Cue Left: Marcus Peters, May 1940
Marcus Peters (Adé Dee Haastrup) is a neatly dressed West Indian riding the London Underground on 28 May 1940. Whom should he meet but Prime Minister Churchill (Gary Oldman)! The scene (fiction) forms a dramatic moment in Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s great film on Churchill in 1940.
Churchill, per the movie, has entered the Underground for the second time in his life. (The first was in the 1920s, when he couldn’t find his way out and had to be rescued.) He goes there as the Germans are rolling up Europe. He wishes to ask “the British people” whether they should fight on or make peace. After all, he tells them: “We might, if we ask very nicely, get very favorable terms from Mr. Hitler.”
To a man and woman they shout defiance. “Never surrender!” Their response brings tears to the Prime Minister’s eyes, and he begins reciting from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. “Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the gate: To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late. And how can men die better, than facing fearful odds….”
Marcus Peters then completes the verse: “For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his gods.”
Grown men and women told me they wept over that scene. Me too. Macaulay’s words, I wrote, were so commonly taught in British schools then that even West Indians knew them. I thought it a deft touch, hauntingly moving. Not everybody agreed.
Oh dear, can’t have that
In “Brexit Mythmaking and Imperial Legacies in ‘Darkest Hour,’” Robert Knight links my review of the film, writing:
Macaulay’s Lays became standard fodder for several generations of public school boys, in Britain and the Empire. But the optimistic claim by Richard M. Langworth of The Churchill Project, in his review of Darkest Hour, that they were part of “an education British subjects of all stations once received” merely reinforces the myth of multicultural British equality…. drawing a line from Macaulay’s Whig imperialism to Churchill’s heroic wartime resolve to the current moment of Brexit…. Marcus Peters is an improbable creation [who] not only transforms Churchill into a purported multiculturalist, but also mutates Europe’s role from Britain’s ally against Nazi Germany into an obstacle or irrelevance to British victory.
* * *
I read all this in some perplexity. What European allies against Nazi Germany? None were left. My review said nothing about Brexit or “Imperial Legacies” or multiculturalism. In fact, in the film, neither did Winston Churchill—nor the subway rider, Marcus Peters.
Why can’t that scene be accepted without reference to skin color—representing the spirit of the people at that time? I’ll offer two reasons. 1) Some people simply cannot stop thinking in terms of racial stereotypes. 2) Some always have to think the worst of Western civilization.
Does Mr. Knight know for a fact that Macaulay was taught only in upper class British prep schools? Of course not. What is the evidence? I have some.
I bicycled for many years with a dear friend here on Eleuthera, Arrington McCardy. He attended only island schools—yet he knew Macaulay. Marcus Peters (and indeed his actor Adé Haastrup) is Jamaican. Were young Jamaicans taught Macaulay, like young Bahamians back then? I wouldn’t bet against it.
So much for counterfactuals. More serious is Knight’s charge that Marcus Peters is “improbable.” Surely no black person then in Britain, he implies, would care whether the Nazis won. Why not? Because they’d been exploited for generations by the rapacious British Empire.
Of course, Churchill in 1940 never had to ask average Britons whether to fight on. He knew their sentiments from their cheers in the streets—later shouting from their shattered homes, “Give it ’em back!” He knew from letters, newspapers, radio—if not from polls, which he ignored. Carping historians have quoted unrepresentative surveys known for malcontents. Churchill’s Gallup approval rating in August 1940 was 88%. “It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart,” he said later. “I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” (N.B.: When Churchill said “race” in such contexts he meant “people,” not white folk.)
Why is the fictitious Underground scene important? Because, I think, it conveys in a few minutes the national mood that backlit Churchill’s leadership. It is admirably played by gifted actors, but Mr. Haastrup’s Marcus Peters is in a class by himself.
Alone among the subway car’s occupants when the Prime Minister enters, Marcus Peters is amused. The others respectfully rise. Marcus chuckles, conveying the improbable humor of it all. As each passenger tells Churchill to fight on, Peters chimes in: “They’ll never take Piccadilly!” Finally, he completes Churchill’s recitation of Horatius at the Gate.
The train pulls up at Westminster station, and Churchill exclaims, “It’s my stop.” He leaves to address his outer cabinet—and that event did happen: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” he told them, “let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
That was it. Britain would fight on. Darkest Hour reminds us of the words of Charles Krauthammer. “Victory required one man without whom the fight would have been lost at the beginning.”
Don’t mess with Marcus Peters
There are other things wrong with Mr. Knight’s article. He equates Macaulay’s 19th Century racism to that of Churchill. He cites “Churchill’s indifference to Indian suffering” in the Bengal Famine, and suggests the film is an ad for Brexit. That may be Mr. Knight’s schtick, but it’s not mine. And plenty has been said in defense of Churchill to those charges.
For example: This is the same Winston Churchill who in 1899 argued with his Boer jailer in Pretoria about equal rights for black Africans. This is the Churchill remembered kindly by Gandhi for his efforts to ease inequalities for Indians in South Africa. The same Churchill during WW2 said Americans could segregate their black soldiers if they liked, but not the British. It’s the Churchill without whom the Bengal famine would have been worse. And the Churchill who wrote of the 2.5 million-volunteer Indian Army: “the response of the Indian peoples, no less than the conduct of their soldiers, makes a glorious final page in the story of our Indian Empire.” Read the evidence. If you still want to call Churchill a racist, by all means do. But first “dig a little deeper.”
In the meantime, isn’t it possible for fair-minded adults to view the Underground scene the way Darkest Hour intends us to? As exemplary of a nation that never despaired, no matter how bad the news? As a people who stayed in the fight until, as Churchill said, “those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready”? I hope so. In the meantime: don’t mess with Marcus Peters.
Video (click here)
Aside from the links above, here is an insightful Hillsdale College discussion of Darkest Hour between actor Gary Oldman, producer Douglas Urbanski and Hillsdale President Larry Arnn.