James Fen­ton

Cristóbal de Vil­lal­pando: Mex­i­can Painter of the Baroque an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York City, July 25–Oc­to­ber 15, 2017 Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Jonathan Brown, Ronda Kasl, Juana Gu­tiér­rez Haces, Clara Bargellini, Pe­dro Án­gel

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - James Fen­ton

Cristóbal de Vil­lal­pando:

Mex­i­can Painter of the Baroque an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Pala­cio de Cul­tura Citibanamex–Pala­cio de Itur­bide, Mex­ico City, March 9–June 4, 2017; and the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York City,

July 25–Oc­to­ber 15, 2017.

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Jonathan Brown, Ronda Kasl, Juana Gu­tiér­rez Haces, Clara Bargellini, Pe­dro Án­ge­les, and Ro­ge­lio Ruiz Go­mar. Mex­ico City: Fo­mento

Cul­tural Banamex,

173 pp., $25.00 (pa­per)

Jonathan Brown, in an es­say adapted for the cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion of the work of Cristóbal de Vil­lal­pando at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum, warns us against the use of the word “colonial” in con­nec­tion with Span­ish-Amer­i­can paint­ing of the pe­riod 1550–1700. Colonial, he says, “car­ries the bur­den of sec­ond-class sta­tus.” It “im­plies the dom­i­na­tion and sub­or­di­na­tion of a ter­ri­tory and its in­hab­i­tants, who are de­pen­dants of the con­querors.” Once you start in this di­rec­tion,

the path is clear; the fi­nal stop be­comes “de­riv­a­tive” and thus in­fe­rior. “Cen­ter” and “pe­riph­ery” are also in­suf­fi­cient, with their im­pli­ca­tion of hi­er­ar­chy. Equally, “hy­brid” has its flaws, for the hy­brid is set im­plic­itly into op­po­si­tion to the pure and unadul­ter­ated.

So: New Spain (of which Mex­ico formed a part) was not a colony. It was not dom­i­nated by or sub­or­di­nated to Spain. Its art was in no way de­riv­a­tive or in­fe­rior to any­thing Euro­pean. Nor was it in any sense hy­brid. Al­though the def­i­ni­tion of hy­brid—the off­spring of two an­i­mals or plants of dif­fer­ent species—seems not un­help­ful when we con­tem­plate, for in­stance, those ri­fle-tot­ing an­gels of the Cuzco school in Peru. They are winged fig­ures of clearly Chris­tian deriva­tion. But they are in­con­ceiv­able in the set­ting of any Euro­pean church. Some­thing else is at work, some­thing very pow­er­ful, to give us an­gels with ri­fles.

This kind of marked dif­fer­ence is of course what ex­cites us, and what we hope to find in the art of the Mex­i­can baroque. And for my part I feel that it is bet­ter, when dis­play­ing paint­ings of this sort, to keep them well apart from Euro­pean works, as here, to avoid com­par­i­son. The ex­per­i­men­tal, hap­haz­ard mixed hang that mu­se­ums some­times go in for does them no fa­vors. They are in dan­ger of look­ing folksy and repet­i­tive and crude. If say­ing this im­plies that such works are vul­ner­a­ble to such jux­ta­po­si­tion, so be it. Paint­ings are vul­ner­a­ble. All paint­ings are. Each needs its own spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion. In São Paolo re­cently I saw an old mas­ter col­lec­tion re­hung in a rad­i­cal way: each work was sus­pended in midair, with­out the ben­e­fit of any wall. The la­bels were at­tached to the re­verses of the frames. So one could walk past a row of Euro­pean old masters with­out read­ing a sin­gle la­bel, guess­ing at au­thor­ship, or one could treat each oil paint­ing as an ob­ject with two sides, and think about the qual­i­ties of can­vas,

stretch­ers, and la­bels old and new. What was elim­i­nated was what most of the artists in­volved would have ex­pected to be present: a sense of a sta­ble color-field back­ground.

It seemed a dread­fully cruel way to treat an in­ter­est­ing col­lec­tion of paint­ings. One man who would par­tic­u­larly have hated it would have been De­gas, who was an ex­trem­ist in this mat­ter. He loathed see­ing that fa­mil­iar works had been moved to un­fa­mil­iar places in the Lou­vre. He thought paint­ings in the Lou­vre should be like al­tar­pieces in a church, each in its per­ma­nent al­lot­ted place.

It is good to see Cris­to­bal de Vil­lal­pando’s huge al­tar­piece at the Met placed at the very cen­ter of the Robert Lehman wing, where it can be ad­mired from two lev­els, top-lit by day­light. At just over twenty-eight feet high by four­teen feet wide, it ben­e­fits from iso­la­tion, both from the ob­jects in the Lehman col­lec­tion and from the small se­lec­tion of lesser works by Vil­lal­pando ex­hib­ited in their own gallery nearby. The lower half of the crowded com­po­si­tion

de­picts Moses rais­ing the Brazen Ser­pent; the up­per, the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion of Je­sus.

What we are not shown is the way it is dis­played in its per­ma­nent Mex­i­can home (for which it was painted) in Pue­bla cathe­dral. The chapel that it dom­i­nates was re­stored in the nine­teenth cen­tury, so per­haps no one knows ex­actly what the orig­i­nal in­te­rior was like. Its func­tion, how­ever, is clear. A sculp­ture de­pict­ing Christ at the Col­umn had been placed on the al­tar, and was cred­ited with mirac­u­lous cures dur­ing one of the epi­demics that pe­ri­od­i­cally af­fected Pue­bla. Be­fore this al­tar one was sup­posed to med­i­tate on the suf­fer­ings of Christ (his be­ing scourged at the col­umn prior to cru­ci­fix­ion), to con­fess one’s sins, and to show con­tri­tion, es­pe­cially dur­ing Lent, as a pre­lude to re­ceiv­ing com­mu­nion on Easter Sun­day. The sa­cred im­age was prob­a­bly not large, for we learn that it was placed be­hind glass in a niche, and that the col­umn was em­bel­lished with sil­ver and a fil­i­gree scourge.

The theme of Christ’s suf­fer­ing was paired with that of God’s wrath, as in the up­per and lower parts of Vil­lal­pando’s al­tar­piece. Med­i­tate on the suf­fer­ing Christ, show con­tri­tion, and—as long as the bishop of Pue­bla al­lowed it—you might re­ceive His Body and be saved. The bishop “painted with most vivid col­ors the beauty en­joyed by the soul in a state of grace and the ug­li­ness and hor­ror suf­fered by the con­demned soul.”

This ug­li­ness and hor­ror had been de­picted in the Old Tes­ta­ment in the Book of Num­bers, where the con­tin­ual back­slid­ing of the chil­dren of Is­rael is pun­ished in var­i­ous ways—no­tably by God’s re­fusal to al­low ei­ther Moses or Aaron to en­ter the Promised Land. God com­mands Moses on Mount Hor to re­move Aaron’s robes and to put them upon his son Eleazar. This re­sults in Aaron’s death on the moun­tain. There fol­lows a vi­cious in­ter­lude in which God helps the Is­raelites mas­sacre the Canaan­ites and de­stroy their cities. But now the Is­raelites come to Edom, where they are much dis­cour­aged, and com­plain to Moses: “Where­fore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilder­ness? for there is no bread, nei­ther is there any wa­ter; and our soul loa­theth this light bread [mean­ing manna].”

This en­rages God, who sends fiery ser­pents among the peo­ple, many of whom die. The Is­raelites re­al­ize they made a mis­take in speak­ing against Je­ho­vah and they ask Moses to in­ter­cede on their be­half, where­upon God does some­thing rather un­ex­pected (in a re­li­gion that for­bids idol­a­try): he in­structs Moses to make a fiery ser­pent of brass or bronze, which he sets upon the stan­dard. Any­one bit­ten by one of the snakes has only to look upon this ser­pent and he is cured.

Quite how this story of a mirac­u­lous snake im­age res­onated among a sev­en­teenth-cen­tury Mex­i­can con­gre­ga­tion (in a land where the snake de­ity had taken many dif­fer­ent forms) can only be guessed. Vil­lal­pando lets his imag­i­na­tion rip. The snake is huge and has wings, and it is coiled around the stan­dard, whose form echoes the cross of Christ in the up­per reg­is­ter (the de­pic­tion of the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion). Less vis­i­ble at first are the ma­lig­nant fiery ser­pents around the feet of the on­look­ers, prom­i­nent among whom are Moses, in re­splen­dent ar­mor, and a high priest who must be Eleazar, wear­ing the robes that had been re­moved from his fa­ther.

An an­gel flies above the Is­raelites bear­ing a shield with an in­scrip­tion from the Gospel ac­cord­ing to John: “And as Moses lifted up the ser­pent in the wilder­ness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whoso­ever be­lieveth in him should not per­ish but have eter­nal life.” The brazen ser­pent in the lower reg­is­ter is thus the pre­fig­ured Christ of the up­per reg­is­ter.

The cat­a­log is lav­ish in its praise of Vil­lal­pando, re­fer­ring to “the artist’s con­scious as­sim­i­la­tion of the Flem­ish im­pe­tus of Rubens, in­cor­po­rated en­tirely and vis­i­bly in his per­sonal lan­guage.” This would rep­re­sent a re­mark­able achieve­ment for any artist work­ing in Europe and able to study Rubens at first hand. Vil­lal­pando, in

Pue­bla, had ac­cess only to en­grav­ings af­ter Rubens, and he does not ben­e­fit from this kind of ex­ag­ger­a­tion. He bor­rows one de­tail in re­verse from an en­grav­ing of Rubens’s de­pic­tion of the same sub­ject: it is the up­per torso of a naked wo­man. But one would not oth­er­wise say that the Flem­ish mas­ter had been con­sciously as­sim­i­lated.

An ev­i­dent un­ease in the cat­a­log sur­rounds the ques­tion of draw­ing. We are shown no ex­am­ples of Mex­i­can baroque draw­ing by Vil­lal­pando or any­one else. We learn, how­ever, that “al­though Vil­lal­pando was trained in the dis­ci­pline of draw­ing, it did not take long for him to loosen his brush­stroke, free­ing it from harsh out­lines.” This seems to see draw­ing as a mat­ter of out­line alone, rather than a ques­tion of de­sign. The same au­thor later tells us: “In re­sponse to weak­nesses in draw­ing, the artist’s con­cep­tion pre­dom­i­nated and be­came the vi­tal breath that seems to have brought his eu­phoric brush to life.” But the de­sign of such a paint­ing is the con­cep­tion. Fi­nally, it is claimed that “Vil­lal­pando, who em­bod­ied tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise and the pure plea­sure of paint­ing, rep­re­sented the purest essence of great Span­ish paint­ing”—that af­ter the death of Murillo in 1682 he was the last of the great Span­ish baroque pain­ters left work­ing. This kind of rhetor­i­cal reck­less­ness does the sub­ject no ser­vice. There must be a path to tread be­tween gross over­praise and prej­u­di­cial dis­mis­sive­ness. There must be a way of ac­knowl­edg­ing that one thing can be bet­ter than an­other, that there is no com­par­i­son be­tween the skills of Murillo or Zur­burán and the crude but fas­ci­nat­ing no­ta­tions of Vil­lal­pando—those bulging eye­balls, those repet­i­tive noses, those fiery ser­pents.

with the Luft­waffe over the Chan­nel. One RAF pi­lot (Jack Low­den) ditches in the sea, from which he is res­cued by Daw­son and his son. As they then ap­proach the beaches amid a throng of such craft, a colonel on the Dunkirk mole (an old term for a pier or jetty) asks the Royal Navy’s Com­man­der Bolton (Ken­neth Branagh) what the boats mean. Branagh of­fers a per­for­mance as the el­e­gant, un­ruf­fled naval of­fi­cer that Noël Coward—who played Cap­tain Kin­ross, based on Lord Mount­bat­ten, in that no­table wartime weepie In Which We Serve—might iden­tify with. Bolton an­swers the colonel la­con­i­cally: “Hope.” In the cin­ema where I saw the film, at that mo­ment the au­di­ence burst into ap­plause.

The small boats, in­clud­ing Daw­son’s, load up with sol­diers amid wors­en­ing per­ils—oil from a sunken minesweeper blazes on the wa­ter—be­fore set­ting course for home and a he­roes’ wel­come. Com­man­der Bolton gal­lantly lingers on the mole to en­sure that some French sol­diers can also get away. He re­marks wryly that it has been not a bad fort­night’s work to res­cue 338,000 Bri­tish, French, and Bel­gian troops, when at the out­set it was thought that no more than 30,000 could be taken off. Back home, the res­cued Tommy reads in a news­pa­per Churchill’s heroic words to the na­tion, con­clud­ing with the vow that Bri­tain will never sur­ren­der.

Most of us would agree that no work of art, whether novel, play, or film, has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to rep­re­sent his­tory ac­cu­rately, any more than Shake­speare did, or David Lean’s Lawrence of Ara­bia. Spiel­berg’s Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan opens with a thirty-minute por­trayal of the 1944 D-Day land­ings that is as vivid and re­al­is­tic as any­thing we are ever likely to see on screen. There­after, how­ever, that film de­te­ri­o­rates into rou­tine Su­per­man stuff that bears no re­la­tion­ship to any­thing that hap­pened to US sol­diers in Nor­mandy. The minis­eries Band of Broth­ers is a su­perb piece of film­mak­ing, prob­a­bly the best ever made about Amer­i­cans in World War II, but it is suf­fused with the ro­man­ti­cism that col­ors all of Spiel­berg’s work as well as much of that of Stephen Am­brose, who wrote the book from which it de­rives.

None­the­less, for the record, we shall con­sider how far Nolan’s film tells the Dunkirk story like it was. There is no his­tor­i­cal back­ground to ex­plain why the Bri­tish army found it­self on the beaches. On May 10, 1940, Hitler in­vaded France and the Low Coun­tries. The Bri­tish army, to­gether with a sub­stan­tial French force, promptly has­tened north into Bel­gium, ex­pect­ing the Ger­mans to reprise their 1914 Sch­li­ef­fen of­fen­sive.

In­stead, how­ever, in ful­fill­ment of the only au­then­tic per­sonal in­spi­ra­tion of Hitler’s ca­reer as a war­lord, the Wehrma­cht’s main thrust pushed through the Ar­dennes, meet­ing the French army where it was weak­est and burst­ing across the Meuse. The Bri­tish found them­selves fall­ing back, fighting desul­tory ac­tions but chiefly mak­ing haste to avoid en­cir­clement. When the panz­ers reached the Chan­nel coast, cut­ting off the Bri­tish, the Bel­gians, and the French Sev­enth Army from the bulk of France’s forces fur­ther south, evac­u­a­tion be­came the only plau­si­ble, though im­mensely dif­fi­cult, op­tion. The first mir­a­cle of Dunkirk was that the Ger­man army scarcely in­ter­fered with the evac­u­a­tion, partly be­cause Her­mann Go­er­ing as­sured Hitler that the Luft­waffe could dis­pose of the Bri­tish, and partly be­cause Churchill’s con­tin­gent was mar­ginal along­side the forty-three di­vi­sions of the French army still in the field fur­ther south. There was no ground fighting in the town or port, so Nolan’s open­ing scene is spu­ri­ous.

In the film, all the big ships seek­ing to res­cue troops are sunk in dra­matic cir­cum­stances, leav­ing small craft to do the busi­ness. This is a trav­esty. The Royal Navy sent thirty-nine de­stroy­ers to Dunkirk, of which only six were sunk, al­though many were dam­aged. Two thirds of all the men brought home sailed in big ships, no­tably in­clud­ing the de­stroy­ers, just one third in smaller ones.

The film shows air bat­tles low over the Chan­nel, whereas many sol­diers came home full of bit­ter­ness to­ward the RAF be­cause they never saw its air­craft: com­bat took place thou­sands of feet above, in­vis­i­ble to those on the ground or at sea. On the Bri­tish side, it was dom­i­nated by Hur­ri­canes, not Spit­fires. Nolan shows a fighter float­ing for some min­utes af­ter ditch­ing, whereas the huge Rolls-Royce Mer­lin en­gine in its nose would have sent the plane plung­ing to the bot­tom within sec­onds.

The char­ac­ter of Daw­son may owe some­thing to Charles Lightoller, a for­mer of­fi­cer on the Ti­tanic who at the age of sixty-six took his boat Sun­downer to Dunkirk, ac­com­pa­nied by his son and a friend, and brought home 120 men. Com­man­der Bolton’s role at Dunkirk was ful­filled in re­al­ity by Cap­tain Bill Ten­nant, who did a su­perb job as se­nior naval of­fi­cer. Oddly enough Ten­nant, as ev­i­denced by his di­ary, later be­came a bit­ter critic of Churchill’s war lead­er­ship.

On­screen, end­less Bri­tish sol­diers per­ish. Michael Korda sug­gests that the Bri­tish army’s rate of loss was “com­pa­ra­ble to that in the blood­i­est bat­tles of the First World War or the Amer­i­can Civil War, and an in­di­ca­tion of just how hard the fighting was.” Yet what was re­mark­able about the real event was how few men died. In the en­tire May–June 1940 cam­paign, in­clud­ing Dunkirk and later episodes, just 11,000 Bri­tish troops were killed, com­pared with at least 50,000 French dead.

A fur­ther 41,000 Bri­tish troops were taken pris­oner by the Ger­mans, but along­side the 193,000 brought home, the “butcher’s bill” was small. Gen­eral Sir Harold Alexan­der, who com­manded the rear guard, told An­thony Eden on his re­turn: “We were not hard pressed, you know.” This remark is some­times cited as an ex­am­ple of his bent for heroic un­der­state­ment, but was no more than the truth.

Cin­ema au­di­ences are left to as­sume that af­ter Dunkirk, the Bri­tish sat down on their is­land and pre­pared to re­sist the Nazis on the beaches. In truth, in one of Churchill’s more spec­tac­u­lar fol­lies, he promptly in­sisted upon dis­patch­ing an­other two di­vi­sions, one of them newly ar­rived Cana­di­ans, to

Nor­mandy and Brit­tany to show the French govern­ment and peo­ple that Bri­tain re­mained com­mit­ted to fight on at their side.

His chief of staff, Ma­jor Gen­eral “Pug” Is­may, gen­tly sug­gested to the prime min­is­ter that it might be wise for these troops to pro­ceed slowly to­ward France, since it was ob­vi­ously doomed. “Cer­tainly not,” replied Churchill an­grily. “It would look very bad in his­tory if we were to do any such thing.” Few great ac­tors on the stage of world af­fairs have been so mind­ful of the ver­dict of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. On June 13, four days be­fore the French sur­ren­der and nine days af­ter the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion ended, Bri­tish sol­diers were still land­ing at Bre­ton ports. By yet an­other mir­a­cle, within days of ar­rival in France their com­man­der, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Sir Alan Brooke, per­suaded Churchill that they must come home. This time there were no beaches— they em­barked through the ports. Many pris­on­ers, tanks, and ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing the en­tire 51st High­land Di­vi­sion, fell into Ger­man hands and there was a spec­tac­u­lar dis­as­ter when the liner Lan­cas­tria, car­ry­ing over three thou­sand men, was sunk by air at­tack. But thanks to Brooke, the prime min­is­ter was spared from evil con­se­quences of his reck­less ges­ture. Some 144,000 Bri­tish troops, to­gether with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other Al­lied sol­diers, were brought to Eng­land. Only his­to­ri­ans are much aware of this “sec­ond Dunkirk,” and it seems ill-na­tured to make much of the fact that of 100,000 French sol­diers brought to Bri­tain, even De Gaulle at his most san­guine ad­mit­ted that only one third agreed to serve with his newly cre­ated Free French forces, while the re­main­der pre­ferred repa­tri­a­tion to France.

As for the Bri­tish peo­ple, for the rest of 1940—the mood turned sourer in the fol­low­ing year—they did in­deed dis­play a sto­icism and even euphoria as ir­ra­tional as today’s Brex­iter ex­ul­ta­tion. The MP Harold Nicolson wrote in his di­ary on June 15:

My rea­son tells me that it will now be al­most im­pos­si­ble to beat the Ger­mans, and that the prob­a­bil­ity is that France will sur­ren­der and that we shall be bombed and in­vaded . . . . Yet these prob­a­bil­i­ties do not fill me with de­spair. I seem to be im­per­vi­ous both to plea­sure and pain. For the mo­ment we are all anaes­thetised.

The writer Peter Flem­ing, then an army staff of­fi­cer, wrote in a sim­i­lar vein:

It was as though the whole coun­try had been in­vited to a fancy-dress ball and ev­ery­body was ask­ing ev­ery­body else “What are you go­ing as?” A la­tent in­credulity [gave] . . . prob­lems con­nected with in­va­sion the sta­tus of en­gross­ing di­gres­sions from the main busi­ness of life .... The Bri­tish, when their ally was pole-axed on their doorstep, be­came both gayer and more serene than they had been at any time since the over­ture to Mu­nich struck up in 1937.

Among count­less rea­sons for rever­ing Churchill’s per­for­mance in 1940 is that he him­self never for a mo­ment suc­cumbed to such silli­ness. Though he justly de­scribed Dunkirk as a de­liv­er­ance, he also warned the House of Com­mons and the na­tion that “wars are not won by evac­u­a­tions.” He knew that while the men had been brought home, al­most all their weapons and equip­ment had been lost: the Bri­tish army was ef­fec­tively dis­armed. There­after he and his na­tion set the world a mag­nif­i­cent ex­am­ple of de­fi­ance. But it was an im­po­tent de­fi­ance, from which both Bri­tain and democ­racy were re­deemed only by the be­lated ar­rival of al­lies. It was 1944 be­fore Churchill’s sol­diers, aided by huge in­fu­sions of Amer­i­can men, matériel, and es­pe­cially tanks, were fit to face a ma­jor Euro­pean bat­tle­field.

In the in­ter­ven­ing four years, rel­a­tively tiny Bri­tish forces fought the Ger­mans in North Africa and Italy, and a large im­pe­rial army sur­ren­dered to the Ja­panese at Sin­ga­pore in Fe­bru­ary 1942. Con­trary to per­sist­ing Bri­tish delu­sions, Hitler’s en­mity and am­bi­tions al­ways fo­cused on the East. Be­cause of his in­va­sion of Rus­sia, the Bri­tish and later the Amer­i­cans were granted the price­less lux­ury of be­ing able to pre­pare at leisure for the be­lated June 1944 lib­er­a­tion of north­west Europe: the band of broth­ers of the US 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion, for in­stance, spent al­most two years in uni­form be­fore hear­ing a shot fired in anger. Michael Korda sug­gests that thanks to the fi­nal tri­umph in 1945, “Dunkirk was, and re­mains, per­haps the great­est Bri­tish vic­tory of World War Two, that rarest of his­tor­i­cal events—a mil­i­tary de­feat with a happy end­ing.” This as­ser­tion stretches a very large point, not least be­cause Churchill him­self re­garded the out­come of World War II as any­thing but happy, since Bri­tain’s voice in the world, not to men­tion his own, had be­come so much di­min­ished.

It would be un­rea­son­able to de­mand that Christo­pher Nolan should have in­jected more than a frac­tion of these re­al­i­ties into his Dunkirk. The most ab­surd as­saults on the film come from In­dia, where crit­ics com­plain that he does not fea­ture the two com­pa­nies of In­dian ser­vice troops who were present on the beaches. This is com­pa­ra­ble to the Bri­tish wail­ing when Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan ap­peared that their sol­diers were ab­sent with­out leave from the screen. I wrote at the time that if any na­tion wants its part in any con­flict glo­ri­fied, it must make the films for it­self.

Nolan seems to de­serve con­grat­u­la­tions for de­clin­ing to in­clude even a to­ken Amer­i­can, for decades a pre­req­ui­site for se­cur­ing a US au­di­ence for a Bri­tish war movie. In­deed, this im­per­a­tive so in­tim­i­dated many Bri­tish di­rec­tors and their screen­writ­ers that gal­lant Amer­i­can char­ac­ters were of­ten de­picted show­ing the stupid English how bat­tles should be fought.

This lat­est epic rep­re­sents a ver­sion of his­tory lit­tle worse than The Long­est Day, A Bridge Too Far, or The Guns of Navarone. Some of us are grate­ful that so many school­child­ren are go­ing to see it, be­cause they will at least dis­cover that in 1940 there were beaches, the res­cue of an army, and sac­ri­fice and con­sid­er­able for­ti­tude by their fore­fa­thers. Bri­tain’s grown-ups, how­ever, should have been forcibly de­nied en­trance to cin­e­mas at this mo­ment when we are threat­ened with em­barka­tion upon one of the most self-in­dul­gent, will­fully fool­ish acts of self-harm in the na­tion’s his­tory.

For all the charm of Michael Korda’s per­sonal rem­i­nis­cence of 1939–1940, he is on much less sure ground in his nar­ra­tive of the big events, partly be­cause he is ob­vi­ously a ro­man­tic, and partly be­cause he re­lies heav­ily on el­derly sources, in­clud­ing the Bri­tish of­fi­cial his­tory of the cam­paign in France, much of which is tosh. He is surely right, how­ever, to con­clude his book by com­par­ing the emo­tions of the mod­ern Brex­iters with those of the Bri­tish in June 1940: “There was a na­tional sense of re­lief . . . at leav­ing the Con­ti­nent and with­draw­ing be­hind the White Cliffs of Dover.” Af­ter Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be un­able to rely upon the Rus­sians to stage a grand di­ver­sion in the East to spare us from the hideous eco­nomic, so­cial, cul­tural, and po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of at­tempt­ing to fight on alone, with­out the im­pec­ca­ble jus­ti­fi­ca­tion that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.

Cristóbal de Vil­lal­pando: Moses and the Brazen Ser­pent and the Trans­fig­u­ra­tion of Je­sus, 1683

Win­ston Churchill

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.