Are you British and reading this piece at the age of 94? If so, as you will know, you may actually have fought in the second world war. Widen the metric to anyone born by the end of the conflict, and the demographic swells: 76 and up. Even so, the greater part of the country could only know the era through parents, grandparents or grandparents’ parents. Yet January has still begun with two new depictions of wartime Blighty. Such is British film. Whatever year the calendar says it is, the nation’s cinema is always here to put an arm a little too tightly around your shoulder and pull you into a fusty back room to look at its Airfix Lancaster Bombers.
The first of the new films, Munich: The Edge of War, adapted from Robert Harris’s novel, in fact unfolds in the last moments of peace, as Hitler carved up Czechoslovakia. Dial forward to 1943 and the second movie is Operation Mincemeat, a true story of deception plotted in a Whitehall basement. In each, the Nazi menace looms before expertly tensed British actors. The cast of Mincemeat is led by Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen; in Munich, Jeremy Irons is Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay a jittery adviser.
Britain has made a remarkable amount of films about the war. But as with any genre, not every one is alike. Moods change. Like canny politicians, the trick is to channel them. To make the right war film at the right time, tuned into the British id.
So something telling may be happening with these two new movies. In each, patriotism now comes with caveats. The atmosphere is less than triumphal. Of course, Munich could hardly fail to be downbeat. But if Operation Mincemeat is a tale told with the larky air of a heist movie, cynicism colours it, too. Of its two leads, Macfadyen is overshadowed within his own family by a dead war-hero brother. Firth also has sibling issues. His is suspected of being a communist spy. And in British high command, plenty are as interested in personal vendettas and their own postwar careers as thoughts of noble sacrifice.
It makes quite a contrast with the last cluster of British war films, which began in 2016 with the release of Dad’s Army. A few months later came Their Finest, Gemma Arterton cast as a scriptwriter drafted into a propaganda film about Dunkirk. By summer 2017, Christopher Nolan had released the actual Dunkirk. It became a sensation. It was followed by another smash, Darkest Hour, which saw Gary Oldman morph into Churchill under heavy prosthesis. The movie was the second such biopic in the same cycle; a year before, Churchill saw the PM played by Brian Cox.
And in the middle of it all, of course, was the EU referendum. Aside from the sheer explosion of product, the tone of the biggest hits was striking. Dunkirk was an Imax blockbuster tightly focused on the microcosmic courage of ordinary Britons; Darkest Hour saw a cometh-the-hour Churchill communing with the public on the Tube. Neither was made in response to the Brexit vote. By then, Darkest Hour was already greenlit; Nolan was shooting Dunkirk in Swanage. But each was patriotic, a lavish British whipper-upper. As successful movies do, they caught the mood. They tapped the id.
Of course, it would be just the kind of weird exceptionalism to which Britain can be prone not to register that other countries’ films also fixate on wartime glory. Russian box office records were broken in 2019 by T-34, a movie named after, and tied up with, a Red Army tank. Last year Chinese audiences made The Battle at Lake Changjin – a Korean war epic of a clobbered America – the most popular film in national history.
Britain’s equivalents are an inch less gung-ho, and yet cinema remains the place where we roll out wartime memories. That is only fitting. Whatever pathology surrounds Britain and the second world war, movies helped make it. The conflict began in the heyday of cinema; British films were put to work as propaganda. They did it wonderfully. The problem was, it proved hard to lose the habit. The audience stayed in their seats even as the real thing slipped out of view.
How could second world war films not be addictive? They offered Britain an endless national Marvel movie. The particular British identity that came with the package diffused through a million screenings of The Dam Busters on bank holiday telly. As the country fractured, second world war movies remade us whole. When Britain felt small, they enlarged us. And if the ghosts of empire threatened a guilty conscience, they recast us as an underdog nation of little boats. Who wouldn’t vote for that?
Old news, of course. But although the conveyor belt of war movies has rolled on since 2016, the national mood has shifted. Five years after Nolan’s Dunkirk, the shine has come off. Britain is in a more sceptical place now. So, too, are its second world war films. These are still mainstream stories. Operation Mincemeat is not the film, for instance, to tackle misgivings about Churchill. But it feels a lot less giddy and a little more grown-up, from the shits climbing the military hierarchy to the knowing wink at how much fiction war involves.
And the past looks different too in Munich: The Edge of War. For one, its Chamberlain is an idealist and strategist, desperate to keep the peace after the horror of the first world war, buying time for Britain when he can’t. Historically, the jury remains out on that. It still makes some novelty for British cinema. Churchill can’t be Churchill without Chamberlain as his antithesis; the feeble boob before the fearless bulldog. Chewier yet is the focus put on an anti-Hitler plot from inside Germany, based on the thwarted Oster conspiracy – one that in a different timeline might have lopped the head from Nazism in 1938. British dramatists have long loved counterfactuals in which we were successfully occupied. Munich offers a new How About: what if the Nazis had withered and the war never happened at all?
Where would modern Britain be now? If that weren’t a mind-bender enough, a related question might ask the same of British films. The answer comes close to the unthinkable. So many actors, so many costume departments, all needing another script. Of course, in reality, they never did. And they won’t. Now, as in 1945, British cinema will dim the lights and restart the sirens, making sure we’ll meet again, the way we always do.
Munich: The Edge of War is in cinemas now and on Netflix on 21 January; Operation Mincemeat is in cinemas from 22 April.