On the forging of the wartime Winston Churchill, a figure iconic to this day, in the crucible of events that took place in the spring of 1940.
That Churchill was a gifted writer and speechmaker is well-known; that he drank alcohol by the bucket is not news, either. In this work of popular history, a tie-in to a forthcoming film, screenwriter and novelist McCarten (Death of a Superhero, 2007, etc.) does venture a novel thesis along the way: that in May 1940, Churchill was prepared to strike a peace deal with Hitler, “as utterly repugnant as that idea might now seem.” Admitting that the thesis is both conjectural and unpopular, the author buttresses it with an argument that seems reasonable, if one that academic historians would likely refute. In the end, of course, Churchill chose instead to stand and fight. McCarten does good service by showing how Churchill used his pen to advance Britain’s cause; the author engages in a highly useful sort of rhetorical analysis that examines Churchill’s use of repeated words, phrases, and motifs and his subtle reference to other classic addresses and essays: “In stark contrast to Hitler’s egomaniacal speeches—which emphasized the word ‘I’—Churchill…knew the power of ‘We’ when exhorting the British public to take up such a fearful struggle.” McCarten sometimes seems to go a bridge too far, as with an invented dialogue between Churchill and Lord Halifax, but his reasoning is generally sound. His study is also timely given not just his own film, but also the recent release of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, recounting a key event that led to Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets” speech, by which he aimed “to give voice to the people of Britain.” Churchill succeeded admirably, and so, in the main, does McCarten.
A fresh, readable look at events and players that, though well-known to history, deserve to be studied for some time to come.