O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
William Shakespeare, Prologue, Henry V
My bride and I, along with our son, will finally see Darkest Hour, the film that depicts the period in 1940 when Churchill became Prime Minister. I will have a full review next week.
Churchill was a remarkable man for any number of reasons, but I have always been intrigued by the fact that he was both a first class statesman and a first class historian. He understood the turning point in history where he stood, and his speeches resonate with that knowledge:
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
How to bring such a man to the screen? Of course the film making industry has a dismal record when it comes to historically based film. Generally the history is mangled and the film produced has all the historical value of a bobble headed toy depicting a historical figure. As the Shakespeare quote at the beginning of this post indicates, this was a problem that long predated films when it came to entertainment recreation of a tale from history.
However, there are exceptions to the usual run of failure of historical epics. Failures in costuming, and the telescoping of events, even distortions of fact do not bother me, if the film gives us a good evocation of the period. The film Spartacus (1960) comes to mind.
The film is full of historical howlers, par for the course for Hollywood. Crassus, the richest man in Rome, was not a proto-Fascist dictator. Spartacus, who is a shadowy figure because the source material is sparse (only Plutarch’s Life of Crassus and a brief section in Appian’s Civil Wars), did not simply march to the sea to escape Italy with his liberated slaves, but marauded throughout Italy, defeating several Roman consular armies in the process. There was no Senator called Gracchus, magnificently portrayed in the film by Charles Laughton, who led the opposition to Crassus, and Crassus wasn’t interested in personal dictatorship in any event during the time he put down Spartacus and his slave army. The formations used by the legions in the battle sequences were two centuries out of date. The list of substantial factual errors in the film could go on for considerable length.
However, all that is beside the point. The film is a magnificent work of art, and it gets the atmosphere of the late Roman Republic right: old Roman morality being forgotten, a growth of decadence fueled by ever more wealth from foreign conquests, endless amounts of slaves flooding into Italy from the same foreign conquests, factions in the Senate engaging in what amounted to a cold civil war between bouts of hot civil war, the Roman Republican government teetering on the brink of military dictatorship, the movie presents all of these elements more clearly than any classroom lecture could.
Similarly the film Lincoln (2012) captures with preternatural accuracy both the man and his time:
Shakespeare in Henry V, with his magnificent poetry, brought to the Englishmen of his day the pride their ancestors had in their great warrior kings.
Next week I will report if Darkest Hour may be numbered in this august company of movies and plays that get history right. If it does, I assure you that Churchill will be smiling in the world to come.