Never really a history buff, I have nonetheless been surprised and fascinated by The films Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour. In Dunkirk, the filmmaker makes the overall specific by all of the protagonists appearing so similar, one might mistake one for the other, features and speeches almost interchangeable. Rather than distancing the viewer, the opposite is true and so one’s interest, compassion, involvement occurs. I don’t think I’ve ever viewed this phenomenon so expertly executed so that the hero is the collective not the individual with battles, successes, triumphs and defeats rendered universal.Truly it is beautifully accomplished.
In The Darkest Hour, the audience glimpses the bumbling, unsympathetic and bawling Churchill, the filmmaker portraying Winston’s spirit and mind set as unrealistic and refusing to grasp the fatality of Hitler’s onslaught on Britain, on the screen. And like Dunkirk where the an overall combat of the historical event is out for our scrutiny, here it is Winston’s elegant words- caught in the taping typewriter by Miss Layton, his secretary . As he fashions alliteration, hyperbole and metaphor, the prime minister digs deep and knits together phrase and sentence that cause parliament to rise and cheer. That such a toadish carbuncle of a man is the author of such joyous, indefatigable paragraphs underlines his prowess, not just to spout but to cogitate, form and craft masterpieces.Politician Hugh Dalton, offered this particular line, repeated in the film, “if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” How wonderfully tactile, elegant, inspiring but concrete, evoking a Shakespearean appeal to fight on till the end! Churchill, in his memoir, claims this was followed by a standing ovation. Apparently not, according to the critics. As in Dunkirk, there is an underpinning, a gritty humanity displayed, honouring the ordinary common person’s willingness to stand up for values that are worth dying for.Ironically, with changing times, one cannot help but wonder if today’s young, those not enlisted in military activities, feel likewise. In a post post- modern era, although certain strong sweeps of right and wrong( good and bad) may be apparent, dying on the battlefield for just causes may not be one of them. I’m not sure if the fervent reaction to sacrifice is still maintained, should the government attempt conscription. Well, maybe in the Middle East…
And although the scene in which Winston descends to the underground and listens to the subway riders who vow never to give in and fight on against Hitler cannot be validated, documentation reveals that Churchill did in fact, disappear for periods of time. In The Darkest Hour, the citizens of London are particularized, holding babies, given names, made individuals; and so , apparently, support the prime minister’s resolve not to cave to “ peace talks”with Mussolini. That Britain survived is somewhat a miracle as Belgium,Denmark and Holland had fallen and France was on the verge and the channel only a few miles across to theNazi’s victory.
But throughout the film, slow moving panning of the UK’s people’s, walking, headed toward their daily obligations, under umbrellas, clothes in monotones, observed by Winston from his car’s window, creates almost a painting like panoply of people, going about their daily work amidst the terror of war, solid, moving forward, individuals yet presented as groups distinguishable yet unidentifiable.
In substantiating the mounting evidence of war in Europe that should have resulted in defeat for England, but thankfully did not, I read too in Hamilton by Ron Chernow of America’s battle against the mother country and that also somehow in spite of the overwhelming number of Britain’s troops in Philadelphia, Washington, etc on both land and sea, the fledgling colonies survived.
Alexander Hamilton also was a master polemicist with a “slashing style” who turned out wonderfully astute and well phrased letters, dictums, tomes on battle and political manoeuvres.As an adolescent,Hamilton’s take on Alexander Pope’s poetry and his later responses to war skirmishes evolved into wonderful oratories that eventually drew George Washington to hire him as aide de camp. An autodidact ,Hamilton was pronounced illegitimate, and forbidden Anglican schooling in Nevis because his parents had not been married. Self- taught and receptive to studying the lessons of the Greeks and Romans, especially in regard to warfare, and mentored by other intelligent men, he eventually attended Kings College( now Columbia) although unlikely he graduated because of his military involvement after Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party cemented the surge towards revolution.
Hamilton, age 19, anonymously published his first political essay in 1774 in defense of the Boston Tea Party, giving a speech that turned him into a hero of the cause.In 1775, his anonymous essay “The Farmer Refuted” described how the colonists could win. Hamilton, bright, out spoken and apparently self- confident to speak out, drew attention to himself as a military leader, both in deed and word, often barely escaping the cannonball in the field.
Still, it was his command of language, his mesmerizing, and what we might consider today, his overblown and flowery words that drew attention. Interestingly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s focus transforms the words, the language of the story from then into the hip hop beat of today, bringing the story of the unique individual forward into contemporary time.
When everything crumbles and passes away, words remain, the best caught and written down, or repeated in oral storytelling passed from generation. The most beautifully constructed monuments or feats disappear. I think of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias ,
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The Pyramids succumb, the bridges rust, railways are covered in grass ,” but words spoken remain… not as mere relics, but with all their pristine vital force”, noted Churchill himself on15 May 1938, in News of the World.
Interestingly that at present, debating circles continue, students still required to present and craft speeches, the focus on the power of language to provoke, incite, soothe and instruct. I was fascinated yesterday as a friend a semi retired professor from UCSD described his essay exam question to be hand written! In three hours: to my mind worthy of a thesis. His topic examined contrasting imperatives from the great Greek philosophers and the Bible. In the same way, Hamilton, in his attitudes towards heroic battles during the American Revolution, reached back to the wisdom of the Greeks, appropriating their strategies in 1776.
Contemplating survival then, and even now , I wished my own education had examined some of those old prophets still applicable today. As once admonished, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it- with all the battles, shortcomings and consequences. I am not suggesting being foolishly stuck in the past to doggedly repeat it, but the long view of consideration: juxtaposing and making workable the past in contemporary times, reviewing, discussing, dialoguing to note where the historical might be applicable. Without the past, the contextual background, we continue to spin in circles, unable to step outsides of ourselves and reflect beyond our own noses. Horrorfully,Trump does not, would not, cannot, is incapable of stepping back, surveying past battles with a wise eye. Terribly with the peril of China, Russia, North Korea, in tender precarious tipping positions, we are all held captive, holding our breath: the Churchills and Hamiltons, names to be ignored in these times of blunder, arrogance and ignorance.