Their Finest Hour



Since the reviews of the above film were positive on the whole, we decided to make a supreme effort to see it, squeezing it in between two evenings of other cultural activities. The subject was particularly interesting for me because it was set in London during the Second World War, in the period known as the Blitz, when Nazi Germany rained bombs down on the city.

I grew up in London, and lived there until I moved to Israel after completing my university degree. The film is set in 1940, just near the beginning of the war. I wasn’t born yet then, but my parents were living there as a newly-married couple, both of them refugees, and lived through the events described in the film.

And sure enough, the opening scenes showed familiar scenes and sights of war-torn London, buses unable to proceed to their destination because of bomb damage, people huddled in underground stations, which served as bomb shelters, and houses that had been turned in an instant into a heap of rubble, often with people trapped or killed underneath.

The idea is to show how, in a combination of slapdash improvisation and professional expertise, a film depicting the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk served to raise the spirits of the nation as well as to save thousands of lives of servicemen. We hear the call that went out over the radio for anyone with a boat of any kind or size to make their way to the French coastal town of Dunkirk in order to bring the trapped men safely home.

Britain is an island and the British are a sea-faring nation, as has been proved in the past on more than one occasion. Just think of Sir Francis Drake ‘singeing the Spanish King’s beard’ when he led the fleet against the Spanish Armada, or the East India Trading Company, which established the British presence in India and elsewhere to eventually create British colonial rule that extended across most of the known world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I grew up reading Arthur Ransome’s books, ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ and of course there are also the unforgettable characters created by Kenneth Grahame in his book ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ Thus is a nation’s sea-going heritage preserved and handed down to each new generation of children.

The story of the film within the film focuses on the ‘human element’ aspect of what might otherwise have been a humdrum, albeit heroic, military operation. This takes the form of two sisters, Lily and Rose, who defy their drunken bully of a father to take his small, rickety fishing boat out to sea in order to take part in the rescue.

The facts of the event are not as heroic as they are portrayed in the script of the film on which our characters are working, and a fair amount of tweaking of actual developments and characters are required in order to meet the demands of the actors, producers and politicians, all of whom have agendas of their own to fulfill and objectives to achieve.

Amongst other things, one such demand gives rise to the inclusion of an American pilot in the film that is being made. Apart from being a handsome young man, the pilot has absolutely no acting experience or talent, and naturally this causes considerable difficulty until somehow a solution is found. This and other developments are generally a source of merriment and mirth for the audience in the real world, while the audience in the film that is eventually produced and shown in cinemas during the war arouses the desired patriotic emotions and sense of identification.

Of course, without some love interest, in both the real and the unreal films, no story can be complete, and so it is that alongside the ‘genuine’ emotional attachments that develop between the individuals working on the film, they ‘manufacture’ a romantic connection between the characters they have created.

As the film ends we find ourselves identifying with the characters whose faults and foibles have been portrayed with humour and compassion. For me personally it was inspiring to see how a narrative thread is manufactured out of thin air, facts are manipulated and how the courage and determination of the Britain of seventy years ago once saved the world.