British culture has a unique and unhealthy fascination with the glorification of the world wars — which has contributed to Brexit
Ever since I was a child in the 1970s, British movies, TV and other aspects of popular culture have been dominated by the world wars. In the Seventies it was perhaps more understandable as the veterans, like my own father and uncles, were the same age then as I am now. The war was only thirty years previous, and had been a dominating, formational experience of their youth. But in 2020, WWI has entirely passed from living memory. Why is the UK seemingly uniquely fascinated in endlessly revisiting these wars in popular culture?
From the earliest days of the movie industry, war has featured on the screen. The biggest grossing movies, and also most influential as far as camera techniques and special effects went, were also movies about the Great War. The Big Parade (1925) was the biggest commercial hit of the silent era, closely followed by Wings (1927), that won the first ever Oscar for Best Picture. Though many of these films had an anti-war theme (such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) that was banned Australia for promoting pacifism) they were undeniably produced to present war as spectacle, from the sweeping pans across the battlefield, explosions, to the sanitised depictions of death and injury. Very much these are tales of personal heroism and personification of ideals of nobility and leadership that all the target audience cultures shared and recognised.
During WWII movies were deliberately used as training tools for the military and also for propaganda purposes. These movies depicted again the heroic soldiers pitted against evil, alien, subhuman enemies and served a dual purpose; building morale at home whilst selling government bonds to support the war effort, and indoctrinating the troops at the front.
In the UK after WWII was over, war movies continued to be made in this manner, perhaps as a deliberate continuation or propaganda to continue to boost war morale. Britain had an extremely slow return to normality, illustrated to the populace daily by the bomb sites that remained derelict for decades, and the rationing that continued until 1954. But then of course for the UK, war continued unabated on foreign fronts from Afghanistan (1944–6) to Greece, Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Yemen and Nigeria. However, movies about these conflicts are very few and far between — throughout this period war movies were still being made about WWII, most notably The Wooden Horse, The Cruel Sea, Above Us the Waves, The Colditz Story, The Dambusters, Battle of the River Plate, Reach for the Sky, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dunkirk, The Guns of Navarone and The Battle of Britain.
The war dominated UK comics and toys when I was a child, from Victor, Warlord and the Commando! graphic novels (as they would be called now) we used to swap in the playground, to the Airfix kits and toy soldiers we used to build and paint, re-enacting the battles that played unceasingly on the TV. I even had a Colditz set for my Action Men, which included an SS officer’s uniform and a facsimile of a Red Cross parcel. I didn’t know anything about the Korean War or any of the others listed above. The most popular sitcom of the time, so archetypal that it formed as instructional for the BBC even when casting ‘reality’ shows decades later, was Dad’s Army.
If these movies are supposed to illustrate the futility and horror of war, why do they always relate to battlefield stories set in wars that we won? Why didn't Sam Mendes set his story in Korea, Malaya or Biafra? Is it just because we lost, or on account of the horrific crimes we committed against the populace as we desperately attempted to hold onto our dwindling empire?
Recently there has been some controversy about the inclusion of a Sikh soldier, Mendes accused of being ‘woke’ (whatever that means). It was pointed out that hundreds of thousands of troops from all over the empire were brought to the cold fields of Europe to die, and the person who raised objection to the inclusion of this soldier — who I will not name here — is showing his ignorance. However if Indian battalions are usually invisible in such films, and in this one their contribution is represented by one or two men, what does that say? Why aren’t the protagonists Sikh? If they have been erased from the popular history that such movies create, are we right to point the finger at someone for not knowing something that is not taught in schools nor shown in mass media? Did you know that 140,000 Indian troops fought on the Western Front? Or that 1.2 million Indians (twice the number of Australians) served across all the fronts?
The propaganda function of the media during wartime is obvious, but it seems in the UK that the mythology that was deliberately created has passed into the cultural identity of the nation. So much so that the Leave campaign found it easy to exploit these myths, to evoke such ideas as the Dunkirk or Blitz spirit, painting the EU as the other, acceptance of foreign governance as a betrayal of those wartime heroes who fought for liberty against the German Empire. During the campaign, Nigel Farage even tweeted his appreciation of another blockbuster war movie, Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017).
The myth of Dunkirk is a case in point, being almost entirely what we would call today fake news. The overwhelming number of troops were rescued thanks to the efforts of the Royal and Merchant navies, engineers, and the heroism of the French troops who fought a doomed rearguard action. But in that film, the 120,000 French soldiers who were also evacuated were not depicted. The ‘little boats’ had almost all been compulsorily requisitioned by the Navy and were used as additional landing boats, civilian crews making an insignificant contribution.
Dunkirk is evoked to show Britain coming out on top against all odds, alone, the indomitable ‘stiff upper lip’. But the truth was very far removed, Dunkirk being a humiliating defeat and rout, some historians arguing today that if the German armoured divisions had continued to advance rather than inexplicably just stopping, the army would have been wiped out. Churchill’s war cabinet knew this, and they had to convert defeat into victory, which they did through propaganda. But now, despite access to the actual historical accounts, this myth has passed into accepted fact.
Perhaps even decades after the fall of the British Empire, there is something in our culture that still hearkens back to those days — but this too is the myth of Empire, entirely sanitised and removed from the horrors of subjugation and genocide, bearing little relation even to the historical accounts and opposition of the day. 1917 is an odd year to pick, it being the year of the Russian Revolution, western European governments terrified should their troops mutiny and fight against the scions of that same royal family in Berlin and London. Tsar Nicholas and King George were cousins who so closely resembled each other they looked like twin brothers. And it was this year that the Saxe-Coburg Gotha family became the Windsors.
Sam Mendes can obviously make movies about whatever he likes. It’s sad however that British culture can’t escape the legacy of wartime propaganda, of popular myth and a national identity based on those fictional tales. We have a responsibility as a culture that represents truth, especially for all those victims of these bloody wars as well as to the countries we pillaged and subjugated as a part of our Empire. We need to be looking at the truth of history, teaching our children about the utter horror of war rather than glorifying those extremely rare tales of heroism. We desperately need to dispel these myths if we are to learn anything from history, because it via the manipulation of these myths that nationalism and xenophobia are born and nurtured, putting our future as a democracy at risk.
I’m not blaming Mendes or Nolan or the other directors who will undoubtedly add more movies and TV shows to this sad canon over the coming years — obviously appealing to these same myths sells cinema tickets and creates ratings. And if you do go to see this movie, please regard it as no more than fantasy, ahistorical, and hope that the money made will fund further, wholly original cultural works, so that we can finally consign these wars to history, and in doing so, learn from them the lessons that we need so desperately today.