Monday, March 5, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I was chatting with an acquaintance about the type of film which had been popular when I was a very young child, in the later 1950s. I have caught up with many of these films as an adult, thanks to TV, DVDs, Netflix, Youtube and what have you. I said I noticed something very interesting about them from a cultural point of view.

In the United States, from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, one of the most popular film genres was the Western, and it was at this time that most of the “classics” of the genre were made. Red River, My Darling Clementine, The Gunfighter, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Yellow Sky, High Noon, Seven Men From Now, The Searchers, 3:10 to Yuma, The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on – not to mention a steady diet of “B” Westerns most of which are best forgotten. At the same time, a high proportion of expensive “prestige” movies – the type that are intended as Academy Award bait – were based on religious or Biblical themes. Samson and Delilah, Solomon and Sheba, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Barabbas, King of Kings, The Big Fisherman, The Greatest Story Ever Told etc.

I suggested to my interlocutor that these genres reflected the Cold War era. The religious films showed that we had God on our side as opposed to those godless Commies. The Westerns presented a stark moral universe of right and wrong, with choreographed violence as a means of settling disputes. They were a popular representation of the way the USA saw itself at that time.

The person I was talking to dismissed this as “conspiracy theory”, but I was nowhere suggesting that anybody had sat down and consciously decided “Let’s make a Western – or religious film – to help fight the Cold War.” As always, Hollywood’s main purpose was to make money, and hence to make films that would attract a large audience. So they appealed to a mood that already existed. I was suggesting that these film really did reflect the dominant mood of the nation at the time, and hence, intentionally or otherwise, reflected the notion of the USA as the armed democracy prepared to fight the forces of darkness. No conspiracy was involved – just the absorption and expression of common assumptions.

I’ve been thinking hard recently about the way films (including TV and cable network films) consciously or unconconsciously reflect the age in which they are made, even those that purport to represent a past age. From Britain, what I am seeing now is a clutch of “Brexit” movies – that is, movies primarily designed to tell British audiences that they are superior to those silly Europeans and hence best severed from them.

This is partly reflected in the long-running TV series The Crown, two seasons of which have so far been shown on Netflix, but four more seasons of which are yet to come. Expensively produced and well-acted, The Crown is essentially very clever propaganda. It purports to give a warts-and-all intimate dramatisation of the Windsor clan, and hence to uncover unflinchingly royal scandals. But so far (I have seen all of the two series as yet broadcast) the scandals are related to those who are conveniently dead. Thus we have seen young Queen Elzabeth II interacting with her foolish uncle “David”, the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII), whose vacuous lifestyle and Nazi sympathies are dutifully dramatised. The man is of course long dead. We have seen the young queen put her foot down rather gracelessly when her hedonistic younger sister Margaret (also dead) wanted to marry a divorced man. Later Margaret did marry a social-climbing photographer, who turned out to be bisexual and had affairs all over the place while Margaret sank into alcoholism and self-pity.

Warts and all, right?

Well actually, not so. The series shows HM (Claire Foy) and her spouse Prince Philip (Matt Smith) as at first having a rocky marriage, Philip being bored with his consort role and with having nothing much to do. There was a scene in which the two of them broke into an argument in front of the press. Early on it was suggested that, when he was away cruising with his male naval pals, Phil might have had some sexual dalliances on the side – but this was suggested so discreetly that it might have passed some viewers by. What is far more important, as the series progresses, is that every private conversation between the Queen and Phil is presented as a loving and thoughtful exchange, even if they do differ over how young Charles should be educated. Of course this is fiction. Nobody knows what the two of them may have said in private, so such conversations are the scriptwriters’ invention. But the purpose is clear. Even if HM is somewhat prim and reproving, we are being told again and again that her judgment in matters of politics is excellent, her marriage is rock solid and her consort is essentially a decent chap.

So Rule Britannia and the stability of its constitutional system.

More clearly products of the Brexit phenomenon are two “historical” films that are currently receiving much praise.

With much technical expertise, Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk tells the saga of the successful evacuation of much of Britain’s expeditionary force from France between 26 May and 4 June 1940.  Nobody doubts the ingenuity of the evacuation or the courage of those involved. However, the event was the beginning of Britain’s “standing alone” (well – “alone” apart from massive infusions of American money) and hence being divested of European allies. As in other British tellings of the story, the film largly ignores or belittles the role of the French. Thus there is little reference to the fact that over a third of those evacuated were French, that the French navy was part of the evacuation and that, most crucial of all, 18,000 French troops died holding the perimeter – the town of Dunkirk itself and other points. Without this rearguard action, the beaches would have quickly been overrun by German forces and there would have been no evacuation. The French Army continued fighting for nearly three weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation, with units still fighting in the east of France up to the final capitulation of France on 24 June.

But Nolan’s film ignores all this and perpetuates the myth of the “little ships” saving the day. Its message for the times is very clear – we are better off without unreliable allies and those foolish Europeans. In other words – support Brexit.

Shortly after this film comes the Churchill film Darkest Hour, wherein Gary Oldman plays the doughty orator who took over from the vacillating Chamberlain and saved the day. Again this is a depiction of Britain “standing alone” against the German foe and divested of unreliable allies. So vote Brexit.

Okay, okay. I know it will be objected that heroic war films have been made for years. It will also be objected that Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are both (more-or-less) accurate, if very selective, depictions of real historical events. But this does not alter the fact that, appearing now, they appeal to a certain popular sentiment. There is no “conspiracy” about it – simply the reality that later depictions of historical events always have a subtext relating to the present. In these cases, the subtext is British exceptionalism.

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