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Jewish World Review July 10, 2000 / 7 Tamuz, 5760

Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas
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PBS' 'Finest Hour' --
AMERICANS sometimes like to think we have cornered the market on heroism. Aren't we, after all, the "home of the brave''?

Bravery does not have only one address, as you will see in a magnificent two-part series, airing on the Public Broadcasting System tonight, Monday, July 10, and concluding July 17 (check local listings for time). It's called "Finest Hour,'' a documentary about the brave British soldiers, citizens and political leaders who stood alone for months against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi war machine until the United States entered the war.

The program, which has a companion book by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig, skillfully weaves top-quality war footage with dramatic re-creations in a blend of color and black-and-white photography that is authentic "reality television.'' The British were legitimate "survivors.''

We hear voices and see faces of people who lived through this awful time, when many Americans believed they would see Britain and all of Europe come to be dominated by Hitler. While some in Europe tried to adjust to and survive in what they perceived to be an inevitable new world order, the British, under the courageous and inspirational leadership of Winston Churchill, never gave up, withstanding waves of Nazi bombings of London and turning the tide in the Battle of Britain.

Whitelaw Reid, who reported for the New York Herald Tribune from London in 1940, tells in a contemporary interview of conversation and correspondence with Churchill and other top British and American leaders. New insights into the role of U.S. Ambassador to London Joseph P. Kennedy are offered by Page Huidekoper, Kennedy's secretary at the time.

The action, drama and tears are fit for a Steven Spielberg film. The Brits were just like our boys -- young, afraid, inexperienced, but remarkably brave and committed. Unlike Americans, they had to see their capital city under siege and large portions destroyed by a man bent on world domination.

The film shows how easily things might have turned out differently. In June, 60 years ago, Britain's future was grim. Germany had already conquered Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France. Britain had fought and lost to the Wehrmacht at Dunkirk, and her soldiers came limping home in a spectacular evacuation orchestrated by Churchill and British military leaders. Churchill regularly bombarded President Franklin Roosevelt with requests for help, but Roosevelt was in the midst of a reelection campaign, and U.S. isolationist spirit was strong. The Soviet Union had an alliance with Germany. Britain was forced to stand alone.

We hear audio recordings of Edward R. Murrow while watching film of the German bombing of London. We hear William Shirer's eerie and ominous broadcasts from Berlin. "Finest Hour'' is a history book come alive. It is stuff those who didn't live through it, and those who did, should not miss. Young people who think history is dull won't think so after they've seen this film.

Dozens of witnesses tell their own stories. There is Iain Nethercott, who at age 19 was an antiaircraft gunner aboard the HMS Keith during a brutal air and land siege. He watched in horror as his co-gunner was beheaded. Bess Walder was one of only seven survivors from a group of 90 children being evacuated to Canada aboard a British liner when it was torpedoed. There is a dramatic reenactment of her predicament as she tells the story.

There is Edith Heap, a Women's Auxiliary radar plotter, listening on a headset to the fighter pilots, including the battle during which her own fiance was killed. Sixty years later, she still cries, and you may, too, when you hear her story. Marian Holmes, Winston Churchill's personal secretary, tells how Churchill dealt with the tremendous pressures he faced.

The show's final line sums up the unequaled achievement of Britain: "Alone, Britain could never have won the Second World War. But in 1940, she refused to lose it.''

"Finest Hour'' is truly great television. It deserves a large audience, and PBS should be encouraged to create more great films like this one.

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