The Oscars take place early March and two movies about Britain in 1940—Dunkirk and Darkest Hour—have plenty of nominations, notably for Gary Oldman’s imitation of Winston Churchill and the remarkable cinematography of Dunkirk.
Yet both are full of historical nonsense and are actually Brexit films—made to allow movie-goers in Brexit Britain to wallow in the warm bath of nostalgia for English superiority when Britain was utterly cut off from Europe and everyone felt united and closer to the English-speaking Empire and the United States rather than beastly Nazis or cowardly, capitulationist French.
Oldman joins a long list of actors who have tried to portray Churchill. But he actually portrays other actors’ Churchill take. There are very few radio or TV recordings of Churchill speaking and the voice is slow and pedantic as he reads a text carefully written out beforehand. Churchill never claimed to be an orator and praised other natural speakers in his political life like Lloyd George or Labour’s brilliant speaker, the former miner, Aneurin Bevan, as much better speakers.
In Darkest Hour, the broken Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of appeasement is presented as a bitter enemy of Churchill. In fact, Chamberlain told King George VI to make Churchill prime minister, as the only Conservative politician the Labour party and trade unions would serve under in a wartime coalition.
The film presents the Labour leader and postwar prime minister, Clement Attlee, as a ranting demagogue denouncing Chamberlain in a bitter House of Commons speech.
Attlee never made such a speech. He was a determined socialist but a mild-manned public school and Oxford educated middle class politician who never raised his voice, waved his arms around, or shouted when speaking.
Both films show the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk as a miracle performed by hundreds of pleasure craft and small boats hastily commandeered on southern English coastal resorts and fishing boat harbors.
The vast bulk of the 330,000 British and allied soldiers brought back from Dunkirk embarked from a long mole onto 40 British destroyers and cruisers. The film ends with Sir Kenneth Branagh playing a Royal Naval officer bravely staying behind to help French soldiers evacuate to England. In truth, 100,000 French soldiers were brought back to England at the same time as the British Army.
The French Army lost 40,000 men defending the Dunkirk evacuation perimeter and the sacrifice of French soldiers is written out of the movie, which presents the story as one of English heroism and glory in contrast to the wicked or fainéant continentals. Similarly, in Darkest Hour, French politicians are presented as drooling idiots in contrast to stiff-upper-lipped Brits.
Dunkirk has a Spitfire landing gently on the water, floating for a while as a dramatic struggle to save the pilot unfolds. The Spitfire’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine weighed 2,800 kilograms and any plane landing on water would have tipped over front-first to sink instantly.
Darkest Hour has a surreal scene in which Churchill takes the London metro from Downing Street to the House of Commons—a walk of three minutes. On the Underground the new prime minister exchanges verses from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome with a cheerful young black man. There were a handful of Afro-Caribbeans in London in 1940 but Churchill never took the metro and the idea that 19th century imperial poetry was on the lips of black Londoners is surreal.
Churchill was able to form his coalition because the Labour Party was holding its annual conference at the time of the May 1940 crisis when Chamberlain resigned. Les militants voted to allow Labour to enter the coalition. This of course does not feature in the movie.
Labour and Attlee were far more aware of European fascism in contrast to Churchill, who praised Mussolini as a statesman who has “rendered a service to the whole world … a Roman genius—the greatest lawgiver amongst men.”
Prewar Tory appeasement policy allowed Hitler a free hand in the Rhineland, the Spanish Civil War, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Labour knew from its social democratic comrades in Germany and Austria, from trade unions, and from a network of Jewish contacts what Hitlerism amounted to.
Churchill opposed Germany’s hegemonic ambitions in Europe, which he saw as a strategic threat to the British Empire.
Thus the strongly anti-Labour and anti-trade union Churchill combined with Attlee, Labour, and the trade unions in a coalition against Hitler that not just helped defeat Nazism (with more than a little input from the Soviet Union, and in due course from the U.S.), but went on to reshape Britain after 1945.
Darkest Hour has Churchill talking to President Roosevelt on a secure transatlantic telephone line. The first of those telephone calls took place in 1943. Roosevelt in 1940 had to win his third election by promising American mothers their sons would not be sent to fight in a European war.
In 1946, Churchill called for the creation of a “United States of Europe,” in contrast to Attlee’s Labour government, which resisted any role in the first steps towards European integration in 1950.
As a former MP, I can say the scenes in Darkest Hour of the House of Commons are just wrong. It is an intimate conversational chamber not one where MPs orate and thump the despatch box and wave their arms in the air.
Perhaps none of this matters. A movie is a movie not a historical monograph. But both films are peak nostalgia about a Britain utterly disconnected from Europe and all the better for it. They belong to today’s Brexit-era propaganda about an imagined Britain in 1940 that never existed. But the majority of older English voters for whom the Britain of 1940 was better, purer, and true to itself precisely because it was cut off from the continent is the Britain they dream of recreating outside the European Union.