New documentary on Winston Churchill’s leadership during the first two years of WWII shown during the Olymipcs closing weekend.
By Sohrab Ahmari
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, August 2012—The word “hero” is thrown around lightly and frequently during Olympic season. But as Tom Brokaw reminds us in “Their Finest Hour,” physical endurance and courage alone do not make heroes.
This remarkable documentary, set to air during NBC’s regular Olympic programming, chronicles the heroism of Britain in the first two years of World War II, when, as Mr. Brokaw says, “England stood alone, when England was all that was left between liberty and tyranny.” “Their Finest Hour” does not disclose any new historical facts. But by making extensive use of newly unearthed, color archival footage, plus the testimonies of British veterans, nurses and survivors, Mr. Brokaw pays tribute to Britain’s “poetry of defiance” in the face of Nazi terror.
We meet a pilot who, at age 19, helped fend off the mighty German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain—the 1940 campaign by the Third Reich to break the Royal Air Force. “I never considered defeat,” the pilot, now 93, tells Mr. Brokaw. “I don’t think any of us ever did.” A nurse recalls “the quiet courage of the men” and how that courage gave heart to the women.
Then came the Luftwaffe’s merciless bombing of London and other cities. This was “a deliberate attempt by Hitler to terrorize London into defeat,” the historian Andrew Roberts explains. All told the Nazi bombing of London left 40,000 dead, thousands more wounded and some two million homeless. But, Mr. Roberts says, Hitler “misunderstood the nature of the British people.” St. Paul’s Cathedral remained miraculously intact, and the newspaper headlines—”Is That the Best You Can Do, Adolf?”—testified to Britain’s indomitable spirit.
The greatest symbol of that spirit was, of course, Prime Minister Winston Churchill—that “hard-drinking firebrand of vast experience and suspect judgment,” as Mr. Brokaw puts it. (Though Mr. Brokaw doesn’t pause to elaborate on that terse “suspect judgment” charge.) Churchill’s mission was to ensure Britain would survive the Nazi onslaught long enough for the U.S. to enter the fray. “We are fighting by ourselves alone,” he famously told his compatriots. “But we are not fighting for ourselves alone.”
The wait was long and painful and the sleeping giant slow to awake. Militating against a U.S. entry into the war were isolationists led by the likes of Charles Lindbergh and his America First movement. “Let Europe fight its own battle,” we hear one of Lindbergh’s followers sneer. “They mean nothing to us.” The rhetoric sounds eerily familiar to that deployed by contemporary proponents of isolationism of both the left-wing and right-wing varieties.
Today the athletes gathered in London and most of their spectators around the world take the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain for granted. The discomfiting question raised by Mr. Brokaw’s documentary is: Will future generations of Britons and Americans appreciate the high price paid to forge it? There are no easy answers. Either way, this film might just be NBC’s finest hour of Olympic programming.
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