I love reading popular history. What all this reading has done, aside from reminding me that my feeble mind and body would never have survived in any other era, is solidify that consuming history matters. And that’s not because I prescribe to the tired notion that if people simply remember history they will no longer be doomed to repeat it. If the last two years have taught us anything it’s that it is not enough to simply remember history; it also matters how you remember it. Two historically-based films released late last year illustrate the extremes of how cinema can choose to depict history and, thus, help mold public consciousness. Dee Rees’ 2017 film Mudbound, for instance, depicts history as formed by the collective, as a “people’s history,” where all shape history even as they are being simultaneously shaped by it. This is the opposite of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, which espouses a depowering and irresponsible “great man theory.”
Mudbound’s people’s history is built around several core concepts, which can each be described in terms of movement and relate to either the past, present or future. First, there is a causality to history that resembles a linear line. The experiences someone has in the past weigh upon and trigger their contemporary behavior. Second, history is formed through a feedback loop. The present-day character of an individual – which has been produced by past events – is also susceptible to continual contemporary influence by society. Conversely, the individual projects their influence into the world on a day-to-day basis, helping create the very society that is simultaneously influencing them. Lastly, history is, by nature, contradictory, which ultimately complicates the idea of it being simply a linear progression of cause and effect. Instead, history also resembles a pendulum; one event can give rise to another that is entirely unexpected, making the course of history swing back and forth instead of simply, well, forth.
Mudbound explores this conception of history through two families – one black (the Jacksons) and one white (the McAllens) – who destinies collide in rural Mississippi in the late 1940s. The patriarchs of the two families – Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) and Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) – both embody the first two concepts of Mudbound‘s approach to history.
Their actions strongly highlight the causality of history. Henry McAllen, for example, is a man out of step with the times, chasing the dream of being a farmer and a landowner. At the beginning of the film, he purchases a Mississippi farm and moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) and two small children to the property. This decision, like so many things about Henry, is comically naive. For one thing, Henry is no natural farmer. As Hap points out at one point after meeting the McAllens, Henry is a man who has lived most of his life in a large city and probably doesn’t “know the eating end of a mule from the crapping end.” And on a broader level, his gravitation towards farming, to life in a small, rural community, is simply inharmonious with post-war trends of rapid urbanization.
Similarly, Henry has a mindset towards questions of race that is incongruent with a rapidly-changing America. His attitude towards African-Americans is, if not racist, certainly regressive, showing an unwillingness to engage in critical thinking about dynamics between the two races in the post-war era. The character’s perspective is most prominently expressed in his relationship with the Jackson family, who are actually tenant farmers on the McAllen’s property. Although slavery has been abolished for over two generations by the time Mudbound‘s events take place, and despite the Jacksons paying the McAllens rent, Henry still expects a measure of unpaid work from Hap and his sons and generally treats them in a subordinate manner.
Mudbound roots Henry’s stances on race and property in the past. On the issue of land ownership, Mudbound‘s director and screenwriter, Dee Rees, stages a scene where Henry inspects his fields and ruminates through voice over about how his farming and land owning aspirations have been a part of him for decades, embedded by a land-owning grandfather who once promised Henry that he would pass his land down to him.
“My great grand daddy and his slaves built the farm I grew up on. One time Grandaddy told me to go grab up a handful of dirt from the yard, and I did. He asks me ‘What are you holding?’ I said ‘Dirt.’ He says ‘that’s right now give it to me.’ So I do and he says ‘Now what’s this I’ve got in my hand?’ ‘Dirt,’ I says. Then he says ‘Naw boy, this is LAND I’ve got. Do you know why?’ And he says ‘Because I OWN it. It’s mine. And one day it’ll be yours.'” (Mudbound)
Mudbound is less explicit on where Henry’s views on race come from – but only marginally. Henry’s father, Pappy, reveals himself early on to be a horrendous, bile-spewing racist, and it seems impossible that Henry’s own racial attitudes were not at least slightly informed by this intense bigotry. Additionally, Henry flat out states that slaves built the farm he grew up on, suggesting that his mindset regarding the racial hierarchy of the United States was shaped early on. In Henry’s experience, the advantages enjoyed by white Americans has always been predicated on the oppression of black people. And when this past experience is paired with Henry’s intellectual laziness (an attribute that will be discussed further when we begin talking about his brother Jaime) why Henry is the way he is becomes clear. To him, the world has always been a certain way, and he is unwilling or incapable of asking why.
Hap Jackson is another character whose present day psychology is a product of his past. Similar to Henry, Hap desires to achieve land ownership. A crucial difference, however, is that Hap desires this not because his ancestors once possessed land but because they were denied it due to being slaves. In a scene that mirrors the one involving Henry, Hap works his rented plot of land while riffing through voice over on this very issue.
“My grandfathers and great uncles, grandmothers and great aunts, father and mother, broke, tilled, thawed, planted, plucked, raised, burned, broke again. Worked this land all they life, this land that never would be theirs. They worked until they sweated. They sweated until they bled. They bled until they died. Died with the dirt of this same 200 acres under their fingernails. Died clawing at the hard, brown back that would never be theirs.” (Mudbound)
Hap doesn’t have grandiose economic ambitions, instead only desiring a modest improvement in the economic circumstances that have defined him and his family up until this point in time. The inherent modesty of these ambitions comes across during a brief scene where Hap realizes that Henry intends to use a tractor to plow his land. Hap seems appalled by this idea, suggesting that the idea of owning a truly massive piece of property, one whose size would necessitate mechanization to farm properly, had never crossed his mind.
The manner and scope of Hap’s ambitions are defined primarily by a singular adjective: incremental. Hap doesn’t believe that his circumstances can change with any dramatic speed. One can infer from references to Hap’s past where this mentality comes from. It seems likely that Hap, having been born at the height of the Jim Crow era, had learned and internalized early on that African American lives were marginally better off than they had been during slavery – but that marginal changes were all one could really hope for.
Mudbound depicts this incremental mindset as also being present in areas of Hap’s life outside of economics. For example, Hap is unwilling to directly challenge the racial bigotry that surrounds and occasionally threatens him and his family, stating at one point about Mississippi’s white supremacists, “No point in fightin. They just gonna win every time.”
Still, just as Hap aspires to the art of the possible in regards to land ownership, he supports efforts that slowly improve the lives of African Americans as long as they do not dramatically upend larger social or economic paradigms. A part-time minister for his community, Hap’s belief in the possibility of incremental and generational progress is first expressed during one of his sermons:
“It brings me comfort that one morning my getting up is gonna be just a little bit easier than the day before. One morning my children are not gonna wake up in this place, they’re gonna open they eyes on a new sky. One morning we gonna knock the boot from off our neck, we gonna shake the chains
from round our feet. Oh yes one morning!” (Mudbound)
The inclusion of Hap’s sermon provides further clarity on his philosophy towards life, race and progress in America. To Hap, while change can happen, it is slow, often not manifesting itself in the lifetime of the individual who actually initiates the change, only coming to fruition for the posterity of said individual. Hap notably expresses this attitude towards his daughter, Lilly May, who desires to leave the family farm and become a stenographer in a big city like Chicago (a reference to the Second Great Migration). Hap is supportive of this goal, going so far as to reprimand his son, Marlon, when the boy antagonizes Lilly May by saying, “They don’t allow no colored typists.” “Your sister will be the first” is Hap’s immediate rebuttal.
Henry and Hap embody how the past is always informing the present. But they also show how an individual’s present day actions emanate outward, affecting society, and how societal influences gravitate inward, affecting the individual.
Mudbound depicts Henry, for instance, embracing and projecting the inequalities of the Jim Crow era, primarily in his engagements with Hap. As mentioned above, there are multiple instances throughout Mudbound where Henry exploits Hap for free labor. He also railroads the Jacksons after Hap experiences an accident and breaks one of his legs. Henry seizes on this opportunity by forcing the Jacksons to rent one of his mules to ensure that their harvest is collected on time and the rent for their land is paid to the McAllens. Lastly, Henry contributes to the unequal dynamics of his society by demanding an apology from Hap’s oldest son, Ronsel, when the younger man refuses to comply with an order from Henry’s father to leave a business they are both in through the backdoor.
While these behaviors are repugnant, they are understandable when one considers the time period of the story and the multiple forces pressing upon Henry, shaping his character and prompting his actions. One such pressure is economic. This is evident when Henry tries to force the Jacksons into renting his mule and then justifying it by snarling at his wife: “I sank everything into this farm. Everything! We need to make some money this year. If we don’t, our family’s in trouble.”
There are also immaterial factors influencing Henry’s psyche. Having existed for decades in a culture of white supremacy, not to mention showing no aptitude for critical thinking, Henry is not equipped to handle even modest post-war attempts by African Americans to improve their lives and to be less deferential to white oppression. He may not have the desire to engage in violence to maintain the long-solidified social order, but he’s not above trying other methods when such post-war attempts begin manifesting themselves in the small-scale context of his life.
For example, he frames his demand for an apology from Ronsel not by threatening him physically but by obliquely stating that, if Ronsel doesn’t apologize, it will cause a lot of “trouble.” Henry’s repeated use of the word “trouble” to describe the Jacksons and his own shaky economic situation is communicative of society’s influence on his character. A small-minded, entitled and all-together ridiculous man, Henry is frankly incapable of being more stalwart and calm towards the reality of perennial change in post-war America. Although he is several generations removed from a time when slavery was legally permissible, he is not removed from exploiting the Jim Crow era for his own gain or from feeling threatened when individuals like Ronsel pose minor challenges to it. In short, to Henry society has always revolved around binaries that are deeply intertwined: the strength, security and privilege enjoyed by white Americans is predicated on the weakness, subordination and deprivation of black Americans. When he infers that such weakness and subordination might be dissipating, he is compelled to act out of the anxiety that his own lifestyle may be threatened.
Hap is also simultaneously a product and an architect of his time. He finds himself repeatedly under pressure by the exterior forces of hegemonic white power. He defers to this power (represented by people like Henry) constantly, capitulating on everything from doing unpaid work, potentially putting his dreams of land ownership on hold and giving his blessing to his wife to work as a midwife to Laura McAllen’s children.
Conversely, Hap projects his own influence on his era. One of the ways that Hap helps create his world is through his chronic capitulating, which affirms the legitimacy of a deeply unequal society. Yet this is not the only way in which he affects his world. Hap also pushes out his incrementalist perspective, his belief that things can marginally improve and his willingness to work within an oppressive system to obtain said improvement. And at the end of the film, Mudbound shows how such contributions can have a tangible effect, with Hap obtaining his own land and Jackson family members like Lilly May well on their way to achieving their modest albeit notable dreams.
It is not just through Hap and Henry that Mudbound advances its philosophy of history. Ronsel Jackson (played by Jason Mitchell), the oldest son of Hap, and Jaime McAllen (Garrett Hedlund), the younger brother of Henry, also factor into the film’s thematic preoccupations. A major part of Mudbound is devoted to following these two men as they are drafted into World War II and then struggle to reintegrate themselves into America following the conflict. With both Ronsel and Jaime, the linear causality of history once again appears, as does the feedback loop of the individual affecting society and society affecting the individual on a day-to-day basis.
There is a strong causality to the character of Ronsel, with his post-war attitudes being the product of his wartime experiences in Germany. During his tour, Ronsel is treated with respect by white people for perhaps the first time in his life. He even begins a romantic relationship with a white woman while stationed there, an act that would be unthinkable in Mississippi. These positive experiences compound upon his thinking, sharpening his dissatisfaction with the marginalized role he once again occupies upon his return home. As he angrily states at one point: “Over there, I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us. Throwing flowers and cheering. And here, I am just a nigger pushing a plow.” Ronsel’s mindset creates immediate tension between himself and people like Pappy McAllen, culminating in the tense standoff at the local general store (initially mentioned above) where Ronsel is blocked from leaving through the front door by Pappy and his thuggish, shit-kicking friend.
Jaime is also marked by cause and effect, and his wartime experiences also lead to difficulties in re-acclimating to the United States. His homecoming is marred by alcoholism and alienation from his family. In fact, the only reprieve that Jaime is able to find is when he meets Ronsel. The two veterans are able to strike up a friendship, which they largely keep secret to avoid attracting the bigoted hostility of the Mississippi community in which they both live.
Jaime’s post-war self-destructiveness is tacitly connected to having witnessed a fellow pilot die during an air battle. Yet Mudbound characterizes this trauma as being subsidiary to when Jaime was saved from certain death by a African-American fighter pilot, an event that communicates how war has the capacity to unite disparate factions of a populace and render artificial constructs like race nugatory.
When considering why Jaime is open to experiences such as a friendship with Ronsel, however, the film does not try to pin it solely on how Jaime was saved by an African American pilot. Instead, Mudbound goes further into the past, showing a pre-war Jaime as already fairly enlightened and intellectual for his time period. He’s the kind of guy capable of rattling off a list of playwrights and riffing on A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a fact that draws between him and the boorish Henry. The dichotomy between the two brothers is worth noting, as there is a clear imbalance in their respective intellectual capacities. And while there is no guarantee that education can negate racism, it does communicate one’s willingness and/or ability to think analytically and interrogate the world around them. Overall, having a pre-war Jaime possess this trait helps sell the idea that he would be open to engaging with Ronsel in a equitable way even if he had not been drafted into WWII.
The figures of Jaime and Ronsel are illustrative of the unique, push/pull dynamic embedded in Mudbound‘s vision of history. Both men experience significant alienation from their families and from the society they both share upon returning from the war. Ronsel is not really a stranger to this type of feeling, having always been ostracized by the hegemonic power structures of American society. What is more alien is the cutting deprivation that can only come from experiencing something and then having it subsequently taken away. For Ronsel, the social acceptance that was a part of his time in Germany makes the lack of acceptance he experiences upon his return to America all the more painful and ugly.
Conversely, Jaime is likely unaccustomed to all forms of alienation. Because of his ethnicity and gender, he has always occupied a role within American society that carries some degree of power and privilege. Returning to America harboring a post-traumatic stress disorder puts him in a novel place. He has been transformed into someone who society can no longer deal with without a small measure of trepidation.
Jaime and Ronsel find themselves under pressure from a society that cannot fully accept or integrate them, and they respond to this by transgressing against said society’s hegemonic norms and values. They transmit the idea of race being illusory through their friendship, pushing back against the social narrative that the two races cannot relate unless it is within a toxic web of animosity and inequality. Of course, in keeping with the idea of the feedback loop, this action on the part of Ronsel and Jaime is partially responsible for provoking a horrifically violent response from society. This illustrates that, while there may be space for interracial friendship in post-war America, other factions are not willing to fully let go of pre-war ideas regarding the merits of total division between the races.
The potential for violence hangs over the proceedings of Mudbound. And it is through the violence that is partially provoked by Ronsel and Jaime’s relationship that Mudbound primarily explores its third and final idea on the nature of history: history is intrinsically ironic and contradictory.
But first, some context. Late in Mudbound, Ronsel discovers that he fathered a child with his girlfriend when he was living in Germany during the war. He learns this after she sends him a picture of the tot and implores him to come back to Germany. While Ronsel is contemplating what to do, Pappy McAllen discovers the photo. This discovery follows Pappy also learning about the friendship between Ronsel and Jaime, and these two revelations prompt Pappy to unite the Ku Klux Klan to track the young man down, beat him nearly to death and force a traumatized Jaime to decide which part of Ronsel they will mutilate: genitals, tongue or eyes.
Covering the era directly preceding the modern Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), Mudbound‘s ending communicates the bleak nature of its time. The Klan’s eventual decision to cut out Ronsel’s tongue, essentially robbing him of his speech, also acts as a gruesome metaphor for how white extremists would attempt to stymie black Americans from exercising their political voice through voting, lobbying and demonstrating in the decades to come. And yet Mudbound‘s ending does not solely resign itself to brooding about the dark side of 1940s American life. In fact, the story ends on a hopeful note, channeling the idea that, while the past is always weighing on the present, always trigger a new event or behavior, history is not a straight line; it’s a pendulum, a Hegelian dialectic comprised of clashing forces. All action has a reaction, but it’s not always the reaction one might have thought of or hoped for.
Nowhere is this more evident than the fate of the Jackson family, particularly for Ronsel. After surviving his assault, Ronsel is spirited out of the South by the rest of his family, eventually returning to Germany to reunite with his girlfriend and meet his young son for the first time. As he walks through streets that are patrolled by what one would assume are Allied soldiers (Germany would remain occupied until the mid-50s), Ronsel voice-over states that he has crossed “the Atlantic yet again. This time not for war. But for love.” The notion of love emerging out of war, out of violence, is a critical one, pointing to the ironic contradictions of history, the unintended consequences that are impossible to predict. The assault upon Ronsel, for instance, was meant to silence him, to stymie forever his efforts to rid himself of white supremacy and transgress against the mores of his time and place. Instead, it had the opposite effect, giving him additional motivation to leave his bigoted homeland behind and pursue a new life.
Hap also goes through an unexpected, ironic and contradictory change due to the events of the film’s climax. A passive incrementalist throughout much of Mudbound, Hap inexplicably finds his voice following the KKK’s assault upon his son, which was designed to push him and his family into a deeper state of acquiescence. The drama of Hap’s transformation can be seen in his final exchange with Henry McAllen, where the later once again attempts to obtain free labor from the Jacksons. While Hap does agree to help Henry, he angrily rebuffs him when Henry attempts to also obtain the free labor of Hap’s sons. The decision on Hap’s part’s to do this is markedly different from his earlier actions where he supported his children in a more non-verbal, non-confrontational fashion. His rebuttal of Henry near the end of Mudbound signifies his ironic shift from being a cautious proponent of incremental improvement to a more radical and assertive advocate for himself and his family.
Mudbound takes on history through a multifaceted approach that keeps the emphasis on normal people who are affected by the past, contributing to and being affected by the present and all the while creating a future whose fundamental makeup is never a foregone conclusion. This approach finds its polar opposite in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, whose “great man theory” version of history is what will be broached in the next section of this essay.
On almost every level, Darkest Hour is the inverse of Mudbound. Yet without a doubt, the most startling difference between the two films is their conceptions of history. The collectivist, people’s history practiced by Mudbound is entirely absent from Darkest Hour, which in trades in an inoculating, great man theory. In this film, the protagonist is not a man but a superman single-handedly creating the very essence of his time.
The great man theory was initially developed by Scottish intellectual Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History that “the history of the world is the biography of great men” (Carlyle). His work briefly popularized the theory that it is through the actions of great men that history is born. It also suggests that their actions are not governed by the catalytic circumstances of earlier epochs or present day trends. Darkest Hour postures as this being not theory but fact, and it does this through following Britain’s most iconic prime minister: Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.
Played by a heavily made-up Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour spins a yarn that focuses exclusively on Churchill’s early days as prime minister, an appointment he received as the Third Reich was turning continental Europe into Hitler’s own anti-semitic playpen and posing an existential threat to the British island itself. Wright’s film shows Churchill approaching his new role in a starkly different way from his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. He flat-out refuses to negotiate peace, rebuffing dissenting voices with boisterous, spit-spraying energy even as British, Belgian and French troops are being decimated by the German war machine.
Of the major tenants of history that Mudbound advances over the course of its story, Darkest Hour ineffectually and halfheartedly adopts two of them. One that it incorporates is history having a causality. The second is the feedback loop of history.
These two tenants primarily get raised through the relationship between Oldman’s Churchill and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, who clash repeatedly over whether Britain should continue to fight Hitler’s advancing hordes. In their scenes together, the viewer gets faint allusions to Churchill’s past, such as his involvement with the military disaster at Gallipoli during World War I, which resulted in the loss of literally thousands of lives. This accompanies earlier statements that King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) makes right before he appoints Churchill as prime minister. He mentions how Churchill’s decision-making during the Norway campaign earlier in the war cost the lives of nearly 2,000 men.
These statements flesh out Churchill’s past, but they do not establish a true causality to history. And due to the fact that Churchill’s colossal appetite for war appears undiminished in the early scenes of Darkest Hour, it is hard to make the argument that Churchill’s past is weighing on his contemporary actions in any way. Thus, unlike many of Mudbound‘s characters, where references to their respective pasts helped contextualize and potentially explain their present day selves, references to Churchill’s past are just “sorta things that happened.” They aren’t experiences that were internalized in any sort of fundamental or transformative way. That is not to say that Darkest Hour should have attempted to paint Churchill as being more reticent regarding war and violence; there is nothing I’ve read that corroborates the idea of the man being anything other than bloodthirsty. Still, the film’s script could have integrated an anecdote or two pertaining to where Churchill’s bloodlust originated, an addition that would have more successfully communicated his humanity and his place in a historical timeline.
Dillane’s Halifax fares a little better, with Darkest Hour drawing a clear correlation between Halifax’s WWII anxieties and what he observed during WWI. “I will not stand by to watch another generation of young men die at the bloody altar of your hubris!” he screams at one point to Churchill, clearly acting from a belief that the past is prologue when it comes to modern day armed conflict on the European continent. Yet when it comes to establishing a clear causality, the film basically stops there. Although the ghosts of WWI do indeed seem to be haunting Halifax, much of his behavior does seem to be singularly motivated by what Churchill is doing, imbuing his motivations with a myopic flavor and brushing over many of the other developments during the summer of 1940 that influenced him, such as the publication of British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality. And while this would appear to indicate that Darkest Hour better grapples with the feedback loop of history, we shall soon discover that the film is also surprisingly inept on this second tenant.
In fact, in regards to the feedback loop of history, Darkest Hour is possibly even less effective, and that includes how the film utilizes the Halifax character. Like several of the characters within Darkest Hour, Halifax is more position statement than man. He is a static idea rather than a human being that is continually growing, changing, absorbing the world’s influence and projecting his own.
Absolutism is the name of the game in Darkest Hour, with characters projecting their philosophies from almost the very first frames of the film. Halifax himself is already wedded to the idea of striking a settlement with the Axis powers by page 27 of Anthony McCarten’s screenplay. In this scene, he is depicted scheming with a recently disposed Neville Chamberlain on the most expedient way to oust Churchill from his perch as the head of the British government. Regardless of what happens on-screen during Darkest Hour, Halifax’s persona, philosophy and actions are basically set in proverbial stone. There is only a slight ebb and flow in regards to the intensity in which he projects his beliefs.
Churchill is Halifax’s diametrical opposite when it comes to war policy, but the two men are almost identical in regards to their absolutism. To be fair, Wright’s film does attempt to depict the blustery leader as more susceptible to exterior influence, showing him needing to balance his vehement belief in war with the need for political survival and developments in the European theater of WWII. But this largely consists of posturing rather than fully committing. Rather than showing Churchill as someone whose subsequent responses to exterior pressures is organic and natural, Darkest Hour trades in contrivance. It does this by relegating its secondary characters to cheerleader status. Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas ), Elizabeth Nel (Lily James) and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) all dutifully appear whenever Churchill begins to waffle on Britain’s war policy. These pep talks powerfully affect the film’s depiction of history. Not only do they artificially pull Churchill back from being influenced by exterior developments in a lasting or authentic way, they also suggest that he shouldn’t be truly influenced by what is percolating in the larger world.
Wight’s directorial decisions also affirm this. A flamboyant stylist, Wright’s worst proclivities are on display throughout several sections of Darkest Hour, none more so than when he depicts the destruction of the British’s 30th Infantry Brigade. During WWII, the brigade was ordered by Churchill to draw the advancing German armies away from the Allied forces clustered on the beaches of Dunkirk. They were utterly destroyed during this effort. Yet in depicting this calamity, Wright chooses to construct a long, artful tracking shot, which eventually moves away from the British lines and into the sky, utterly obfuscating the destructive consequences of Churchill’s actions in combating the Third Reich.
By staunchly deciding to a.) show Churchill as being only temporarily influenced by exterior events and developments, and b.) suggest that the man’s philosophies and behaviors shouldn’t be influenced (with the type of certainty that only 70+ years of retrospective hindsight can provide), Darkest Hour accomplishes a disturbing feat: it almost entirely decontextualizes Churchill from history itself. This decontextualization is further solidified by the lack of causality that Darkest Hour establishes for the British prime minister, whose past barely exists or is at the very least irrelevant.
All of this maybe could have been forgivable if Darkest Hour didn’t also apply this treatment to the British populace. Although they go unseen for the majority of the film, when the British people finally do pop up in Darkest Hour it is for a scene that is undoubtedly one of the most damaging in regard to the film’s depiction of history.
The British populace’s entry into the film’s proceedings is a howler of a moment, built around extreme contrivance. While on his way to address Parliament, Churchill decides to inexplicably abandon his town car in favor of taking the subway. Once on board, he wanders about the train car like an old lunatic, asking the unwashed masses for their uninformed opinion on what Britain should do about the ongoing German threat. The British people uniformly reject the idea of a negotiated peace, and this stoic, determined, “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” spirit proves inspirational for the old leader. In a mind-bending move, Wright and McCarten even suggest that this banal experience in urban commuting gives Churchill the additional strength he needs to ascend to Parliament and give his immortal “We shall fight on the beaches” speech.
Darkest Hour‘s London Underground scene is an unabashed continuation of the film’s depiction of Churchill. The film’s drains the British people of their complexity, of their humanity. Instead of contextualizing them, establishing their collective psyche as the product of past experiences and forged through a contemporary feedback loop, Darkest Hour again trades in absolutism. It characterizes the London denizens as being a rare breed that is outside of history, a “great people” to Churchill’s “great man.” It posits that they are a citizenry devoid of variation, of diversity of opinion. Their resolute spirit, their unflappable bravery, comes from nowhere and is affected by nothing. In Darkest Hour, they are a civilian front more united than probably any other in the history of warfare. There are, more or less, also a reflection of Churchill: 100% willing to fight to the last man, woman and child. The reason why, however, is anyone’s guess.
In an unintentional way, aspects of the London Underground scene actually convey the third and tenant of history that Mudbound explores so effectively and that Darkest Hour basically ignores. History’s contradictory or ironic nature is deeply embedded in the way the British public appears hungry for another global bloodbath after having been decimated in World War I just 20 years prior. Yet one can’t make the argument that the unintended contradictions explored intentionally by Mudbound – where acts of war produce acts of love and acts of oppression produce acts of empowerment – are similar in any way to the poor assholes parroting nationalist pride in Darkest Hour for no reason whatsoever. There is nothing else in the film that corroborates that the unintentional byproduct of the 20th century first rancorous 40 years is the British people having a superhuman capacity for additional pain and suffering.
Further evidence for how tone deaf Darkest Hour is to history’s contradictory nature is in one of the film’s many “pep talk” scenes. The most relevant scene involves Churchill and King George VI, who meet late in the film when Churchill has become politically isolated and forced to give Parliament the go ahead to begin brokering a peace deal. George asks Churchill what he thinks about such an arrangement, to which Churchill responds, “Nations which go down fighting rise again, but those which surrender tamely are finished.” Churchill’s idea is that, even if Britain has to go through a period of suffering while fighting the Nazis, eventually the nation and empire will return to its former glory. This is an attitude embraced by the film, which characterizes Churchill’s struggle to inspire his country to fight on as uniformly heroic and valid, essential for Britain’s continued status as an independent global power.
In reality, while Britain would emerge relatively intact from WWII, it would be a very different place, barely a shadow of its former self as a world power. John Kelly describes this crippling decline in his 2016 book Never Surrender, which analyzes the same period as Darkest Hour. During a discussion of the British diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson, Kelly writes, “The price Britain paid for victory in the Second World War is reflected in the life of Sir Harold Nicolson […] Nicholson was born in 1886 into a Britain supreme in all things, and he died in 1968 in a Britain whose greatest boast was that it was home of the Beatles” (Kelly 322). Such a transformation drips with irony and contradiction, illustrating that, while victory was obtained, a version of Britain did indeed get wiped off the map through the mire of WWII. Darkest Hour, however, omits this reality, never commenting on the unintended and perhaps ignominious consequences of its most celebrated moment.
Mudbound and Darkest Hour offer radically different ideas on how history is created and shaped. Mudbound shows the importance of contextualizing history. It views history as shaped by a variety of forces, specifically through the causality of history – where the past influences the present – and through a sort of feedback loop, where people absorb the dynamics from their society while simultaneously contributing their own. Finally, it meditates on how history often turns in directions that one can never hope to predict. Darkest Hour on the other hand jettisons these tenants, spinning the myth of the great man theory. It profiles Churchill and the entirety of the British populace as somehow hovering outside the causality of history, arriving at watershed moments fully formed. It also shows both a populace and a leader as basically insusceptible to outside influence, and, even more insidiously, positions them as being rightly beyond influence. Lastly, it has no real sense of the contradictions of history, a tenant that is critical to a sober view of history as being more complicated than a linear progression of cause and effect.
But why does any of this matter? The work of historian Teofilo Ruiz is a good starting point for trying to answer this question, particularly his course The Terror of History, which parses the anxieties of pre-modern Europeans as they moved into the modern age. With this backdrop, Ruiz riffs on the idea that history is tragic and terrifying because the world is intrinsically chaotic and meaningless. Additionally, because of the linear way that human beings perceive time, we perpetually feel that we are at the end of history. The future is nothing but void – black and horrifyingly unknowable – and that it may or may not hold our imminent doom.
To contend with such uncertainty, Ruiz outlines strategies that human beings employed in the pre-modern and still utilize in our own age of modernity. The one most relevant here is our reliance on religion, or, more specifically, the patriarchal figure at the center of religions like Christianity. This gravitation towards patriarchy is also emulated in many of the governments of the material world, where a male figure is at the head of the government. And it is there where we can make the connection to Darkest Hour‘s characterization of Churchill as not being part of a historical timeline, not being susceptible to exterior influence and not really requiring such influence because the rightness of his actions have been confirmed by the past 70 years.
Artistic narratives and characterizations like this might be more benign if art didn’t seem to play a pivotal role in how people perceive the real world – particularly in how perceptions of history are formed. Yet art, and particularly film, does play a dominant role in shaping these collective conceptions of the past, which can then have a disastrous effect on the present and the future. Ian Jack, in a Guardian article written this year, explains how films like Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk help fuel wild Brexit fantasies – even if they don’t explicitly intend to. And in watching how Darkest Hour paints Churchill as a savior who almost single-handedly turns the tide of the Second World War, it becomes clearer why Trump was elected president, even after making asinine comments such as, “I alone can fix it.”
And this is why when we say that it is important to remember history it’s so important to clarify what we mean. When we think about Britain, WWII, Winston Churchill and the summer of 1940, it’s not enough to have a picture in our minds of a charismatic Churchill struggling valiantly against fuddy-duddies like Halifax and giving soaring speeches.
Of course, such elements were part of the picture, but only part. Kelly, for instance, gives ample credit to the role Churchill played in Britain’s direction in WWII. “It was Churchill’s unique achievement that, in the midst of mortal danger, he was able to fashion a new narrative out of the grey sordid business of modern war – out of the ration cards, the foot shortages, the queues, the air-raid drills, and the death notices – and make the plumber and the shopgirl feel like participants in a great historical pageant” (319). Yet what Kelly and Wright pass over are the ancillary forces that facilitated Churchill’s ability to craft such a narrative in the first place: the factors that shaped his oratorical powers; the technological breakthroughs that allowed more people to hear him; and the wartime developments that built public support and ensured that his speeches and remarks did not fall on deaf ears.
While less flashy, those details also matter when telling the story of a historical period. These details fill in the gaping spaces that exist between the great men and women of history, shifting the narrative into something that is more comprehensive and multidirectional. To believe in anything less gives us license to abdicate our responsibility and disavow the role that every human being can play in shaping our own time. And that is why Mudbound, with its multi-faceted “people’s history” approach, where all are being shaped by history and where all are also shaping it, are so important. They push back against the “great man theory” version of history, reminding us that we can’t wait for patriarchal figures with a magical fixes. It’s all up to us.
“ON HEROES, HERO-WORSHIP, AND THE HEROIC IN HISTORY.” On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, by Thomas Carlyle, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1091/1091-h/1091-h.htm.
Kelly, John. Never Surrender. Scribner, 2016.
Mudbound. Directed by Dee Rees, Netflix, 24 Aug. 2017.