Monthly Archives: August 2017

Film review of Churchill

Cast

Brian Cox as Winston Churchill

Miranda Richardson as Clementine Churchill

John Slattery as Dwight D. Eisenhower

James Purefoy as King George VI

Julian Wadham as General  Bernard Montgomery

Danny Webb as  Field Marshall   Alan Brooke

Jonathan Aris as Air Chief Marshall  Trafford Leigh-Mallory

George Anton  Admiral Sir  Bertram Ramsay

Steven Cree as Group Captain James Stagg , a Royal Air Force meteorologist

Angela Costello as Kay Summersby chauffeur and later as personal secretary to Dwight D. Eisenhower

Richard Durden as Jan Smuts   South African general  turned politician

Ella Purnell as Helen Garrett (Churchill’s secretary)

Director:  Jonathan Teplitzky

Script by Alex von Tunzelmann

This was a disappointing film in terms of its general theatrical quality which veers towards the melodramatic ,   but even more because it is a travesty of Churchill’s character. That fine actor Brian Cox might have been made for the role of Churchill and with a script which reflected Churchill’s  personality , opinions  and behaviour   accurately I have no doubt that he  would have produced a great depiction of  the man. But here he  is  bound by a script which  makes  Churchill seem like a tempestuous child, and child who more often than not could be  side-lined  and insulted to his face despite being Prime Minister  in the midst of a most terrible and threatening  war.  It is difficult to think of any scene involving  characters with power and influence  which shows him as s being the dominant character, for example, he does not chair the meetings with Eisenhower and the other military men. In real life he did.

The film is set in the four days before D-Day and the execution of t   Operation Overlord, the invasion of  Normandy.    Churchill  is portrayed as being pathologically anxious that the  invasion should not be another  bloodbath like Gallipoli in the Great War, a failure for which Churchill had been widely  held wholly or largely responsible. As a consequence the film  has him interminably prevaricating over the   D-Day landings  and after the decision is made to  invade Churchill is shown   praying  for unfavourable weather  to stop the operation: “Please, please, please let it pour tomorrow. Let the heavens open and a deluge burst forth such as has never been seen in the English Channel. Let the sea churn into peaks and troughs and tidal waves!”

That passage encapsulates the tone of the film.  Churchill is not seen as being either in command or as  a figure of authority but as a man frightened for his reputation and perhaps his soul.   So strong a part of the film was the  obsession with the failure at Gallipoli I could not help wondering if this was in some part   a consequence of having an Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky.  Australians are frequently more than a little angry about Gallipoli even  today and blame the British for the loss of Australian lives there. Film scripts are not sacrosanct and  It would be interesting to know if the subject of Gallipoli loomed  as large in the initial script as  it did in the film.

The historian Andrew Roberts has unreservedly  slated the film for its many inaccuracies relating to Churchill’s state of mind leading up to the Normandy landings, viz: “The only problem with the movie–written by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann–is that it gets absolutely everything wrong. Never in the course of movie-making have so many specious errors been made in so long a film by so few writers.” Roberts attacks the film on the grounds that it wrongly shows Churchill as dithering over D-Day, being seriously at odds with his wife, at war with the generals and being bullying to his staff.

To  the lack of historical accuracy  about events  and Churchill’s state of mind can  be added  the portrayal of  his physical state .  Churchill in real life was far from the physically lumbering man obese to the point  almost of physical handicap that was depicted in the film.  He played polo into his fifties and rode to hounds into his seventies  (in 1944 he was seventy) . This physical misrepresentation   fed into the  picture the film painted of Churchill being a man who by that stage of the war at least was a spent force at best and a positive hindrance to the successful prosecution of the war.

The depiction of Churchill’s relationship with the military is also improbable.   He is shown displaying a chronic fault of  Hitler, namely, playing at being a military mastermind  by suggesting  different strategies  such as decoy operations to mislead the Germans, tactics which fed into the film’s  Gallipoli complex.   There are also some startling and incongruous in the circumstances language involving the military with  Montgomery  calling Churchill a ‘bastard’ to his face and casting aspersions on his commitment  to the Normandy landings  by accusing Churchill of  ‘doubt, dithering and treachery’. The PM  later  describes  Montgomery (not in Montgomery’s presence)  as a ‘Puffed-up little s**t.’  It all seems very unlikely, not least because it implies that  the military not  the politicians were the real government of the UK at that time.

In fact the film plays to that idea for there is a  strange  absence of other British  politicians in the film and or   indeed of any  civilians in position of authority and influence.  For example,    Churchill’s leading scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann   had a very close relationship with him and  the two met often  during the war.. It is a little odd that he did not appear at all because apart from his value as a scientific advisor Llindemann  had a real friendship with Churchill and at a time of great stress for Churchill it is probable that he ill would have welcomed having  Lindemann around.

Then there is Churchill’s relationship with his wife Clemmie.  She is  shown as  being very ready to criticise Churchill either directly through confrontation as when she scolds  him for his drinking and indirectly by  her general  behaviour towards him which includes her apologising for Churchill’s behaviour towards his staff .  She is also shown slapping him at one point for which there is no evidence.   There is also rather too much angst from  Clemmie  about how Churchill had neglected her and a feeling that somehow her life has been unfulfilling.  Churchill is shown playing up to this, at one point  saying ‘I would understand if you left me. I’d leave me if I could.’  Real?

Even if there had been any substance to this behaviour would Churchill’s wife  have been  raising it just before D-Day?  However, again the evidence for such behaviour  is lacking.  This element of  the filmic Clemmie’s   behaviour smells  suspiciously like an inappropriate and anachronistic  feminist implant designed to show that men behaved “badly”, that is, displayed politically incorrect behaviour, in 1944 and women spiritedly rebelled against such  treatment.   The fact that the scriptwriter Alex von Tunzelmann is female may have something to do with this , a suspicion strengthened by  her  being a Guardian columnist. It would be very interesting to see Tunzelmann justifying her script in terms of historical accuracy.

Is the film worth seeing?  Probably not for  as a pure piece of drama it fails. The action flits from scene to scene  in rather stilted  fashion which robs the film of cohesion and leaves the impression  that each scene is being ticked off as having covered a particular issue as a stamp collector might  congratulate themselves on having acquired a particular stamp to add to a set.  Nor apart from Churchill and just about  his wife is there much character development for the film has a substantial number of historically  important  characters but little time is  allotted to each.  These  supporting characters are,   as one can more or less take for granted in a film manned by British actors,  adroitly executed  in as far as their very limited roles  allow. Within the  confines of this  hindrance  of Julian Wadham’s  Montgomery stood out.

That should be enough  to say don’t waste your money. However Dunkirk is one of those films which has an importance  beyond its qualities as a film. Its effect is to turn Churchill from a war hero into an irresolute,  fearful and   incompetent. In fact the misrepresentation of  Churchill  is  so complete that it qualifies as character assassination . The danger is that it will colour the public’s view of the man.   Consequently, see it  so that you can afterwards refute its view of Churchill.    In short, it should be seen  for its faults not its virtues .

 

 

Advertisements

Film review of Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Cast

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a British Army private

Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, a mariner and Peter’s father

Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter, Mr Dawson’s son

Jack Lowden as Pilot Officer Collins, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot

Harry Styles as Alex, a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Aneurin Barnard as “Gibson”, a French soldier masquerading as a British Army private

James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant

Barry Keoghan as George, a young man who helps to crew Dawson’s boat.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton the pier-master during the evacuation

Cillian Murphy as frightened soldier

Tom Hardy as Farrier, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot

Michael Caine appears in a spoken cameo role as Fortis Leader

Director Christopher Nolan

The year is 1940. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) has been sent to  Europe to help repel  the Germans. This fails and the BEF eventually make their way to Dunkirk, a French port  six miles from the Belgian border. Here they wait, more in hope than expectation, to be  evacuated back to Britain. But against the odds  between  27 May  and  4 June over 300 thousand, British,  colonial and French troops were evacuated, most by Royal Navy  (RN) ships but some by civilian boats, many  very small,  crewed  by  a mixture of RN personnel and civilians. (Small boats were useful  because they could get near enough to shore  for soldiers to wade out to them.  Larger boats had to either wait offshore to have soldiers ferried to them or they used a form of jetty called a mole to take people on board. )

The Germans did not press forward into Dunkirk with their army as might have been expected . Instead they attacked using  planes and submarines. Why they took this course is unclear but it was sanctioned by Hitler.  It may have been Goering persuading Hitler to allow the Luftwaffe to  gain the kudos of finishing off  the British forces.  it might have been Hitler believing  that once the British forces were out of continental Europe they would never come back. It could have been caution on the part of Hitler and his generals. Whatever the reason during the week the evacuation lasted the troops on Dunkirk beach  were  subject to bombing   and British vessels  engaged in the evacuation  were bombed and torpedoed. That is the bare bones of Dunkirk.

The brutal reality of  war has often  not been represented honestly or convincingly in films, but  the graphic opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan arguably changed that and most war films since have been much more unsparing of the audience’s squeamishness.   Indeed, modern film makers have taken to heart the American civil war general  William Sherman’s remark   “War is hell” and created Hell on the screen.   Christopher  Nolan does so here.   Consequently, the film scores very well  when it comes to the military action, giving  a graphic depiction of the multiplicity of ways of dying in action and the sheer violence and randomness  of the killing and wounding. The effect is  to  give a nihilistic quality to many of  the scenes. Whether someone lives or dies has  no particular purpose.

The aerial battles between three Spitfires providing cover to the  men on the beach and the ships taking them off   and their fights  with German fighters and bombers  are particularly compelling , perhaps because such warfare  has the shape  of single combat and the manoeuvres of planes flying fast but not at supersonic speed while  attacking with machine guns  rather than missiles  has an intimacy that the blind destruction of men on the ground absolutely lacks. The Spitfire pilot had to get close to his target and fire his guns in sustained bursts. .

All of this makes for a complicated story to tell. To address this fact Nolan has decided on an impressionistic  style rather than a straightforward chronological narrative. He does this by dividing  the film into three separate sections entitled   land, sea and air.

The  quick  flitting from one piece of action to another the film does not give great  opportunity for character development  but   Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, the  civilian  skipper of a small boat, knits together the progress of the sea  story and as a representative of the “small ships”.

James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton the pier-master during the evacuation represent  the  experience of senior officers  while Fionn Whitehead as Tommy and  Harry Styles as Alex  give a backbone  to the experience of the private soldier.

Spitfire pilots  Jack Lowden as Pilot Officer Collins  and Tom Hardy as Farrier do the same for the air action.

Rylance  oozed  calmness under fire and  brings what he always does to the screen,  an intensely sympathetic personality  while Hardy is coolness personified, with a courage which is anything but showy.  He is a man who is brave whilst doing what he does out of a sense of duty.

The one character that I found unconvincing  was  that  of Cillian Murphy,   who plays a frightened soldier  whose nerve has gone after having been in a ship which was torpedoed.   The Dawsons  pick him up on the  way to France and the soldier in a state of panic tries without success to get Dawson to turn about and head for England.  Somehow he never managed to make his mental anguish seem anything other than histrionic.

The film  has its historical  inaccuracies and omissions. Next to nothing is made of the French army’s resistance which hindered the German advance on Dunkirk and the considerable damage that occurred in Dunkirk is absent.  But neither is the British rear-guard action to allow most of the BEF to reach Dunkirk and be rescued . The   idea of the  film is to show the British experience at Dunkirk and in  the English Channel r ather than try to give  the complete picture of the action around and about Dunkirk and indeed within  Britain itself ,  where the families  of  both the stranded BEF men and of those who  had sailed their small boat  like the fictitious Mr Dawson  might have been included in the story.

Whether  the viewer finds  the limited scope of the film  satisfying or not it,  is nonetheless a legitimate dramatic  device to concentrate on the direct experience of those on the beach and the British forces by  sea and air  which facilitated the remarkable evacuation of some 190,000 British soldiers and  120,000  French ones. If the film had been expanded to take in the French and German warfare  relating to Dunkirk or the behaviour of the relatives and friends of the servicemen trapped in Dunkirk it would have been an entirely different film .

Dunkirk  has its limitation as a coherent  drama but taken as a whole it is an invigorating and exciting production. It gives a vivid idea of the immediacy  and multiplicity of danger which war brings and the sheer helplessness of humans caught in its coils. . That is reason enough to see it.   But there is also another reason .  The World Wars left their mark long after they were over  and not just in terms of the dead and wounded.  It left its mark on the survivors.  I  was born in 1947. The war loomed very large in my childhood and  even my early adult years. One regularly  met ordinary people who had done extraordinary things: landing on the beaches on D Day; serving  on the convoys to Russia;  flying  Spitfires and Hurricanes in the  Battle of Britain or  flying sortie after sortie with Bomber Command. The result  was a toughness in people generally but particularly in those who had seen  action, which is lacking today. It is a film which will speak especially to people who remember what the war was like and its aftermath.

 

To understand history one must understand the religious mind

Robert Henderson

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.” ( Kurt Vonnegut  Cat’s Cradle )

Trying to understand history  without understanding the religious  mind  is like teaching  someone the vocabulary of a language without explaining how the grammar works.  Nor is  the religious mind simply concerned with what are generally  called religions. Such minds  can be  and often are  attracted by secular  ideologies  such as Marxism, Fascism  or political correctness.  These are substitutes for what are normally called religions. Beneath  such formalised ideas  there is the natural human preference for the culture and people in which an individual has been raised.  Social animals need habits and humans being the social animal par excellence require very sophisticated ones.

Memes

The idea of memes comes from the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. A meme is the mental equivalent of a gene. They  contain ideas.  Dawkins  introduced  the word  to the world in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.   The meme,  like a gene,   is self-replicating and can undergo mutation. It affects  behaviour creates cultural.

There was nothing entirely novel about such an idea,  it having been discussed in Darwin’s time.  For example,   T. H. Huxley  believed that ‘The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resisting extinction by its rivals.’ (Huxley, T. H. “The coming of age of ‘The origin of species” (1880) Science. 1, 15-17.) But Dawkins gave the idea a new clarity and set it against the background of genetics.

Memes can form entire ideologies such as religions or  political theories like  Marxism or  they may be a stand-alone  social rule such as wear black to a funeral or don’t eat with your mouth open. Memes like genes can be beneficial, harmful or neutral in their effects.

It might be though that judging  a meme as objectively  good or bad is impossible,  but it is possible if the judgement is based upon  the evolved nature of a particular society.  For example, if a society is a warrior society, individuals with a penchant for violence can, other things being equal,  be valuable.  Conversely, a society in which non-violent behaviour is the norm the violent mentality will be a handicap to the individual who has it and a danger to the efficient functioning of the society.

The  problem of consciousness

We are in a prison of  self-consciousness amplified by high intelligence and  above all  language.  Both these things set humans apart from any other organism. These qualities  naturally lead to attempts to explain what humans   perceive to be reality, a reality which will often seem threatening, especially if the person is living in a society which has no science to explain natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, thunder and lightning,   plagues and  floods.

Imagine the existential context of a hunter gatherer band. It is not that its members are innately stupid or ignorant. Indeed, they will have a considerable repertoire of useful  and essential skills from understanding how to trap and kill animals,  where to gather berries and nuts, how to make tools and other artefacts. But their  world will be a constant source of wonder and bewilderment. They will have not have  any  idea of why  rivers flood, volcanoes roar as they belch lava  or the sun appears to die every day  and gradually burns  less brightly  as the year progresses before returning with regained vigour.  To these phenomena will be added the dangers and fears which result from  living amongst dangerous animals and in competition with other groups of humans who do not belong to their band or tribe.  Magic is  the only means these people  have of making sense of what they  experience and most importantly it is  an ostensible means of controlling reality.

Magic can take a wide variety of forms.  It will not necessarily involve a god because the belief may come simply from a belief that if X is done Y will follow.     Drawing  a scene of a successful hunt on  a cave wall supposedly  makes a successful hunt more probable; the casting of a spell supposedly  makes a woman fertile;   the drinking of a potion is said to cure   a  sick child; the sacrificing an animal or human  to the gods  is done to  ensure  a good harvest or victory over another tribe.

Of course the desired outcome of the magic will often not materialise, but  it will sometimes  by pure coincidence. Moreover, it is not always by mere chance. The Shaman of the band will probably have a knowledge of  plants which may indeed have a positive effect as a result of by  trial  and error over many generations –  indeed some animals self-medicate – and there is also the powerful placebo effect which when linked to ritual is likely to be heightened.  The performing of ritual will in itself will have a reassuring effect.

But even if failure to produce the desired result  of magic  occurs it will not automatically be taken as evidence of the futility of the magic but  more likely be  attributed to  the god’s disfavour or merely  to  the magic not being strong enough or the time unpropitious .

Magic  may be as the author of the Golden Bough James Frazer defined it,  “a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art”, but it is still a psychological comfort, not least because as with true science it provides rituals to follow as well as the belief that they are shaping reality.

Superstition

Magic in the form of superstition  is very common even  in  advanced modern societies. More often than not  it has nothing to  do with formal  religion. Sportsmen in particular  are notoriously superstitious:  insisting on dressing in a certain sequence, using a favourite bat or racquet, taking the field in a team sport in a particular order and so on, but few humans are entirely untouched by it.

Looked at rationally such behaviour seems absurd to those who live in societies in which rational scientific  explanations can be given for most things and even where such an explanation cannot be given people will believe  that one exists but has yet to be discovered.  Yet  the grip of scientific rationality is only skin deep.  No matter how rational humans  think themselves the majority,  and probably the large majority , will still  use  such psychological tricks to  deal with the stress of  self-consciousness .

What this tells us  is that even  though  there is no  rational basis for believing such rituals will have the effect desired,  they  can undoubtedly provide an individual with psychological comfort and a sense that in some way the individual has exercised some sort of control over situations which do not lend themselves to any rational solution.

The step after magic and superstition

If magic  is what might be termed the innate human response to self-consciousness the next step is the creation of  formal religion This  will have holy texts and develop a sociology to encompass larger populations than the band or  tribe.  The population will have moved from a nomadic to a settled way of life.

Some like Hinduism will have multiple gods, others  such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism will have a single god. Buddhism,  at least in its purest form,  has no god.  But belief in the supernatural  is something all formal religions require including  Buddhism , because that faith even in its purest seemingly most rational form  requires the believer to accept the reality of   rebirth with the eventual end of nirvana.

Nor is magic dead within formal religions. Even  a sophisticated religion such as Catholicism  has some decidedly primitive aspects, for example, the doctrine of  transubstantiation  requires  a belief that the bread and wine given in the   Eucharist are   literally transformed into the blood and flesh of Christ.  Nor will all practices not compatible with a particular religion be ended by the religion’s putative dominance. The widespread belief in and persecution of people accused of being witches in   Europe in the early modern period is a classic example of this.

Religion as an organising principle

Larger settled populations  require more sophisticated social structures.   Religion has an innate  organising quality which aids the formation of such social structures.  This has routinely meant its has been used to justify  monarchical  power  either by the monarch wielding the religious authority themselves or by having a religious caste which either  justified the right of the monarch to rule  or which exercised  the monarchical authority itself.

The belief that the worship of God in a certain way was integral to the good order and fortune of a country and its people is strong in most religions. A failure to follow the “right” form of religion could mean disaster for a people.  Any misfortune could be ascribed to a failure of faith or of observance.  The Black Death was put down to precisely that while the destruction of the Spanish Armada to England in 1588, in which the weather played a significant  part,  was  attributed by  the Spanish to some lack in their society and as a sign of God’s favour by the English.

The potency of religion

It is important to understand that religious belief is not something simply imposed on people or just  a habit acquired through their upbringing.   The sufferings of those who have refused to deny their faith are truly extraordinary. The Inquisition did not simply condemn people out of hand. Those who had taken up a variety of Christianity other than Catholicism were frequently  excused from punishment if they recanted.  Faced with death by burning at the stake many chose that death rather than recanting. Some, like Archbishop Cranmer, recanted than went back on their recantation and  were  burnt. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs all too graphically bears witness to the sufferings borne over the centuries.

Religion and the  secular mind

To understand the religious mind is also to understand the mind of those  gripped by a secular  ideology,  for the  psychological and sociological outcomes are the same as those experienced by the religious. That is particularly true of totalitarian ideologies such as Marxism or political correctness which offer the promise of an eventual  future  state in which  the ideology is fully realised.

Marxists believe that the movement of the dialectic through history will inevitably lead to the state of  Communism.   That belief is psychologically the equivalent of going to Heaven for the Christian or  Paradise for the Muslim or Nirvana  for the Buddhist.  Something similar happens when the politically correct  encounter  human behaviour   which brutally contradicts  their view of the world. They  do not draw the obvious conclusion, namely, that   political correctness is a incompatible with  our  evolved  nature. Instead, they say it shows that that  more  time must be spent  in educating the politically incorrect  to believe  that the  mores of political correctness are the only way to behave and believe.

One of the most peculiar secular ideologies,  which has been around since the early 19th Century,   is the quasi-religious devotion to laissez faire economics which for its true believers, the neo-liberals,  means holding  rigidly to the idea that free markets and free trade  are a sure-fire means to greatly increase  general prosperity and  that it is rationally  the only  economic system to follow.  This might seem a very dry subject  to engage people emotionally. Yet  its believers  tend to become extremely agitated if a contrary view is put to them and more often than not refuse to offer any contrary argument or facts when faced with an opponent of  their  creed.    In short they display all the signs of the religious believer.

Why does it attract followers?  For the same reason any ideology is adopted. It offers itself as an algorithm to order the world.  It is sometimes hailed as a general libertarian good by its proponents  which could engage the emotions,  but few people who claim to be libertarians actually live their lives by the creed.  A much more plausible explanation,   at least for the true believers,  , is that these are people who find the idea of a neat mechanical ideology  which tells them just stand back and don’t interfere with the market   intellectually satisfying. In addition, like all ideologies, sacred or profane, laissez faire allows its followers to believe that action is being taken to control the world. Ironically,   intellectually and emotionally  it offers just what Marxism does, an  eventually utopia which comes about automatically when economic life takes on a certain shape.

The fact that humans are so susceptible to the lure of  ideologies and habit  must mean that this behavioural trait serves some vital  evolutionary purpose because otherwise it  would not  have persisted.  The purpose is to unite and order a society.

%d bloggers like this: