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Churchill’s Return to the Big Screen: the Revenge of a Popular Anti-Populist

My passion for history dates back to my childhood and was borne in the attic of my grandparents’ home in Canneto sull’Oglio...

Gary Oldman as the first English prime minister, Winston Churchill, in the film "Darkest Hour".

With the release of two movies celebrating the great historical figure Winston Churchill, I found myself reminiscing about how as a child, I would go digging around in the attic for the covers of "Domenica del Corriere" and the reply to a fascist rhyme my father once gave me about King George of England and Prime Minister Churchill.

Over the past two years, one historical political leader has made a resurgence to big and small screens all over the world; it is not Trump, Putin, nor Merkel, and to narrow the field even further, I should note that this person is not even alive. Obviously, it is English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the absolute protagonist of two new movies, one of which only uses his last name in its title, while the other, “The Darkest Hour”, came out in movie theaters in Italy a couple of weeks ago. Churchill is a central figure, if not the lead character, in Dunkirk and in The Crown, the Netflix television series that achieved record viewers and approval ratings around the world.

For years, I have cultivated a passion for history and historical movies, and I have the pleasure of regularly teaching courses on the cinematographic representation of Italian history at New York University. It is for this reason that Churchill’s resurrection in the movies and on television intrigued me, prompting me to reflect upon a few issues that I would like to share, especially in light of a recent news story in Italy that, I believe, makes them all the more relevant.

My passion for history dates back to my childhood and was borne in the attic of my paternal grandparents’ home in Canneto sull’Oglio. It was a magical place where mysterious and evocative objects lied preserved: from my grandfather’s snowshoes to the dools teacups that my grandmother painted (a child laborer in the Furga company from age 11). There were also watercolor maps that grandpa painted during the war, an old “portable” crank handle gramophone with perfectly preserved 78 RPM records, and, above all, an entire collection of Domenica del Corriere, with those extraordinary illustrated covers with which I would spend hours upon hours. Once in a while, an edition of Corriere dei Piccoli would also appear, but of course, that was a rare happening given that they were used much more by the children at home. I would bring downstairs a few issues of these magazines at a time, leaving a precise mark in the pile where they had been in order to put them back in order. When I did not understand the event portrayed on one of the covers, my grandfather would provide the historical context and my grandmother would step in with some rhymes. The one I remember most spoke of the box office champion of these last months and went like this:

King Georgie of England

For fear of war

Asks for help and protection

From Minister Churchill

Usually, at this point, my father (born in 1934) would intervene. Having been raised with the rhymes of the magazine “Balilla” himself in his youth, he felt obliged to reestablish the historical events as they had actually occurred: “Minister Churchill actually won the war; King George was so scared of war that he and his family remained in London under the bombardments, while our ‘regén’ (Canneto dialect for “little king”) ran away from Rome with his prime minister and with the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Mussolini, Hitler and Vittorio Emanuele III

The Italian news story that gave new relevance to this distant past was the semi-secret transfer of the remains of “little king” Victor Emmanuel III to Italy, and the wave of polemics that welcomed it instead of a ceremonial gun salute. The short-sightedness with which he allowed himself to be deceived by Mussolini; the indolence with which he assisted the gradual, but persistent dismantling of the liberal state guaranteed by The Statuto Albertino; the treachery with which he signed the racial laws against his own Jewish subjects; and the cowardice with which he abandoned Rome and his responsibilities to seek refuge in Pescara, make him one of the worst and most pathetic monarchs in history. And while I admire the moral integrity of Churchill on screen, I think back to his anti-populism, to that famous speech on “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” the only things that he could promise his fellow citizens, and I struggle to forgive the director of Darkest Hour for his insertion of a scene depicting an ahistorical, invented moment in Churchill’s life. In perhaps the most difficult moment of his life, Churchill takes the subway for the first time and asks the commoners sitting next to him how he should respond to the apparently unstoppable advance of Hitler and the Axis Forces; everyone, from little children to a black man dressed in a suit and tie, replies, “resist”, “fight.”

In reality, one of Churchill’s limitations, but perhaps also one of his greatest strengths, was the fact that he was not a man who cared about polls; he did not care about whether he was liked by the hoi polloi; he occupied an office that burdened him with impossible responsibilities, which would oftentimes bring him to make prudent yet unpopular decisions. This, in addition to his display of courage in being able to make unpopular decisions in the face of criticism, is why I believe we still owe him respect and gratitude today.

Translation by Emmelina De Feo

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