by Alan Allport, Guest Contributor
“The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.” So declared Winston Churchill in his address to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. Churchill was speaking on the same day that Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of Allied forces from the Dunkirk beaches, formally ended. Thanks to the efforts of DYNAMO, most of the men (though not the equipment or weapons) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had been trapped in a small pocket of northern Flanders thanks to the success of the German Blitzkrieg, had been successfully extracted from France back across the English Channel.
But from Churchill’s point of view on June 4, 1940, the campaign in France, and Britain’s involvement in it, was far from over. “We have our duty to our Ally,” he pointed out to his fellow MPs. RAF aircraft were still operating from bases in western France on June 4. British strategic bombers would soon be arriving at airfields near Marseilles to begin raids on Italy, which was (correctly) expected to declare war on the Allies any day. Even as the bedraggled veterans of the Dunkirk campaign were disembarking at southern English ports, the 52nd Lowland and 1st Canadian infantry divisions were preparing to cross the Channel in the opposite direction, to join the British 1st Armoured and 51st Highland infantry divisions still in France. Churchill conceived of them as a second BEF which would help the French push back the Germans massing along the Somme and reestablish stability on the Western Front. As he made clear to the Commons on June 4, he did not believe that the catastrophe at Dunkirk had made the fall of France inevitable. “There is no reason why we should not in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us,” he said. Churchill would take considerable persuading over the weeks to follow that France really was doomed to defeat and that further assistance to Britain’s ally would serve no purpose.
None of this, however, makes it into the version of the speech that audiences hear in Joe Wright’s biopic Darkest Hour (2017). So far as Darkest Hour is concerned, it is the Prime Minister’s famous peroration which matters. Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, assures the Commons that Britain will “fight on the beaches … on the landing grounds … in the fields and in the streets” rather than surrender; that he and his compatriots will “defend our island home … if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” To be sure, the movie includes Churchill’s promise that “we shall fight in France”; but this is very much a throwaway remark. Wright’s story, which ends with the successful evacuation from Dunkirk and Churchill’s fervent roar of defiance, leaves its audience in little doubt that the Anglo-French alliance is already doomed by the beginning of June 1940. The future of the war, and further resistance to Nazi tyranny, is very much all in Britain’s hands now – at least until the intervention of the United States after Pearl Harbor.
Indeed, although Darkest Hour spends little time concerning itself with Churchill’s French counterparts one way or the other, the film drops more than a few hints that the whole Anglo-French partnership was, from Britain’s point of view, a mistake from the beginning. At one of his first Chiefs of Staff meetings as Prime Minister, a shocked Churchill is informed by General Ironside that “the entire French Ninth Army – some 200,000 men – have capitulated … surrendered, deserted. It was a rout.” Further evidence of French lassitude is soon provided when Churchill flies across the Channel to rally the leaders of the Third Republic. “We must rouse our old friends to a heroic resistance,” the old warrior insists: but the film makes it clear that this is one of Churchill’s touchingly naïve fantasies, and one that is about to be cruelly exposed. At his meeting with Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, the British leader’s enjoinments for the French Army to immediately counterattack the Germans are met with cool Gallic cynicism. “We have lost,” Reynaud baldly responds. “He’s delusional”, he adds to his colleague Daladier as Churchill’s plane departs. “He’s English,” Daladier notes. The film strongly concurs with Daladier’s view. If the fight against Hitler is to continue, Darkest Hour suggests, les Anglo-Saxons can expect little further assistance from their Francophone neighbors. They simply do not have the same right stuff.
Dunkirk, the other 2017 movie blockbuster which covers much the same historical territory as Darkest Hour, comes to similar conclusions regarding the Anglo-French alliance of 1940. As one of its promotional taglines declares: “When 400,00 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” Never mind that around half of those 400,000 Allied troops trapped in the Dunkirk pocket were already ‘home’ in May 1940, being French or Belgian troops; Dunkirk is very much a story of deliverance to safety from a hostile and foreign place, of a doomed and foolish overseas venture in the service of incompetent and untrustworthy allies. “Survival is victory”, goes another of the film’s taglines. Survival, for Dunkirk, is to be understood strictly in British terms. Survival after this continental disaster will, after all, be a prelude to victory in the Battle of Britain and all the moral grandeur of the Churchillian ‘finest hour’ of 1940.
The film addresses the question of Britain’s responsibility to its allies most directly in the sequence in which a group of BEF soldiers confront a Frenchmen who has been hiding in their midst, disguised in British Army uniform, and trying, like them, to get off the beaches. The soldiers are making a bid for escape in a leaky trawler; at least one of them must disembark, presumably to be shot by the enemy, if the vessel is to stay afloat. “A Frog! A bloody Frog! A cowardly little queue-jumping Frog!” one of the British soldiers snarls when the duplicity is revealed. Another soldier, ‘Tommy’, tries to defend the Frenchman: “we’re on the same side!” he reminds his comrades. The dialogue that follows is a performance in miniature of the whole moral issue at Dunkirk: do the British on the beaches still have a continuing obligation of any kind to an ally which (it is strongly implied) has let them down so badly?
“It’s not fair!”
“Survival’s not fair.”
“He saved our lives.”
“And he’s about to do it again … we need someone to get off so the rest of us can live – you want to volunteer?”
“Fuck no. I’m going home.”
“And if this is the price?”
“I’ll live with it, but it’s wrong.”
While the film shows some sympathy for Tommy’s moral qualms, it also suggests that the ruthless logic of the other British soldiers might be more defensible in the service of the greater good. “We need our army back,” the unnamed senior naval officer in charge of the evacuation mutters off-the-record when he is asked if he will honor Churchill’s promise to evacuate French and British soldiers at the same rate. Dunkirk offers little challenge to this cold-blooded calculation. If squeamish considerations for the fate of the French had overridden all other concerns, it suggests, then the war might have been lost there and then on the beaches in May 1940. Perfidious Albion was quite right to think solely of its own needs at the moment of crisis.
It’s perhaps not surprising that these visions of British moral exceptionalism and the necessity of detachment from continental entanglements have struck a sensitive chord in the UK in the months following the troubled Brexit vote. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and the bête noire of embattled ‘Remainers’, has urged young Britons to go out and see Dunkirk. Gary Oldman has been asked what he thinks Churchill would have made of Brexit. The London Times journalist Jenni Russell has lamented that Dunkirk was released at this particular moment, for its “narrative of heroic retreat in order to fight another day, cannot help but feed the national pride in Britain’s capacity to triumph eventually, no matter what the odds … nothing could be less helpful to our collective psyche.” Ian Jack accuses the two films of “feeding Brexit fantasies.” Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk’s director, has denied any such thing. Patrick Porter backs Nolan up, insisting that the film “does not end simply celebrating homecoming and a departure from Europe.” Anthony King demurs, seeing Dunkirk as “structured around the question of British nationalism” in a way that depicts “home [as] the only redemption from the alienating emptiness” of France.
The significance of these films for a British people wrestling with their conception of themselves and their place in the world is understandable enough. What is interesting is the extent to which Churchillian and Dunkirk myths might also be resonating with modern American audiences. Both films, though preoccupied with purely British historical stories, and without any leading American characters or actors, have done very well at the US box office. Dunkirk has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Darkest Hour too is up for Best Picture, with five other nominations, including Gary Oldman as Best Actor. Churchill’s status, shared only with Lincoln, as the one historical statesman to whom all US politicians wish to be compared, remains as solid as ever. Mike Huckabee attracted much attention, and no end of derision, for his Twitter claims that Darkest Hour demonstrated what “real leadership” looks like, and that in President Trump, “we have a Churchill.”
But perhaps it’s not so surprising that stories of lone Anglophone defiance in a hostile world of babbling foreigners should be gaining traction on the other side of the Atlantic. Most Americans had barely heard of Dunkirk before Nolan’s film. To most of them, perhaps, it remains an obscure overseas battle. But America is going through its own isolationist hour (‘finest’ or not) at the moment: retreating into trade protectionism, eyeing its foreign allies with increasing distrust and resentment, literally raising its border walls. It’s not difficult to see how accounts of a white English-speaking people standing unaided against belligerent aliens might find purchase among certain constituencies of American movie-goers – and voters – in the Trump epoch. Whether they or their President might also see the Dunkirk story as a cautionary tale of the catastrophe that can befall nations that take their allies for granted is not so clear.
Alan Allport is an Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University. His books Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War (2009), and Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945 (2015), are both published by Yale University Press. His forthcoming two-volume history of the Second World War, British Iliad, will be published in North America by Knopf.