Britain's Entry into World War II Led to Its Second-Rate Status

With Darkest Hour and Dunkirk (and perhaps we could include 2016’s Their Finest), it’s been a banner time for films on the early years of the British role in World War II. I am, however, not quite as big a fan of either Darkest Hour or Dunkirk as many others.

While a solid film, I would not give my highest rating to Darkest Hour. (Spoiler alert.) I understand that historical films must make up many details to fit stories into a two-hour or so timeframe. These choices require a light touch, however. In contrast, the pivotal scene in the Darkest Hour was a contrivance. The screenplay made too much of Churchill’s (made-up) ride on the Underground. Churchill, beset by doubts about the proper course of action in response to France’s crumbling resistance, gets out of his limo on his way to Parliament, heads down to the Tube, and boards the train headed to Westminster. Here he chats with a car full of everyday Brits. They tell him exactly what he wants to hear. He departs with renewed vigor to double down on fighting Germany militarily. He carries Parliament with him. The scene was the emotional high point of the film, and was much too pat for a good story.

If in fact Churchill’s decision to oppose Germany militarily rather than seek a negotiated peace resulted from a 10-minute chat with awestruck Londoners, then more’s the pity. In fact, however, I think Churchill is better than that. The scene, moving as it was, nonetheless trivialized the critically important decision to go to war against the Nazis. And, of course, the scene never happened. It’s good moviemaking, but poor story telling. It’s a very good film nonetheless; I’ve watched it twice already despite my snark.

On the other hand, I thought Dunkirk a beautiful looking film. But a bore. Again I fault the screenplay. Focusing the Army’s side of the story on a couple of distasteful line jumpers put me off. I understand they were desperate. I would be, too. While watching the film, however, I begged it to cut away from the line jumpers and instead tell me the stories of a few of the thousands upon thousands of men who grimly waited their turns on the beach in the hope of rescue. To be sure, not much action with waiting on a beach. Just intermittent strafing, and dying. Yet the inaction of any of these courageous thousands would have been more interesting, more moving, than the story of the line jumpers. The line jumpers are obvious. The thousands who waited their turns, that’s a story. Even if the camera goes nowhere.

Both films focus on the start of the war for Britain. Understandably. The irony is that, despite winning the battle, indeed, despite winning the war, it was pretty much all downward for Britain from the start.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes says the end of a matter is better than the beginning. Not for Britain in World War II, however. Some time ago I read Churchill’s six-volume series The Second World War. It is an amazing piece of work. Britain stands at the center of the conflict at the start, courageously defying Germany. As the conflict continues, however, Britain, slowly yet continually, gets ground down and increasingly marginalized. The U.S. entry into the war, something Churchill desperately wanted, results in Britain’s gradual, yet ultimately almost total, eclipse by the United States. The Soviet Union, having far more men (if not materiel) to draw on, is the other colossus. By the end of the war, Britain is spent and overshadowed. Churchill is relegated to sniping at the edges, trying fruitlessly to get the attention of a dying Roosevelt. From strength to impotence, while doing almost everything right. Churchill painted a brave face on the story, creating the Atlantic partnership as Britain’s consolation prize. But he recognized he wrote the history of Britain’s transition from a first-rate to a distinctly second-rate world power.