INTERVIEW - The Churchill * historian reflects on the lyrical vision of Joe Wright, director of Dark hours. And decrypts the state of mind of the politician upon his arrival at the head of the government, in May 1940.
LE FIGARO. - The dark hours focuses on the two months of May and June 1940 when Churchill became prime minister. Can you tell us a word about the historical context?
François KERSAUDY. - It was after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in Central Norway that the debate began in the House of Commons on May 7th and 8th, 1940; and it was because Chamberlain was attacked by members of all parties during this debate that it was impossible for him to form a coalition government. Therefore, although not being outvoted, he decided to resign. Conservatives being the majority in the House, his successor could only be Lord Halifax or Winston Churchill. The Conservatives would have preferred Halifax, the Laborists too, Chamberlain too, the king too ... But Halifax did not see himself as prime minister of war and he recused himself. That's how Churchill was named-by default, sort of ....
He himself seems to doubt. What motivates you deeply, according to you?
Churchill is a singular, and even unique, character who has nothing in common with Hamlet. It fears inaction but is fully revealed in action, especially in times of war. Henceforth, there is no room for introspection; the Dardanelles, the hostility of the politicians, the military unpreparedness of the country, all this disappears in the heat of the moment. It is necessary to conquer or die, but always arms in hand; and what impresses is the extent of his arsenal: inventiveness, energy, physical and moral courage, eloquence, sense of organization and command, genius of propaganda, patriotism in hardened steel ...
Dramatically, the film is structured by the great Churchillian speeches, and Joe Wright quotes Kennedy's words: "He mobilized the English language and sent it to battle." What role does eloquence play in the personality and politics of Churchill?
All his life, Churchill wanted to be a master of the English language, as a writer or as an orator. The difference between the two is all the smaller as he dictated his books and wrote his speeches. He himself did not consider himself an orator, because for him an orator was spontaneous and he was not. His old friend F. E. Smith said of him, "Winston spent his life preparing improvised speeches!" When he pronounces his immortal speeches in the Commons, one imagines a modern Cicero reciting stentorly vocals with brilliant improvisations. The reality is more prosaic: he puts on his glasses and reads with a rather sweet voice texts prepared for a long time, and some of his most famous sentences are not from him: "I have nothing else to offer that blood, toil, tears, and sweat "is borrowed from Garibaldi, who thus addressed his Red Shirts eighty years earlier. But who remembered it? In his speech of June 4, "we will fight on the beaches, in the fields, in the streets, etc.", it is another loan - to Clemenceau this time: "We will fight on the Loire, we will fight on the Garonne, in the Pyrenees, etc. "But the British deputies, they hear for the first time and many cry ... The quality of language, inventiveness, memory, humor, energy, idealism: these are the main components of Churchillian eloquence; there is also a tendency to grandiloquence, which falls flat in times of peace but is marvelous in times of war ...
A fantasy scene imagines it in the subway questioning people about their will to resist. Can we say that he was connected to the British people?
Churchill lived in his inner world, he did the others the favor to share occasionally, but he was supremely egotistical and, unlike his wife, he was supremely interested in the opinion of the people when it coincided not with his. As for the metro, it's a pure fiction: it only entered once in 1920 and was lost; he had to go and rescue him.
Did he show himself a good warlord in Operation Dynamo to repatriate British troops from Dunkirk?
Churchill was a great warlord ... and a worrisome strategist. He had graduated from the Sandhurst Military School nearly half a century earlier, and the strategy was not part of the training of a cavalry second lieutenant. From then on, his strategic improvisations were sometimes brilliant and sometimes catastrophic. Operation Dynamo succeeded because Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, disobeyed Churchill's instructions to attack the Panzer masses with only eight divisions from three countries. baroud d'honneur that would have resulted in a total disaster. Lord Gort, more reasonable, began a retreat to Dunkirk, and the British military committee endorsed its decision by ordering the evacuation on May 25. Later, if Churchill entered history as a great teacher of war, it is because this volcano of ideas and energy was tempered by less inspired but more weighted chiefs of staff. and especially better trained ...
But what made his glory is that he knew how to listen to them and take account of their opinion-unlike another amateur strategist who presided over the destinies of the millennial Grand Reich. One last thing: the man had an abnormal chance, and as he himself wrote in 1930, "we must never forget that when you make a big mistake, it may serve you better than the decision the most intelligent. "It will be almost a summary of its existence.
* Author in particular Winston Churchill (Tallandier) andWorld according to Churchill (Tallandier).
This article is published in the Figaro edition of 02/01/2018. Access its PDF version by clicking here