One Life and British cinema’s nostalgia for World War Two

The past is undeniably present in contemporary representations of the British war effort, representing an obsession with former military glory and world influence.


Clotilde Chinnici

A lot of contemporary British culture is tied to the Second World War. Despite being one of the darkest times in modern history, it’s also one of the most celebrated and talked about, held up as an example of national resilience and democracy. Every year on the 6th of June we remember D-Day and every second Sunday in November memorial events all over the country recognise Remembrance Sunday, held in commemoration for service people killed in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. Images of the Second World War are everywhere in our collective memory even for generations removed, from special days dedicated to its memory to books, films and TV shows.

In recent years there has been an influx of British movies focusing on the Second World War in some manner, with Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk being just two of the most notable examples, and Operation Mincemeat (2021), Munich: The Edge of War (2021) and The Great Escaper (2023) further evidence of the enduring obsession. Most recently, One Life (2023), directed by James Hawes and starring Anthony Hopkins, does the same thing. Interestingly, such a strong focus on the Second World War is not new in the film industry; depictions of the conflict on screen were prominent from the very beginning of the war. As recent box office results show, war films have always proven to be popular amongst British audiences; One Life opened second at the UK box office in January.

One Life is a biographical drama based on the true story of Sir Nicholas Winton, a British humanitarian who helped rescue 669 children from the Nazi-occupied Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) just before the official outbreak of the Second World War. The film alternates between two different timelines, one following 79-year-old Nicholas Winton (Anthony Hopkins) who is reminiscing on his past, while the other follows Nicholas 50 years prior (played by Johnny Flynn) as he decides to save the refugees he encounters by collecting donations and relocating them to England where local foster families will welcome them.

As One Life is based on a real-life story, it maintains a pretence of objectivity and neutrality in the way it tells its story. The use of intertitles before the movie begins is just an example of this as they evoke an idea of documentary-like impartiality in the way the film sets its historical context at the beginning. Despite its intention of authenticity, however, One Life ends up portraying a biased and edited version of history, in particular regarding the role that the United Kingdom had in the larger conflict.

Generally speaking, British war films seem to overplay the role that the United Kingdom had in the war. This can be seen in Operation Mincemeat when one of the characters implies that the fate of the free world is dependent on the success of their mission and, therefore, solely on the British war effort. The Darkest Hour suggests the same idea with Churchill appearing entirely responsible for stopping Hitler. While it is true that the country played a significant role in the conflict, especially in the first half, it seems like an exaggeration to portray Britain as the only power that can oppose the often elusive and hardly ever mentioned enemy. But having the country depicted as the only global power left standing in the face of Hitler and Nazism makes for a much more compelling narrative and one that is instrumental to the way the country wants to be seen in the present.

As One Life goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that if it weren’t for the United Kingdom, and Winton in particular, no one would have stepped in to save the Jewish children as the Nazis occupied Prague. According to the film’s version of history, Britain is the only safe place for them to be in a world that is otherwise controlled by Hitler’s Germany. Through these film depictions, the United Kingdom at large has become synonymous with democracy and freedom, and the success of these films suggests a sense of nostalgia in British – and perhaps even international – audiences for the alleged role that the United Kingdom played in defending democracy, freedom, and justice for all.

This affectionate view of the United Kingdom, a nation that has currently been losing some significant areas of influence in the geopolitical scenario of modern-day politics and has alienated European neighbours since Brexit, sends a clear message. The remembrance of a glorious past (regardless of whether that truly existed) suggests a sense of patriotism for what the country once was and – at least according to current political claims and nationalist narratives – can once again become. This is not just true for One Life, as many other British war films offer the same perspective on history and the war. In Darkest Hour, Churchill’s final triumph and famous speech gloriously end the movie, creating an image of Britain as a leading world power. This same idea has a powerful resonance in today’s political life as this image of Britain has been evoked in more recent years too and has become key to the Conservative Party’s electoral campaigns. In this sense, British war films can also encapsulate conservative sentiments in the way they utilise nostalgia and emotions to evoke a sense of patriotism in modern-day Britain.

One Life is also a tale of a singular act of heroism. “You have a lot of faith in ordinary people,” says one of the characters in the film to Nicholas when he is trying to recruit people to help him save the children. This is also what the movie is ultimately encouraging us to do. The film inspires a sense of pride in the actions of an everyday individual who distinguished himself for his courage and resilience. If Nicholas was just a normal person, then the same heroism could potentially be found today in any British person sitting in the audience and watching this movie.

Interestingly, portraying the individual hero as an ordinary person has always been a key element of British war cinema, even at the time of the Second World War with the propaganda films that the industry used to focus on, such as an Airman’s Letter Home directed by Michael Powell. In contemporary cinema, Dunkirk puts a lot of emphasis on how the effort and bravery of ordinary British citizens made the impressive evacuation of Dunkirk possible. The Darkest Hour does something very similar; while the majority of the film is focused on Churchill, there is one pivotal scene when the British Prime Minister discusses the peace negotiations with everyday people on the tube in London.

While Hitler and Nazi Germany may be mentioned more than once throughout the film, the story of One Life could easily be extrapolated from its historical context. The children that Windon saves are never addressed as Jews but only as refugees; similarly, the enemy the main character is fighting against remains faceless and largely nameless too. In fact, the film never shows anything about the war itself, with both the conflict and the people Britain is fighting against are never portrayed on screen. It would be easy to give another name or nationality to this antagonist and still have the audience feel the same sentiments of fighting for democracy and justice. This stands in stark contrast with the current state of the country in both internal and foreign politics, ranging from the Conservation plan to bring back mandatory National Service to the UK government’s ambivalent response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza which has left over 37,000 Palestinians dead with many thousands more injured and displaced.

Overall, One Life seems to mirror an ongoing trend in British war films that sees the genre focusing on a very specific retelling of the past, one that focuses mainly on the prominent role that the country played in the Second World War and on the actions of ordinary people. By doing so, these films create a sense of nostalgia in the audience for a time when people were willing to make personal sacrifices to save their country and when the United Kingdom was synonymous with freedom and democracy, or at least according to these films. As such, they manage to suggest a selective memory of the historical events they depict. At the same time, they also glorify the acts of singular heroism, perhaps in the hope of suggesting that times like those may come again. All of this plays a role in the viewers’ understanding of the role of Britain in the present geopolitical situation. They ultimately seem to shape the modern audience’s understanding of both past and present by invoking feelings of patriotism towards the UK today by reflecting on its seemingly heroic past.

Published 10 Jun 2024

Tags: Darkest Hour Dunkirk One Life World War Two

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