It's helpful to remember right at the outset of Alone, Michael Korda's new book about how a defiant Great Britain stood alone against the Europe-conquering might of Nazi Germany, that a defiant Great Britain never stood alone against the Europe-conquering might of Nazi Germany. Even in the darkest days of World War II, England had an enormously powerful navy, nearly uncontested control of all its import and export sea-lanes, the vast material resources of the Commonwealth on which to draw, and the tacit but growing unofficial support of the United States. We should all be so “alone.”
But it's an attractive fantasy, which is why it took root in the world consciousness in the 1930s, why Winston Churchill got such mileage out of it in speeches and books, and why popular histories and Hollywood movies have loved it ever since. It's why both Christopher Nolan for his movie "Dunkirk" and Gary Oldman for his portrayal of Churchill in Joe Wright's forthcoming movie "Darkest Hour" will likely both get Oscar nominations.
The cinematic appeal of the “England alone” scenario is at the heart of Korda's book, and understandably so. As he himself sets out by saying, he comes from a long line of movie people: His uncle Alexander Korda was a famous “movie mogul”; his uncle Zoltan was likewise a famous movie director; his father was a famous art director; his mother and an aunt were actresses. And, as our author writes about his family's show business priorities: “Having lived through war and the collapse and breakup of an empire, my father treated with indifference seismic geopolitical events that set other people to canceling their reservations.”
In a way, "Alone" comes to readers as a kind of Oscar project in its own right. It's blurbed by Larry McMurtry, David McCullough, and Henry Kissinger; it's lavishly illustrated; and Korda grounds its familiar story with his childhood memories of wartime tensions and radio broadcasts. This memoir framing-device gives Korda a measure of dramatic license, and he uses it to good effect. "Alone" is relentlessly involving reading, full of masterfully-drawn set pieces like the “phony war,” the fall of France, Luxembourg, Holland, and Belgium to the German war machine, the heroism of the RAF and Navy, and a grand concluding account of the desperate Dunkirk evacuation.
Energetically fleshed-out characters fill these pages. There are the generals on both sides, headstrong men like Montgomery and Rommel, methodical planners like Brooke and von Manstein; there are politicians, of course – “His flaw was not pusillanimity; it was a lethal combination of vanity and pig-headedness,” Korda writes of Neville Chamberlain, Churchill's easily-mocked predecessor. There are the beleaguered French leaders, faced with the unexpected catastrophe of the collapse of their much-vaunted army. There's Britain's stammering, unsure King George VI and his magnificent Queen Elizabeth. And there's Hitler himself, who, readers are told, “has come in for great criticism as an amateur strategist, some of it deserved, but not all ... he had a kind of Fingerspitzengfühl, or second sense, about military matters ...” And interspersed regularly throughout, there are the show-folk who formed such a big part of Korda's youth. "Alone" regularly, delightfully lightens its war-talk with movie-talk, from chat about "The Thief of Baghdad" to anecdotes about Uncle Alex dealing with the war (and making propaganda films), to the on- and off-screen adventures of the era's great actors and actresses, now-legendary figures like Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson who were for Korda flawed human beings, often friends of the family.
But as in all such versions of this narrative, the central spotlight star is Churchill – Churchill the gadfly, Churchill the visionary, and most of all Churchill the fighter, telling his War Cabinet, “We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking on his own blood upon the ground.” Churchill, Korda writes, “enjoyed arguing and … his opponent's arguments bounced off him like tennis balls aimed at a tank.” In books like "Alone," Churchill is always portrayed as the very embodiment of bulldog tenacity, insisting on complete defiance when his less bold colleagues might have sent out discreet feelers for Hitler's peace terms. Korda can be stern with his hero (brief mention is made of Churchill's coldness, for instance), but ultimately his Churchill is a purely heroic figure here.
“The British are never more irritatingly secure of themselves,” he writes, “than when they are alone, looking out at the chaos in Europe across the gray, choppy waters of the Channel.” It's a neatly-trimmed story, a proud island holding on against a rising tide of darkness, fighting alone until either defeat or longed-for help arrives. Korda, the prolific biographer and author of an account of the Battle of Britain, knows perfectly well this is at best very partial history; but Korda, the son and nephew of movie-makers, likewise knows it's very good theater.