Back on Saturday, watching Darkest Hour…
…and a few weeks ago – finally having seen – Dunkirk, I’d thought many viewers will have lots of knowledge about the history portrayed in both films. However, it is tough also not to notice also that the filmmakers obviously felt they needed to explain more – particularly at the conclusions. A generation of young British especially (and others) have probably at least dimly heard about “1940,” but now they were seeing it in a cinema perhaps for the first time and the filmmakers of both evidently thought some in the audience needed more background supplied.
Incidentally, Dunkirk apparently even needs explaining to some supposedly older and intelligent people who’ve written about it in major media. Having seen it myself at last I realized it is set at an even lower story perspective than I’d thought: it is men huddling on docks, seeking cover on the beach, a squad here and there, a family on a single small boat amidst the civilian rescue flotilla, a few RAF pilots dogfighting, individuals drowning under gunfire, a few desperate French (including what appear to be black French soldiers) looking also to get away, and more – all of it personal, harrowing, and intimate.
The only “grand strategy” visible is every man (and woman) for themselves trying to survive – which makes the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen’s 2017 column on it (calling it a film for the era of Trump? What?) more wrongheaded and even idiotic than I had thought it was at that time. It was obviously never meant to be a film aiming to encompass, say, also the founding of the Common Market in 1957, for goodness sakes. I do now wonder if Mr. Cohen actually did sit through the same movie everyone else has, and how that embarrassing, dopey column even got by an editor.
My advice is to watch BOTH films. First, watch Darkest Hour for the “Olympian” politics’ view. After, watch Dunkirk for the struggles of “ordinary” men and women caught up at the sharp end of the nightmare: being shot at from feet away by someone trying to kill you.
Early Sunday, I saw this tweet and article. This blog post began to form in my mind: on-screen “re-enactments” of Darkest Hour, Dunkirk… and those of the US Civil War. If history never stands still, neither does how we remember it:
The NYT article notes a main reason “re-enacting” seems to be falling off is the “retirements” of “re-enactors” with younger people not replacing them in similar numbers due at least in part perhaps to those younger people’s disgust at the racial ugliness we have witnessed of late that can be traced to the Civil War – the racism, for example, of white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. However, this also isn’t the first time interest in the war has waned somewhat. It has dropped at other times as well.
The American Civil War of 1861-1865 had always been more deeply thought about in the southern states that formed for a time the briefly secessionist, Confederate States of America – where the war was also mostly fought. Once the war was over, won by the northern states that had remained the federal government, leading to the reunification of the United States, the abolition of slavery, and the end of the idea of unilateral secession, Northerners really just wanted to forget about it. Waves of immigrants also began to arrive starting in the 1870s, mostly ending up in northern cities and states (which included most of my ancestors in the US; I have only a couple known who arrived pre-war, in the 1850s, from Germany). The American Civil War was of little interest to most of those new arrivals; some may even have barely heard of it.
Here in Britain, the American Civil War has long had a degree of interest among some British “history buffs” because it is, to them, the last of the “romantic wars” so to speak. It was mostly soldiers – usually volunteers – slugging it out on the field, and mounted “gentlemen” generals pointing at the enemy and barking orders. The Duke of Wellington would have been baffled by Eisenhower’s role in World War II; but at Gettysburg, if he could have stood alongside generals Lee or Meade, the Duke would have recognized what was going on. Instant communication was only the telegraph. Civilians were certainly at times casualties of the war – particularly in the South – but the mass air raids and “total war” of the 20th century’s world wars was still in the future.
If they thought about it at all, by the 1930s the Civil War to white Northerners had become mostly about a Gone With The Wind that they figured was “history.” Remember, pre-television, most had never visited the South or even knew much about it; news was not dropped into living rooms on screens. With the appearance of television news in the 1950s coinciding with southern blacks’ new civil rights protests and ugly reminders that that past was not quite “history” in too many ways but was very much still present in the bombings of black churches, denial of blacks’ voting rights, police dogs mauling protesters, and too much more, northerners began to repay attention. (I recall my mother once telling me the television evening news by 1964 had become appalling viewing: “What the hell is going on there?” was asked in millions of homes outside of the South.) They sensed that for many southern whites waving a Confederate battle flag in opposition to the federal government’s again demanding – after 80 years of largely keeping hands off, allowing “Jim Crow” to creep in – equal rights for blacks as it had first during the 1861-65 war through most of the “reconstruction” period (until the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877), the conflict in fact remained ongoing to those southern whites nearly a century after it had supposedly ended.
By then Northerners were beginning already to reconsider the war as well – but from their point of view. In the 1950s and 1960s Michigan-born historian Bruce Catton wrote a series that, unlike most Civil War histories up to then, explored the conflict from a Northern perspective. He wrote especially of the soldiers of the Union’s most famous force: the Army of the Potomac, and its blue-clad men who came from everywhere in the north from Maine to Minnesota. He also produced a general history of the war:
A Mississippi novelist named Shelby Foote about the same time wrote a wonderfully readable (being a novelist obviously helped) and massive three-volume history. His work was not just another by then predictably pro-white-Southern “romantic” version of the war similar to what was portrayed in Gone With The Wind. (“Oh, Ashley, Ashley, the Yankees aren’t beating us? They can’t be?”) It was not biased in the manner of most previous white southern authors in recalling the war.
The 1980s saw television begin to catch up with the likes of those books by Catton and by Foote. Miniseries’ such as The Blue and the Gray and, especially (the at times somewhat Gone With the Wind-ish, but far more balanced and realistic) North and South (which was based on a novel), drew large audiences. They turned out to be just a taste of what was to follow in the 1990s.
In 1989 came Glory, starring Denzel Washington, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, Matthew Broderick, and Morgan Freeman, about the Union’s black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and its gallant and failed attempt to take a Confederate coastal fort: it was a massive hit.
Next was Ken Burns’s The Civil War, which caught its PBS-TV broadcaster off guard: on its premiere in 1990 it became a national event the likes of which PBS had never seen before or even had dreamed of. It featured not just a ground-breaking documentary style showcasing still photography in a way never done before, but interviews with Foote and other historians, including black historians. Foote’s thoughtfulness before the camera, his ability to discuss the war without rancor, and his on-screen warmth, led tens of millions of Americans – region didn’t matter – to want to invite him home for dinner. His publisher rushed to re-issue his (by then decades old) Civil War history, and their new sales shot into the stratosphere, far out-earning what they had made when they were originally published.
In 1993-94 came the Turner Company’s (and others) Gettysburg (in which Ted Turner even gave himself a “Hitchcock” on-screen moment; he’s seen for an instant as a Confederate officer being killed after jumping over a fence). Probably the last major war film produced before the commonplace use of CGI and the “new era” of special effects took hold, it starred Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Jeff Daniels, and after a brief cinema release its cable television premiere drew what was up to then the largest cable audience in US history. Based on a 1987 historical novel of the battle called The Killer Angels, its climax is Jeff Daniels’s Union Colonel Chamberlain – a college professor and future governor of Maine – and his outnumbered regiment holding Little Round Top outside of the town on July 2, 1863 against wave after wave of Confederates frantically trying to take that rocky hill: if those Confederates had overwhelmed them, the entire war might have ended very differently. Reviewing the film – its producers included Latino Moctesuma Esparza – renowned critic Roger Ebert thought Daniels deserved an Academy Award nomination.
Suddenly the Civil War didn’t seem to belong “only” to “Confederates” or “southerners” any longer. In graduate school, on Long Island in the early 1990s, I knew a guy who was a UNION re-enactor; he had the ENTIRE uniform of a Union captain. He had also thought his, uh, “uniform” was “impressive”:
There was a few years later also an episode of the sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond – set on a Long Island, New York I knew so well – which I now recall as a result of writing this post. The episode in its ways speaks to that northern “Civil War mania” that followed Glory, The Civil War, and Gettysburg.
“Ray” has to be a Confederate re-enactor because his father and brother are Unionists. But “Ray” doesn’t want to be a Confederate and whines through the entire episode. (I know; that doesn’t make it much different than most other episodes of that series.) Most notable is this fact: as the fictional Italian-American family they are, chances are none of their ancestors would have even been in the United States in 1865.
So any dip in Civil War “recreations” or even interest (even a negative reaction to it) in the current day was probably inevitable, but the conflict is so important in US history and governance that a future generation will invariably “rediscover” it. I suspect the 200th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 2063 will be huge. Naturally, it will by then be re-interpreted by those living then, and if born today they will be nearly 45 years old.
Because every generation re-evaluates the past in their own ways based on their own perspective. It is easy to believe, for instance, there could at some point be a major film seeing the battle through the eyes of the Union Army of the Potomac’s single known Chinese-American private (who is described as actually wearing a pony tail in the Chinese style of the time). Or there could even be one based on a rumor that circulated in the Army of the Potomac’s camps after the battle: Union soldiers – never identified – had found a woman’s body among Confederate dead following General Lee’s failed last assault on the Union lines on July 3.
If you are still here, thanks for reading that, uh, Gibbon-like in length, LOOOOOONG post. Sometimes, brevity is not possible. 😉 Have a good day, wherever you are in the world.
P.S. Uh, a moment. I’m not quite finished. One other observation about Darkest Hour.
To see Kristen Scott Thomas – of The English Patient – playing a 1940 Clementine Churchill? I know they “aged” her somewhat for the role; but, still, I may need counseling. I know now I’m definitely getting “older.”😜
You don’t quite see my point? Let me put it this way. Imagine a couple of decades from now, uh, Amanda Seyfried from Mamma Mia! playing Martha Washington in her late-60s.😂