Darkest Hour: War, class and Winston Churchill

It was not the positive image of Winston Churchill that put me off the film Darkest Hour. It wasn’t the representation of people calling for peace. It wasn’t the historical inaccuracies. It was the portrayal of working class characters, and in paricular Churchill’s brief interaction with a group of working class people on a tube train.

Darkest Hour is primarily about a decision facing the British government in May 1940: to keep on fighting, depite devastating losses and German millitary superiority, or to enter peace negotations with the Nazi regime. It was an unenviable decision, choosing between two horrendous possibilities. The film pits Churchill, who would “never surrender”, against those pushing for a negotiated peace, notably Edward Wood (Viscount Halifax). The film’s bias is clearly in favour of Churchill: an easy postion to cheer with the benefit of hindsight, removed from the millions who died as an invasion of Britain was prevented, more by luck than anything else.

When I was a child, Churchill was frequently presented as an uncomplicated hero. Nowadays, it is much more common to see him potrayed as a flawed hero. Many people are well aware that Churchill was rude, indecisive and an alcoholic. References are less frequent to his racist attitudes, brutality as Home Secretary and opposition to votes for women and free secondary education. However, there are people who recognise all this but still see him as the saviour of Britain during World War Two. If he’s no longer convincing as an unblemished hero, then a flawed hero is still a hero.

Darkest Hour portrays Churchill’s rudeness as a comical, almost endearing quality. Despite my problems with the film’s biases, I appreciated that proponents of a negotiated peace were presented relatively sympathetically and their arguments given a hearing. I was enjoying watching the film, until the scene around three-quarters of the way through in which Churchill spontaneously leaves his government car and travels on the London Underground.

In recognising Churchill’s flaws, the film acknowledges his elite background, mentioning early on that he has never travelled on a tube train. When he enters the tube train later in the film, he talks to seven or eight working class people, to discover what “the people” think about a negotiated peace.

The portrayal is patronising in the extreme. Improbably, they all have exactly the same view – opposition to peace negotations. They are uniformly deferential to Churchill, and offer their views only after he asks them a highly biased question in extremely simplistic terms. The fact that one of them is black seems to be an attempt to ward off assocations of Churchill with racism.

The aristocrats, royals and upper middle class politicians who argue with each other throughout the film are considered intelligent enough to have a range of nuanced views. The working class characters, allowed to appear only briefly, are given only simplistic statements to utter.

Historical inaccuracies are inevitable in films; some flexibility is essential to make the story flow. And I can cope with a film having a different bias to my own. What I can’t cope with is the absurd notion that Churchill decided to rule out peace negotations because of an encounter with “the people” – in the form of a handful of randomly selected individuals on a tube train.

The rights or wrongs of entering peace negotiations in May 1940 should certainly be debated a lot more than they are. More importantly, however, we need to address the way in whch World War Two influences our culture, our politics and our society. Every military action today is equated with World War Two by those who support it. Every tyrant opposed by UK governments is compared to Hitler (but not the many tyrants supported by UK governments). Everyone supporting peace or cuts to military spending is compared, with staggering inaccuracy, to people who backed appeasment in the 1930s. The portrayal of Churchill as a hero is magnified and mlutiplied by the refusal to recognise allied atrocities, as if the greater atrocities of the Nazis make all other actions OK.

Perhaps worst of all, the myth of Britain “standing alone” against Hitler is used to portray war as inevitable and right. This is possible only by blanking out all sorts of facts and possibilities from our collective memory.

That thoughts of World War Two should still exercise so much influence is perhaps unsurprising. This is no reason to be naïve about it, or to refuse to challenge one-sided narratives that continue to be used to justify war, nationalism and militarism today. It is a shame that a film as well acted and directed as Darkest Hour essentially serves as fuel to the militarist myth machine.

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