Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous,
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God.
Director Joe Wright’s film is a good complement to Dunkirk. The latter film shows us the bravery and the horror visited upon the trapped British and Allied soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk at the outbreak of WW 2, and the new film goes into the details of the plans being laid on the other side of the Channel to rescue them. The title refers to the period covered by the film, May 8 through June 4, 1940, when PM Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) was forced to resign upon Hitler’s brazen betrayal of the Munich Pact he had negotiated with the dictator. The Nazis’ lightning swift victories over Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands proved that Chamberlain’s claim of “peace in our time” was an illusion.
Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), long-time critic of Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement, is made Prime Minister solely because he is the only prominent MP acceptable to both major parties. When he comes to receive the official appointment from King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), it is apparent by the monarch’s cool reception that the politician would not have been his choice. To his inward disgust the new PM feels he must lie to the people in his first speech, assuring them that the army is not in retreat but marching toward victory.
Churchill still lives under the cloud of the WW 1 Gallipoli defeat, his plan to invade the Ottoman Empire and help the beleaguered Russians when he was First Lord of the Admiralty resulting in a huge slaughter of Aussie and Kiwi troops on the Turkish beach. (See Peter Weir’s great film Gallipoli for information on this to see that the disaster was not really Churchill’s fault.)
The film gives us a picture of a gruff, even rude boss, when it comes to dealing with his eager to please new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James). Often mumbling his words, he expects her to pick up instantly on his meaning. Outwardly confident and belligerent toward his opponents, he is inwardly unsure of himself, greatly in need of the support and little pep talks given him by his long-suffering wife Celementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). His routine includes taking a stiff drink with his morning breakfast and puffing on cigars throughout the day.
Something I did not know was that Chamberlain did not fade from politics after his resignation, but that he remained in the British War cabinet where he joined forces with the powerful nobleman Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), a long-time critic of Churchill. As the Germans poised their huge armies for the conquest of France, Halifax pushed for the acceptance of dictator Mussolini’s offer to facilitate negotiations with Hitler to sue for peace, and thus avoid further bloodshed. Almost the entire British army, along with many Allied soldiers, has retreated to the French towns of Dunkirk and Calais. The Germans are regrouping, but it is apparent to all that their overwhelming forces can wipe them out, leaving the England almost defenseless. It is made clear that Halifax is haunted by the bloody slaughter in the trenches of almost an entire generation of British youth, and thus sincerely believe in the rightness of their policy.
When Churchill asks his generals about their plans to evacuate the army, he is surprised when they admit that there are no such plans. They have come to accept the defeat of their forces. There is a lot more wrangling, during which in one heated exchange the PM yells, “Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you!” The peace at any price party puts the PM under such intense pressure that he is filled with self-doubts. Then comes a scene right out of a Frank Capra movie in which he boards a London Underground train and speaks with a cross section of the public. Of course, all of them urge him to fight rather than back down. The rest, as is often said, “is history.” The best line of the film is given to none other than Lord Halifax, who after hearing Churchill’s defiant speech about fighting on the beaches, admits to a friend, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
As an admirer of Gandhi all my life, I do not agree that Winston Churchill was “the greatest leader of the 20th Century.” Keen in perceiving early on the danger of Hitler’s rise to power, he was blind to the injustice inherent in the British rule of vast areas of Asia and Africa. As a fervent defender of the British Empire, Churchill declared in 1931, when Gandhi met with the Viceroy of India, “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the vice regal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King.”
And yet there can be no doubting Winston Churchill’s importance when it came to defying Hitler and many of his own colleagues and advisers. Familiar with the sea and its ships, it was he who launched Operation Dynamo,” the amassing of a thousand or so small yachts and boats that joined with naval vessels to rescue the stranded British and (many of the) Allied soldiers under attack at Dunkirk. This film has just a brief, though impressive, scene of the armada sailing toward France, so I do recommend seeing Dunkirk, as well as a recent fictional movie centered on the event, the British film Their Finest. Thanks to the presence of these hundreds of thousands of troops on the island, Hitler did not dare launch his invasion. Steeled by the words of their leader, the British were willing to fight on alone if necessary. Just how alone at first they were we see in the depiction of his telephone conversation about obtaining 50 old US destroyers with President Roosevelt, whose hands were tied by the Neutrality Act passed by an isolationist Congress. I wish someone could make a follow-up film of how the wily US President and the persistent British Prime Minister schemed together to overcome the Isolationists—it should make an amusing story of a trans-Atlantic friendship.
In the meantime, we have this stirring depiction of leadership under pressure. I am sure you will be hearing Gary Oldman’s name many times during this period leading up to the naming of Oscar contenders. Also, in addition to the excellent acting of all concerned, we have the fine cinemaphotography of Bruno Delbonnel. The short sequence seen in the trailer is a good example—from a great height we see German planes dropping bombs on Allied troops far below, the landscape morphing into the face and eye of a soldier killed by one of those bombs. The film is history hammed up a bit—there’s that no doubt apocryphal scene in the Underground—but still containing enough facts and excitement to keep our eyes glued to the screen.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2018 issue of Visual Parables.