This guest column by Iranian writer Elham Hosseini can be read in the context of the recent subterfuge conducted by the UK against Russia & Syria. Were these movies simply propaganda designed to reel the US into another war to defend the British Crown?
Dunkirk and Darkest Hour both illustrate the alleged sufferings of the British in WWII and not only their production, timely and coherent, but also their screening was wise and very clever, with Dunkirk, staging the evacuation of British forces from France, serving as a scene and Darkest Hour, framing the parallel challenges British politicians were facing, as behind the scene in 1940.
This is, more or less, a popular and encouraging approach towards the two films, however, a sharper edge may pierce the surface and go through a deeper layer; “cultural studies” to be precise: “What then is a cultural studies approach to cinema? It is one that is concerned with the ideological meanings of film texts. It tends to deal with the way films ‘encode’ ideological or covertly political messages and with how audiences may actively ‘decode’ and respond to these” ( Forgacs, 3).
Cultural Studies was, in fact, given a platform to confer meanings in literary texts with Hoggart and Williams in Britain and Barthes in France during late 50’s, 57-8 to be precise, with: “a chief concern to specify the functioning of the social….and political forces and power structures that are said to produce the diverse forms of cultural phenomena” (Abrams,53-4). Bearing in mind the business of cultural studies and the relation it has with cultural productions, it is just as permissible to say that these productions are not mere artistic and innocent representations, of historical events in the case of this note, rather enriched with signs and meanings waiting to be accentuated if not interpreted.
Dunkirk (Aug.2017), receives comments and critiques diverse as “New Life to True World War II Story” or “A War Movie About Patriotic Ciphers” to “Bloodless, boring and empty” and even sharply adverse “witheringly impolite” by Le Monde ‘s critic, Jacques Mandelbaum, for “underplaying French involvement in the evacuation”. Regarding all these comments on balance, Dunkirk relies heavily upon direction, done literally in epic scale and despite the seemingly “plotless” and adventitious scenes, the film starts with the air force support of the evacuation and the ends in an utterly skillful and glorious landing of a spitfire by “Farrier”, the pilot, who is later on taken by German soldiers; and this, if anything, implies the success of Dunkirk evacuation.
Dunkirk has a number of subplots also: the soldiers who hide in a trawler and are stuck with the Germans, the civilians who help the soldiers with yachts, Commander Bolton who stands fast to the end the operation. Altogether they serve as means to solidify the film and they well serve the purpose, not to mention that the hardship they all go through is rewarded by Churchill’s speech published in a newspaper: “…We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”. And Darkest Hour is justly compared and considered a complementary to Dunkirk, for it starts exactly when Dunkirk ends to give a portrayal of the Churchill behind these words and all the distress he’d been through.
Darkest Hour(Nov.2017) is not Wright’s first attempt in picturing WWII; in fact his Atonement, made some ten years ago, did not receive a deserving attention while it was wider in scope of portrayal. Darkest Hour, however, had a better reception among the critics, not just for “high octane” performance of Gary Oldman as Churchill but also for a realistic presentment of Churchill, as a “deeply flawed” yet “profoundly complicated”. At its best, the film is one influential unveiling of the events and decisions behind military operations, Dunkirk included, and it manages to display that British politicians, like Churchill, made the best of decisions given the circumstances of their time.
But then the question to be raised is at what point and by what urgency war should be so
highlighted. Cultural studies, as was mentioned above, paves the way for the entrance of various branches of knowledge in analysis of cultural production and in this regard geopolitics has a strong say, most obviously about Dunkirk. The film has very few scenes on the land and even in them the sea is always included, on top of that the air forces are supporting the forces on the sea. Considering that water and air are both fluid entities and that: “Water, air, outer space—these are all versions of increasingly diffused Sea” (Dugin,10) considering on top it all that: “land and Sea are not substances, but concepts” (ibid) and Britain as a sea power, before the U.S got involved, we, almost confidently, can take Dunkirk the visualization of the geopolitical of water in conflict.
This may be the main decoding in the entire movie, since it explains the instability and confusion prevailing in the whole film, along with the sense of nausea that might take hold of the state of mind in some audience: “Sea is a field, without a hard center, of processuality, atomism, and the possibility of numerous bifurcations” (ibid). The image of the endless sea, the lost order of the army, and the spitfires hovering in the sky is linked in the end with Churchill’s speech anticipating an alliance with the U.S: “…and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet,
would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old”.
Churchill’s polemicizing word was considering the U.S only a continuation of the British empire on one hand, saving a dignity for the British, and was invoking this very sequel of power to help “the old” on the other, which could have been taken only a lip service with regard to the nightmarish conditions of his country at that time.
Darkest Hour proceeds from the very point on: The Churchill behind his Cicero-like orations. Bradshaw of the guardian, however, uncovers why Churchill’s praising is in vogue: “Just as Britain negotiates its inglorious retreat from Europe, and our political classes prepare to ratify the chaotic abandonment of a union intended to prevent another war, there seems to be a renewed appetite for movies about 1940”. Apart from the likeliness of a new war between Britain and the rest of Europe, Bradshaw seems to imply that Churchill’s laudation is more of a spirit and trend of warmongering.
Because the “myth” of heroism in WWII, as Donnely reports, ends with the victory of the labor party in 1945 onward, with: “a generation of historians who were born after the war began to write about the conflict with more critical detachment, a different picture took shape” and in the new picture, “far less comforting”: “Churchill was an error-prone maverick whose mishandling of strategy hindered the war effort” (2). Now Darkest Hour attempts with all its capabilities, from the genius of its director to the unique picturing of Churchill by Gary Oldman, to reinstate the myth of valor and heroism in Britain.
This also explains why Atonement, directed also by Joe Wright, wasn’t received and praised as much as Darkest Hour: because the former challenges the capitalist policies behind the WWII, through characters like Paul Marshall, also: “…social division, class-based resentment, racial discrimination and rising crime rates; the ideological divisions between the main political parties remained as pronounced as ever by 1945” (ibid) was one of the revelations of Atonement. Whereas these facts have been pronounced by Donnely during the 90’s, films like Darkest Hour and Dunkirk become the cultural mandates of a Tory-spirited society or their political correspondents of the time whatever their name, to stand up and pull allies power together to wage a new battle.
Selected Works Cited
Abrams, M.H. “Text and Writing (ecriture)” A Glossary OF LITERARY TERMS. 2005 ed. 578
Donnelly, Mark. Britain in the Second World War, New York: Routledge 1999
Forgacs,David. Cinema and cultural studies, in Emiliana De Blasio and Dario Edoardo Viganò (eds), Introduzione ai Film Studies, Roma: Carocci, 2013
Millerman, M. (2014) ‘Theory Talk #66: Alexander Dugin on Eurasianism, the Geopolitics of Land and Sea, and a Russian Theory of Multipolarity’, Theory Talks, http://www.theorytalks.
Elham Hosseini holds a B.A in English Literature from Alzahra University & an M.A. in English Literature from Allame Tabataba’i University. She has taught at City Training Center, Hor Institute, NBE Institute, Feiz Institute & Kaj Institute and is based in Tehran.