministers. In the modern era it is realistically impossible to criticise the likes of Churchill without being branded as unpatriotic. Social media is constantly rife with political activists arguing that Churchill is representative of their party’s positions and claiming that he would or wouldn’t be in favour of Brexit. 

However, while it cannot be denied that Churchill was an unqualified success as a war leader, his reputation as one of the great politicians in history is surely unrepresentative of his career as a whole. While historical films are not known for giving a wholly reliable account of the times they document, it is distressing to see the extent to which characters such as Churchill are romanticised by the public at large.

There is a valid argument to say that films such as Darkest Hour have no obligation to be true to history as their only responsibility is to entertain those who pay to watch them. This is true, and it is also true that a film criticising Churchill would probably be financially unsuccessful and be accused of anti-patriotism. Perhaps this casts light on a problem with wider society: if people learn about the past through semi-fictional films and films need to romanticise and exaggerate in order to make profit, history will always be looked upon in a nostalgic way, misleading generation after generation. 

This is not a new phenomenon; even going back to the 18th century unrepresentative media outlets have been changing the way history is looked upon. An engraving by Paul Revere led to the perception of the ‘Boston Massacre’ in 1770 as a premeditated slaughter, even though just five Bostonians were killed by a regiment of soldiers which was under heavy provocation from mob action. The reliance of society on art as a means of historical education has always been a problem and is continuing to muddy public perception of the past.

To focus on the example of the newly released Darkest Hour, I would question the portrayal of Churchill as a flawed character who overcame opposition from those who wanted to see the government brought down. Lord Halifax, for example, is shown as being the main ‘villain’ of the story - at least within Britain - despite the fact that he directly endorsed Churchill as Chamberlain’s replacement when offered the office of Prime Minister himself. The film also shows Churchill taking the tube to Westminster and asking his carriage about their views on potentially entering into peace talks with Hitler, effectively suggesting that he championed democracy. However, in truth Churchill centralised power to an almost unprecedented degree, addressing Parliament just once between being installed as Prime Minister and briefing them about preparations for the Battle of Britain.

Regardless of the extent to which Darkest Hour glorifies Churchill’s War leadership, it was certainly a success. Approval ratings remained between 77% and 87% throughout his premiership which was undoubtedly key to Britain’s survival during the Second World War, but it is simply fantastical to claim that Britain’s victory can be solely credited to the Prime Minister. The entrance of the USA in 1941 was far more of a turning point, and all Churchill can truly be given credit for is sustaining the morale of the public for long enough for help to arrive from across the Atlantic. The fact is that films such as Darkest Hour will always portray national heroes as faultless, so the public’s perception will be that Churchill’s career was an unqualified success.

They will never draw attention to Churchill’s failures in the defeat in Norway or the debacle at Gallipoli during the First World War, nor the borderline warmongering during the strikes in Tonypandy or the Sidney Street Siege before the War. The fact is that military failures do not make good films unless they have a miraculous ending and the odds are somehow defeated. The prime example of this is another recent movie release; one that is intrinsically linked to Darkest Hour. Dunkirk glossed over the fact that a huge proportion of the army was lost in a military defeat which saw the forces in open retreat, focusing on the sacrifices of the British civilians. The only films worth making are the ones where the odds are defeated. The British film industry is not quite as prone to glorifying the past as their American counterparts, but so long as the public looks to it as a source of education, our perception of history will become further and further from the truth. Films are accused of glorifying war. I would argue they glorify history itself.

Though there is no exact science to find an answer, I do wonder how much of a role films have played in the 21st century trend of anti-establishment politics. The link between Donald Trump, Brexit, Le Pen and the rise of extremism on the whole is the emphasis on nostalgia during campaigns. ‘Make America great again’ and ‘take back control’ both glorify the past, and it would be interesting to know whether voters would be so receptive to nostalgic rhetoric if they had not been subjected to a barrage of films glorifying the past. Realistically speaking, we are not going to see much change in this regard. The highest-grossing films are the ones which glorify the past; it is more entertaining to watch a film than to read a textbook. Therefore, the public will continue to view history in a nostalgic light until there is a change of attitudes. It will be intriguing to see whether there are films in fifty years which glorify the current governments or leaders. Will movies document Theresa May’s unlikely march to a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’?

Only time will tell. But it will be the script writers and directors who truly decide how our era is remembered.

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