Horatius, Haymon and the Darkest Hour
Last Saturday I watched the film “Darkest Hour”, starring Gary Oldman. It covers a few days in 1940 at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s premiership, when France was about to fall, and many in the Cabinet felt Britain should enter peace negotiations with Hitler. (Spoiler: they decided not to.)
There’ve been a few films about the Second World War lately, but I hadn’t watched any of them, and so came to this one fairly fresh. I would recommend it highly. Although I know nothing about cinematography and direction, even I was impressed by the visuals, the camera angles and the creation of a world full of extras who seemed to be individuals, even just passing by without dialogue. Gary Oldman’s performance has been justly praised, but I also think credit should be given to Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James.
One of the less plausible moments was when the aristocratic Churchill unexpectedly entered a tube train to chat to the passengers, ordinary British people, and quoted some poetry. The lines he quoted were from a famous poem by Lord Macaulay which he had learned at school. Its proper title is “Horatius”, one of the “Lays of Ancient Rome”, but it is more famous as “How Horatius Kept the Bridge.”
I was absolutely tickled pink when these words came up, as “Horatius” is a poem that I also learned as a teenager, as I have written elsewhere on this blog (http://www.penelopewallace.com/in-which-i-show-off-about-showing-off/ )
My Oxford Companion to English Literature says snootily of the Lays “their rocking-horse rhythms and naivete of expression are now decidedly out of fashion”, but it is indeed a fun and stirring tale.
The lines quoted are (from memory)
Then out spake brave Horatius/The captain of the gate./ “To every man upon this earth/Death cometh soon or late./ And how can man die better/Than facing fearful odds/ For the ashes of his fathers/ And the temples of his gods?”
Anyway, I was tickled, and also tickled to discover from Wikipedia that these lines were indeed quoted by Churchill at this time, perhaps not on a tube train, but to enthuse the Cabinet.
In the film, Churchill described the Nazi tyranny as abominable, but without going into specifics. His opponents spoke forcefully for the other side of the argument, pointing out the horrors of the First World War, and the unpreparedness of the British army.
But we all know the specifics, and so we know what side to be on. With the hindsight of sixty years, we can sit in the cinema and comfortably agree as a matter of course that the warmongering British politicians and generals wantonly sacrificed common soldiers in 1914-18, but the cowardly next generation shouldn’t have hesitated a moment before committing everyone to six years of struggle in 1939-45.
There may have been one strafing of a line of refugees, but otherwise the film contained no concrete examples of tyranny – we weren’t shown any Jewish refugees for example. This meant that Lord Halifax could make his argument for peace without looking totally evil. But it also meant that the argument of the film was largely couched as a necessity to stand firm against invasion. Because invasion by a foreign power, any foreign power, is intolerable.
And although I was delighted to recognise “Horatius”, I don’t know that I’m reassured that grown men might actually commit to war on the basis of this poem, where Victorian fair play is observed literally to the death on both sides, and Horatius is ultimately praised by the enemy: “E’en the ranks of Tuscany/Could scarce forbear to cheer.” This is not the way 20th century wars are fought, as the Cabinet must have known.
It reminded me, of course, of my own invented country of Haymon, and of a conversation some of my characters have two nights before battle against an invading army.
“If we lose,” pursued [Malda], “what will remain of us? And even if we win, what do we win?”
“We retain our freedom,” said Brother Simon.
“Are the people in Marithon and Makkera slaves? Is life in Jaryar so terrible?”
“We cannot give in,” said Galian. “We’re all summoned to fight for Gard, for our homes.”
“For Haymon,” said Brother Simon.
“Haymon! Haymon is a name! You think it’s worth all these people dying for a name? What is so wrong about accepting –“ She paused, and quoted deliberately, “accepting what has to be?”
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Malda fought in the battle two days later, and was killed.
Nazi philosophy was indeed so abominable that most British people would agree that Churchill made the right choice. But generally, it seems to me that fiction, being interested in battles, rarely gives Malda’s perspective the weight it deserves. Especially historical and fantasy fiction.
This was one of the reasons I wrote “The Tenth Province of Jaryar.”
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