The Darkest Hour – “Glorifying” War?
by Rachel MacNair
All posts represent only the opinion of their authors. We pride ourselves on presenting a diversity of views, and opinions about movies are something people will have wide differences on. This is my own opinion – and only my current opinion at that, easily changed.
I recently wrote in Peace & Life Connections about how the best picture nominations for the 2018 Oscars related to our issues and mentioned that The Darkest Hour was in the “glorifying-war” category. This brought a couple of objections, on the grounds that, as Richard Doerflinger put it, the movie
portrayed the horrors of war and the horrible decisions they demand of national leaders pretty clearly. The war in question (hardly a glorious one!) was launched by Nazi Germany against the world, and the film dramatizes a key moment when Hitler was about to take over almost all of Western Europe — and Great Britain had to decide whether to “negotiate” a deal with Hitler, which would have meant effective Nazi control of the country as the fate of France would show, or continue to resist invasion. In the middle of this dilemma is an immediate dilemma, whether effectively to sacrifice the lives of 4000 soldiers in order to save another 300,000 trying to escape from France before they are surrounded and massacred by the German army. I don’t think anyone can watch the film and get the impression that this was glorious — it may be the best that Churchill could do in an impossible situation, but it evinces shock from other sympathetic characters and rightly so.
He later pointed out that in previous decades, a lot of the war movies, especially ones dealing with fighting the Nazis, could clearly be put in the category of glorifying war. They sanitize the violence, oversimplify, and make the victory look easier then reality would ever allow. I agree with him that anyone seeing The Darkest Hour would see it was far more mature.
I went to see it because I take an interest in good historical dramas, especially those close enough to what really happened to give some sense of what the experience was like. I especially like dramas that show what people were thinking and why. This movie certainly succeeded in doing that. And I think Gary Oldham deserved his Best-Actor Oscar win for portraying Winston Churchill. Playing actual historical characters is the most accomplished of acting skills, and he nailed it.
I’m going to offer three reasons why I (currently) think that the movie belongs in the “glorifying-war” category.
1. Portraying violence as complicated is a common way of justifying it.
Consider the case of abortion, as we often do when we connect issues of violence.
Parallel to the people who portray war positively and gloriously, as a way of turning boys into men and defeating the “bad guys,” there are people whose attitude towards abortion is “on demand, and without apology.” The very portrayal of it as a woman’s right badly oversimplifies the impossible situations pregnant women are sometimes put into.
But there are other abortion defenders who object to being called “pro-abortion” on the idea that nobody favors abortion; they only favor choice. These folks emphasize how hard it is to make the decision. Many understand how ghastly the reality of abortion is.
As with war, the group that understands things as complicated might be easier to talk into alternative methods of solving problems. So a case can be made that they’re not as bad.
But does handwringing about the violence make them any less abortion defenders? Not only do opponents of violence feel the same way about the candidate or group even if they acknowledge the complexities involved, but much more importantly, the victims are just as dead.
2. Showing how hard violence is means it requires more bravery and sacrifice.
Violence as an easy problem solver is different from violence as a difficult problem solver. When it’s easy and the “good guys” come out unscathed, then most contemporary viewers may well see that as playing at war, rather than really understanding what war is like. Portraying people in impossible situations makes the people who use violence more heroic (hence, glorious). Certainly, Churchill’s speeches in the movie were portrayed as noble speeches.
3. The very selection of the topic portrays how “necessary” war is.
The main reason I saw The Darkest Hour as glorifying war is that it showed the origin of a view that was common during the Cold War: that the depicted events demonstrated that “appeasement” doesn’t work and that therefore arms build-ups are necessary.
It’s true, of course, that appeasement doesn’t work — but pacifists at the time were arguing that this isn’t even what Chamberlain did. Chamberlain’s previous negotiation with Hitler bought time to build up arms, and building more arms is what Britain did. By the time Chamberlain made that deal, the situation had already gotten bleak.
The crucial thing about World War II is that there were so many opportunities to nip it in the bud long before it got to the point depicted in the movie.
Just portraying that time, when the available options were few and harsh, is taking the situation as a given. Therefore the protagonists are seen as brave. This interpretation doesn’t take into account all the previous actions that helped build up to the dire hour, actions and failures to act that were decried by pacifists at the time.
Most people watching this movie have no idea that this situation grew out of previous conditions that should have been better handled. Some people know about the problems of the Treaty of Versailles and other instances of excessive punitiveness towards Germany. Some people know about the times when the world could have stood up for the Jews early on and did not, thus emboldening Hitler. But those people did not learn about these things from watching this movie, and everyone else is left in the dark.
We have a movie with an entire focus on the events commonly cited to assert why arms buildup, including nuclear weapons, is needed. This is one side of the argument, a very conventional interpretation during the Cold War. The movie doesn’t let the viewer know that there even exists another side to the argument. We know that standing up against people like Hitler is necessary, but there’s no clue here that there’s any method to do so other than war.
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