An interesting but little remarked aspect of the recently released, quite excellent Darkest Hour is that it’s the third film of 2017 to deal substantially with what happened on France’s Dunkirk Beach, May 1940. The evacuation from that sandy strand of over 300,000 “Tommies” facing certain annihilation — effectively the entirety of the British Army — was incontestably one of the most strikingly resourceful and courageous national feats ever undertaken. Last year’s Their Finest, the summer’s much-touted Dunkirk and lately Darkest Hour, all treated this early World War II exploit in one fashion or another, with varying degrees of box-office success.
Darkest, for those not in the know, dramatizes — sometimes with unhistorical flourishes — the first weeks of newly ascended Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The impending Dunkirk debacle was thrust upon him almost immediately. Against the counsel of many of his colleagues, he refused to negotiate with Adolf Hitler, shepherding his island nation to victory in that crisis and, as the axis powers continued threatening, many others over the next five years.
In the 1840’s, what came to be known as the “Great Man Theory” emerged: history can best be explained by the impact of influential or heroic individuals. Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle popularized it: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, he declared.
Winston Churchill, as ably as any mere mortal, ratified that assertion. He was “[o]ne man standing defiant before the onslaught of an enemy army,” summarizes National Review‘s Rich Lowry, “rallying his nation with his willpower and words.” Professor John Lukacs is even blunter: ” [H]e saved Britain and Europe, and Western civilization.”
My wife and I visited England several years ago when, en route to Churchill’s Blenheim Palace birthplace, our tour guide shared a story about her long-ago encounter with the former British PM. I recall being struck by the manner in which she simply and casually referred to him as “The Great Man” — as though, everyone on the bus, of course, regarded him in the same terms.
To the enduring grief of mankind, alas, experience has demonstrated Carlyle’s thesis can reveal itself in patently unwelcome forms, as well. Arthur Herman’s new book 1917: Lenin, Wilson and the Birth of the New World Disorder, reminds us that, one hundred years ago, two prominent figures — one a president named Wilson, one the tyrant Lenin — also influenced the planet’s future — many would argue in stubbornly deleterious ways. In a recent review, Jay Winik comments, “Both, writes Herman, had sweeping, revolutionary visions of a ‘massive upheaval’ on the world stage, and each saw himself at the center of it They wanted to create a ‘paradise on earth’ — in Lenin’s case, a Communist one; and in Wilson’s, a liberal democracy based on humanity’s universal desire for freedom.” (National Review, 12/31/17)
Of course, Churchill’s beneficial triumph wasn’t played out in a neutral vacuum, but against the backdrop of that near-catastrophe mere miles across the English Channel. As another British pol is reputed to have said when asked what would determine the course of his government, “Events, dear boy, events.” (Harold MacMillan) It’s not merely “great men”, then, that account for the bends and turns of history, but “great events” as well. Circumstances, good or bad, situations, fortuitous or troublesome, exert their pressures on how everything turns out. That’s where the responses of consequential, strategically placed individuals matter most.
Pre-Civil War, Emerson bleakly declaimed of the seemingly irresistible and corrosive condition of his era, “Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind.”
But, hold on, Mr. Poet! That conclusion might not hold if spirited challengers push back; shaking off that “saddle”.
Scandalously, until just this year, the Dunkirk exploit hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves from popular/entertainment media. Neither have the heroes who contributed their part to it, whether those beleaguered ones trapped on the coastline, the doughty folk stateside or resolute members of Parliament. Both this company of “great men” and the “great event” they executed are, at last and thankfully, getting their props.
Then there are ideas — titanic propositions, watershed conceptions, galvanizing beliefs; great ideas. Men’s minds and hearts generate them; they, in turn, mold events for advantage or ill.
“Ideas have consequences,” penned Richard Weaver (1948). That might seem like a no-duhh proposition, but do people really live like they believe it? Our politics and debates are not a game – “my side” versus the other guy’s. Decisions on multitudinous issues regularly tweak, sometimes quake, the world.
Churchill wasn’t just a colorful personality in a prominent position, but a potent leader who, propelled by heartfelt convictions, helped engineer the spectacular thwarting of his country’s lethal adversaries. He was persuaded his people and their government must stand by Britain’s fighting forces; and must refuse to accommodate civilization-menacing evil.
His certitudes prevailed. For two generations since, at minimum, the fate of nations has been impacted.
This trio – great men, events, ideas – have steered history’s flow. The capacity to appreciate all three affords a better understanding of past and present and more precise predicting of the future.
And all elevating realities find their grandest expression in Jesus Christ. “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past … has in these last days spoken to us by His Son … the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person,” (Hebrews 1) He is the Greatest Man (also the Great God), Who ushered in the Greatest Event (His earthly Life, Death, Resurrection), trailing miracles in His wake and heralding Great Ideas (His teachings, the Gospel). Every good thing, every “great” one, is but a whisper of the apogee: the risen Son of God’s incomparable splendor.
No surprise, then, that the Creator of history continues to be the One who shaped it most. Or that human beings made in His image make a difference, too – who they are, what they do, how they think. Indeed, when walked out redemptively, that facet of mankind can be … well, pretty great.
Image: Excerpted from: Frank Capra (film) – Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) Public Domain (U.S. War Department): https://archive.org/details/DivideAndConquer, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1403658