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Opinion Obfuscating the reality of the British empire

IAN SINCLAIR weighs up the colourblind casting in the recently released film Munich – The Edge of War and its wider implications

A PRETTY good, sometimes gripping, political thriller, the new movie Munich — The Edge Of War, based on Robert Harris’s 2017 novel, includes a couple of obvious howlers.

First, the film’s Adolf Hitler is so bad it becomes comical. Surely, film-makers understand Bruno Ganz as the Fuhrer in the 2004 German film Downfall irrevocably raised the bar when it comes to onscreen portrayals of the Nazi leader? 

Second, amazingly, the film-makers chose August Diehl to play a slightly manic, slightly comic SS officer, after he had played a slightly manic, slightly comic SS officer in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds. Is the pool of decent German actors really so small?

Furthermore, a couple of casting choices seem particularly significant. Cecil Syers, a civil servant in prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s Downing Street, is played by black British actor Raphael Sowole, while British Asian actress Anjli Mohindra plays Joan Menzies.

Initially presented as the best typist in Downing Street, she is — spoiler alert! — later revealed to be the niece of a senior MI6 official.

Whether these are examples of “colourblind” casting is unclear. In a recent interview Mohindra notes: “There were lots of south Asian civil servants working for the British government at that time,” and specifically mentions British south Asian spy Noor Inayat Khan as an inspiration for her work on Munich.

For the record, I have no problem with black and ethnic minority actors taking roles that would traditionally be given to white actors.

I loved Dev Patel as the titular character in 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield; the ethnically diverse cast of playful period drama Bridgerton made perfect sense to me; I was mystified by Laurence Fox’s criticism of a Sikh soldier appearing in Sam Mendes’s epic and brilliant 1917 film (more than 130,000 Sikhs fought in the first world war).

However, there are wider political ramifications connected to these casting decisions in Munich that I think are worth exploring.

So while the Nazis are depicted as, well, Nazis, including several obligatory scenes showing the repression and dehumanisation of Jews, Sowole playing Syers, and Mohindra as Menzies, suggests Chamberlain’s government, ruling over the biggest empire the world had ever known, was running an equal opportunities recruitment process for top-level “national security” work in Downing Street.

In short, the casting choices arguably work to gloss over the racism, repression and elitism of the Chamberlain government, and of the whole British ruling class at the time. 

A similar concealing effect can be seen in 2017’s Darkest Hour movie, which conjures up the fantasy of Winston Churchill getting inspiration after travelling on the tube and swapping lines from a Macaulay poem with a West Indian man.

Indeed, like nearly every British war film, Munich reaffirms a “Britain = good, Nazi = evil” binary understanding of history.

With the action shifting to the emergency talks in Munich, one of the film’s two main characters, Paul Hartmann, a translator in the German Foreign Office who is heroically trying to stop Hitler, tells Chamberlain the German Chancellor is “a man who hates everything you stand for.”

The problem with this popular framing of WWII, as the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good.”

As then Guardian columnist Seumas Milne noted in 2010, “The British empire was … an avowedly racist despotism built on ethnic cleansing, enslavement, continual wars and savage repression, land theft and merciless exploitation.

“Far from bringing good governance, democracy or economic progress, the empire underdeveloped vast areas, executed and jailed hundreds of thousands for fighting for self-rule, ran concentration camps, carried out medical experiments on prisoners and oversaw famines that killed tens of millions of people.” 

Though it remains pretty much verboten to mention in polite company, the uncomfortable truth is Hitler and Chamberlain (along with a significant segment of the British elite) shared some key values.

“Hitler’s dream was inspired, in part, by the British empire,” noted British historian Richard Drayton, currently professor of imperial and global history at King’s College London, in the Guardian in 2005. 

“The British and Americans were key theorists of eugenics and had made racial segregation respectable. The concentration camp was a British invention, and in Iraq and Afghanistan the British were the first to use air power to repress partisan resistance … we forget, too, that British and US elites gave aid to the fascists.”

In addition to obfuscating the reality of the British empire, the film also ignores the importance of the British empire to Chamberlain’s decision-making during the Munich crisis. 

“By the mid-1930s Britain was defending a vast and vulnerable empire encompassing a quarter of the world’s territory and population, with the dismally depleted military resources of a third-rate power,” historian Robert Self noted on the BBC News website in 2013.

He goes on to quote Sir Thomas Inskip’s defence policy of December 1937, commissioned by Chamberlain: “It is beyond the resources of this country to make proper provision in peace for defence of the British empire against three major powers [Germany, Japan and Italy] in three different theatres of war.”

The 1985 Granada Television documentary End Of Empire explains what this meant for the British government: “Britain’s leaders feared the empire would not survive a war on both sides of the world at once, so desperate for peace at almost any price, prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich and appeasement.” 

To be clear, I support more black and ethnic minority-centred stories and actors on our TV and film screens. For example, I consider Steve McQueen’s monumental Small Axe film anthology one of the most important British cultural events of recent times. 

There is no shortage of historical events and stories centred around the experience of black and ethnic minorities that could be mined if mainstream Western film-makers were as open-minded and progressive as they thought they were.

How about a period drama about the brutal British repression of the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya? 

Or an epic film about the largely non-violent national movement that forced the British to grant Ghana independence in 1957? 

Why hasn’t there been a television series about the British arming recently surrendered Japanese troops in 1945 to put down a nationalist uprising in Vietnam? 

Or about Greek resistance fighter Manolis Glezos, who was moments away from killing Winston Churchill in Athens on Christmas Day 1944, after Britain had turned against the communist-led insurgents who had helped defeat the German army?

Or a political thriller about all the dirty dealings and repression Britain has carried out and supported over decades to keep all their favoured despots in power in the Gulf?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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