“Darkest Hour” Myth-Making? Don’t Mess with Marcus Peters

“Darkest Hour” Myth-Making? Don’t Mess with Marcus Peters

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.

Much has been pub­lished to sup­port that theme, which is “too easy to be good.” From the Ben­gal Famine to World War II ardor, the peo­ples of the Empire have been bad­ly misrepresented.

Sheer Artistry: The Underground scene

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.

6 thoughts on ““Darkest Hour” Myth-Making? Don’t Mess with Marcus Peters

  1. A dread­ful toe-curling­ly ill-judged scene in a bad­ly writ­ten fail­ure of a film. Oldman’s per­for­mance threat­ens to be good at times but is con­stant­ly dragged into histri­on­ics by the poor script. There’s so much wrong. The part of the sec­re­tary is over-writ­ten and intru­sive. The polit­i­cal machi­na­tions are reduced to ‘brave mav­er­ick ver­sus the spine­less grey men’ clich­es. But the tube scene, what on earth were they think­ing? It’s the absolute polar oppo­site of how Churchill the man would have behaved. It’s utter non­sense, an insult to the intel­li­gence of any­one look­ing for an insight into the man through drama­ti­sa­tion of key events.

    That’s one way of look­ing at it, for sure. —RML

  2. The appear­ance of Mar­cus Peters was sim­ply a sad piece of wok­ery that made the scene even more pre­pos­ter­ous than it already was.

    Wok­ery would have had Churchill not deign­ing to talk with Peters, let alone recit­ing poet­ry with him. There is so much vicious slan­der about WSC going around that we should wel­come this bit of dra­mat­ic license, effec­tive­ly por­tray­ing what Lon­don­ers of that time thought. RML

  3. In watch­ing the film at first I was not hap­py that poet­ic license had been tak­en with the facts, espe­cial­ly regard­ing the “Under­ground” sequence. Before the end of the film I real­ized the “Under­ground” sequence was a nec­es­sary metaphor. Alto­geth­er “Dark­est Hour” was an extra­or­di­nary film. I wish more “Mil­len­ni­als” and oth­ers of the gen­er­a­tions lat­er than “Boomers” such as myself would see the film and learn some­thing of the extra­or­di­nary Churchill. The “Under­ground” sequence was indeed “sheer artistry”.
    It is so tire­some that Left­ists are com­pelled to try to reshape every­thing to fit their West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion Bad narrative.

  4. Don’t mess with Mar­cus Peters indeed. I am aware that the scene was fic­tion­al but it was a dra­mat­ic tour de force. On one lev­el it was clear Churchill con­sid­ered ALL BRITONS of ALL RACES to be British and equal cit­i­zens. And the edu­ca­tion­al lev­el and edu­cat­ed speech of Mar­cus Peters proved that non-Whites could be equal. All of this is a direct con­tra­dic­tion to Nazism and every­thing Hitler believed. I met Jamaican and Indi­an vet­er­ans of WWII and with­out excep­tion every­one was proud of his ser­vice and admired Churchill great­ly. Of course, there would be excep­tions (the odd Com­mu­nist) but gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, Churchill was uni­ver­sal­ly admired in the 1940s by peo­ples of all back­grounds who favored the Allied cause. And of course, Churchill even TOUCHED the black man. Some­thing Hitler would nev­er have done. Churchill treat­ed the non-white Briton the SAME as every­one else in the car. That was the point…the moral equal­i­ty of all British citizens.

    Aren’t left-wingers tire­some in their hatred of Churchill? What did DARKEST HOUR have to do with BREXIT???? I nev­er thought about Brex­it at all in the con­text of the film. 


  5. Thanks, Pro­fes­sor Capet. Pro­fes­sor Man­fred Wei­d­horn (Google his excel­lent works in the lit­er­ary Chruchill) writes: “I too found the scene a bit corny but real­ized that it func­tioned as a metaphor or drama­ti­za­tion of the British will to car­ry on at that junc­ture. Such lib­er­ties Shake­speare allowed him­self as well.”

  6. Excel­lent reply – obvi­ous­ly Pro­fes­sor Robert Knight does not know much about Churchill apart from the usu­al hack­neyed clichés (a com­mon occur­rence even among British aca­d­e­mics – you would at least expect them to remain silent when they do not know a subject).

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