It is almost impossible to talk about Darkest Hour, the new British-American film about Winston Churchill’s first month as Prime Minister in May 1940, without recalling last year’s Churchill or Dunkirk. That three major films about World War II have been released in quick succession (with Dunkirk triumphing at the box office) indicates that there is a renewed appetite for the subject, amid the recent political upheaval in Britain and the United States.
World War II on film began as propaganda. A good example is London Can Take It! (1940), commissioned by the Ministry of Information and distributed by Warner Bros. In this short film (which you can find on YouTube), the narrator refers to the city’s civilians as “the people’s army”. It was intended to sway public opinion in favour of America joining the Allied effort.
Clearly, no contemporary film (or book or television series) exists in a vacuum; writers and directors respond to the events around them. That said, since 1945, there has never been a decade, or even a year, without World War II films being produced. They can act as a positive act of remembrance of those who gave their lives, or an interrogation of the conflict, rather than a dangerous foray into misty-eyed nostalgia. But this depends on a well-researched script and expert direction, and the story’s intentions must be honest. Gary Oldman’s performance in Darkest Hour has earned plaudits, but how accurate is it?
More than a decade after the Great War, Lord Beaverbrook, who later served in Churchill’s War Cabinet, wrote that “Churchill on top of the wave has in him the stuff of which tyrants are made”, and the colourful, quotable side of Churchill’s character is given full exposure in Darkest Hour.
Yet Churchill’s remarkable capacity for work and study, and his foresight (he had been warning about Germany’s increasing firepower for years before) is ignored. Young viewers, yet to learn about Churchill’s extraordinary achievements – or even strategic blunders – might be tempted to ask whether Churchill was an alcoholic, so ramshackle is his depiction. (If the question needs answering, author and journalist Sonia Purnell writes in her book First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, that Churchill was “rarely a hard drinker by the standards of his day”).
Churchill is shown, variously, trembling, shouting, or seeking respite in the loo. In The Second World War, the wartime leader’s own account, he says of his appointment to the premiership: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour.” The book’s text was composed in retrospect and approved by the Cabinet Office before publication; still, the disparity between it and Darkest Hour is striking.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) has, however, done his research. There are moments when Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) uses “pig” as a term of endearment towards her husband; in 1918, after days without correspondence, Winston Churchill signed a letter to her as “your vilely neglected Pig”. In another scene, she explodes over the continued financial pressure the couple face; their struggle to avoid bankruptcy (her husband’s earnings never matching his lifestyle) is well documented.
Another supporting role, George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), is sensitively portrayed, even allowing for a possibly exaggerated manner of speaking (To Chamberlain: “I want you to know how cwuelly I think you’ve been tweated”). And the gap between public and classified information, and its impact, is intelligently explored.
Critics have balked at a fictional scene in which Churchill leaps from his chauffeur-driven car to travel the London Underground; he is fortified by his subsequent conversations with the resolute British people he encounters there. But to denigrate this departure from fact as a flight of fancy may be to miss the point: during war, Churchill did connect with the British public. For all the opposition he faced, when he said “we shall fight on the beaches”, he did not stand alone.
It seems unlikely that anyone could seriously draw parallels between the catastrophic events depicted in Darkest Hour and today’s political uncertainty. In an interview with deadline.com, the director Joe Wright said “It’s a film about resistance,” and this aspect of human nature is a constant.
As is tribal loyalty. Sir Henry (or “Chips”) Channon was a Conservative MP during Churchill’s tenure as prime minister, an author, diarist, and, according to Max Hastings in Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord, 1940–45, a “consummate ass”. On May 10, 1940, Channon wrote that it might be “the darkest day in English history … We were all sad, angry and felt cheated and out-witted.” He was not thinking about the Third Reich’s assault on France, but Chamberlain’s departure from the top job.