Laurence Olivier’s camera pans across an abstract, Technicolor land of painted hills and wooden windmills, crops grown unkempt, trees and bushels covering ploughs, clover running amok. We see a tumbledown stone house with two peasant children in rags before the camera finally rests on a fairy-tale castle, like an illustration from a medieval book of hours. The Duke of Burgundy (Valentine Dyall) sonorously declaims:
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in its own fertility.
(William Shakespeare, Henry V, V.ii.36–40)
This scene, near the end of Olivier’s 1944 film version of Henry V, becomes a potent metaphor for Britain in the midst of war: its major cities reduced to smoking rubble, willow herb and fleabane taking root in the debris, bombsites turned into impromptu gardens. The British government commissioned the film, and it premiered November 22, 1944—less than six months after D-Day. London must have seemed a wild, ruined garden to the audiences watching this scene. Whole swathes of the metropolis lay “on heaps,” destroyed by the Luftwaffe’s bombs.
The wreck of the nation’s capital, however, also led to the creation of unexpected vistas. Writing in 1945, the architect Hugh Casson thought a bombed building could be “a place with its own individuality, charged with its emotion and atmosphere, of drama, of grandeur, of nobility.” A group of influential figures that included T. S. Eliot, Kenneth Clark (director of the National Gallery), and the economist John Maynard Keynes argued that a few of these ruins—specifically, destroyed London churches—ought to be preserved as war memorials. Otherwise, they warned in a 1944 letter to the Times, “no trace of death from the air” would be left “to remind posterity of the reality of the sacrifices upon which its apparent security has been built. These church ruins, we suggest, would do this with realism and gravity.”
Even before the war was over, people were already thinking about how it should be remembered. Remarkably, in the blaze of rebuilding that transformed London during the postwar period, making it the city we know today, the people who signed that letter to the Times got their way: the church ruins were preserved.
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