Fighting on the beaches of Normandy, surviving the Battle of Britain, enduring the Blitz and escaping from Dunkirk are all scenes common to the national imaginary. Plucky Brits keep calm and carry on while the bombs are falling and others surrender to the enemy.
The British have no founding myths, so the Second World War is a necessary substitute during times of crisis. The Dunkirk spirit is just one figment of the popular imagination. This is why for decades WWII was referred to as ‘the war’ because there could have been no other rival conflict. It was “our finest hour”.
In this narrative, Winston Churchill is the central figure towering over everyone else. His politics and bloodstained record are removed from public memory in favour of his over-the-top, half-drunken speeches.
Naturally, Churchill has returned to cinemas. He was the subject of two major films: Churchill and The Darkest Hour. The latter focuses on the Blitz and the former on the run-up to the D-Day landings.
The Normandy invasion and the Blitz occupy a special place in the British imagination. Despite the fact that the D-Day invasion was the moment of victory, the Blitz seems to rank higher in cinema. This may be why The Darkest Hour was so highly praised.
The brilliant Gary Oldman outshined Brian Cox as the war-time leader. He even won an Oscar and it was deemed a patriotic duty to praise Oldman by some film critics. The myth of the Blitz is still embedded in the way the British like to see themselves.
Of course, the reality of the Blitz is long forgotten. Death was arbitrary and life on rations was bleak. Teenagers robbed the dead and the dying, as did the firemen tasked with rescuing buildings struck by the enemy. Plenty of people blamed Jews for ‘hoarding’ goods. Meanwhile the rich either fled the cities or hid in well-fortified hotels.
At the same time, the fact that WWII could not have been won without Soviet and American support gets lost in all of this. The contribution of colonised peoples – only three million Indians – are conveniently forgotten. Some British people still like to think “we won it really”. This isn’t all too unusual.
Every nation on the winning side wants to claim the credit and all are guilty of ignoring the vital role of other countries. Americans like to think the war began with Pearl Harbour and ended on the beaches of Normandy, whereas Russians prefer to think D-Day was a sideshow to the Eastern Front.
Fortunately, this is not the only way to walk through the fog of war in cinema. It’s possible to subvert the war film in an age prone to romantic illusions about the past. Nor do we have to look too far to find an example of such a film.
The Dunkirk zeitgeist
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was the most thoughtful war film in a long time. It certainly marks a break with the conventions of the genre. Unlike most films set during WWII, Dunkirk is about defeat and survival. Indeed, the film’s tagline was ‘Survival is victory’.
Dunkirk could not have been better timed. After all, the story is about the British getting chased out of Europe by a foe that never really appears in the camera frame – except as silhouettes.
I don’t think I need to spell out why such a plot is captivating after June 2016. If we frame the film in this way, the evacuation has an ambiguous dual meaning: withdrawal is a defeat and a humiliation, but the potential for victory is still ahead of us.
The strengths of the film are precisely what critics claimed were its weaknesses: the lack of ‘drama’, character development and proper dialogue. None of these things are really missing, but what is missing is a crap Hollywood love story that just happens to take place during the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Nolan wanted to return to film as a universal language. It has more in common with silent cinema in this regard. The story is an interwoven set of narratives and timelines moving at different paces.
We watch as soldiers run for their lives, cower from gunfire and die by chance. All to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, where Elgar’s Nimrod – the sound of remembrance for many Brits – is synthesised and slowed down to stretch the limits of its tones.
The patriotic moment in Dunkirk is a catharsis for the audience. After the relentless pace of soldiers trying desperately to get off the beach, we get the sight of rescue boats arriving with Union Jacks flying and Kenneth Branagh very nearly weeps on our behalf. Britain is on its way to safety, out of Europe.
No wonder some critics felt the film was still a jingoistic fantasy. A certain amount of patriotism may have been inevitable, but it was not the dominant mood of the film. Even when Churchill’s speech is read out, it’s not given the kind of reverence it would have in other movies.
Nolan has a much subtler approach. The flag-wagging scenes are all situated as desperation in the midst of bombs falling from above. It’s not a montage of the boys mowing down foreigners to ‘Rule Britannia’. Instead of triumphalism, we get the final shot of a crash landing behind enemy lines.
Building a counter-narrative
There have been many attempts to raise a red flag over the film industry. Nonetheless, the right has long maintained its stranglehold on war nostalgia. The only opposition came from liberal filmmakers who contested the right’s nationalism, but always with serious limits.
The US film industry has perfected its version of the American war against Vietnam. The reality of the war is often reduced to the suffering and malaise of US troops. As Oliver Stone summed it up with Platoon’s tagline “the first victim of war is innocence”.
The best Hollywood could do was Apocalypse Now. Borrowing from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella on the Belgian Congo, Francis Ford Coppola managed to recast the Vietnam war as an existential journey through senseless violence.
There are directors who have tried to forge a progressive film scene – particularly outside the war genre – but it’s always been a struggle to make captivating historical films. Take Peterloo, where Mike Leigh tried his best to make a good film of the August 1819 massacre at St. Peter’s Fields. The results are watchable, but it could have been so much more.
For those who don’t know, the Peterloo massacre was a major event in the struggle for democracy in Britain. More than 60,000 people gathered in a protest for the right to vote. The government’s militias charged on the crowds wounding several hundred people and killing at least a dozen civilians.
The Peterloo massacre deserves a place in popular memory. Yet it’s very rarely discussed and the only remnant of its memory may be the fact that so many British people consider the vote a duty because “people died for the right to vote”.
Unfortunately, Mike Leigh fails to make a mark with his film. Not only is the story made up of speeches, but the importance of the event is also barely conveyed. The film is constrained by the limits of its genre, it fails to subvert the conventions of historical dramas.
Unlike Nolan, Leigh sticks to a rigidly realist approach to the story. It should be a film about struggle and even martyrdom, and yet it turns out to be a film of conversations and speeches about a world that remains obscure to the audience. It’s good at getting the facts right, but it isn’t the film it should be.
What’s lacking is a fusion of drama and myth. The film carries as its tagline the famous words of Piercy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, however, the poem and its significance are left out of the film. Leigh could have spilt the banks of realism, but he chose convention instead.
The best progressive British film in recent times is I, Daniel Blake. In this anti-austerity campaign film, director Ken Loach takes the stories of unnamed benefit claimants and rolls them into the character of Daniel Blake and his struggle with life on universal credit. It’s the only film where food banks and dole queues feature among its most important scenes.
The response of the tabloid press and right-wing politicians was very revealing. Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng insisted the film was “inaccurate”, and the alleged journalist Toby Young claimed the film “didn’t ring true”. We were told the portrayal of Daniel Blake couldn’t be accurate because he was sober, didn’t smoke or gamble his benefits away.
Nevertheless, the film touched a nerve in British society precisely because it was so relatable to a large swathe of the country suffering under the weight of decades of austerity. Though the case of Loach’s film is the exception rather than the rule. I, Daniel Blake reflects society rather than carves out an emotive narrative about its past and where it should be in a post-EU future.
Building a sense of who we are today is what the right has been so good at in popular culture and why its ideas have gained traction in a society with no clear sense of its own history. The nostalgia industry of war films needs to be challenged. But the left has to learn how to make great films again.
Perhaps, a drama about the human cost of Brexit? Something personal, set in a civilian context like I, Daniel Blake, in an immigrant community in Manchester, or London, would be a good start.
Photograph courtesy of Falcon Photography. Published under a Creative Commons license.