Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940
My bride and I and our son saw Darkest Hour on December 23, 2017. It is a very good film, perhaps a great one. My review is below the fold. The usual caveat as to spoilers is in full effect.
Darkest Hour depicts the crucial twenty-five days between the appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 and his “We shall never surrender!” speech on June 4, 1940.
Gary Oldman gives a completely on target performance as Churchill, with one glaring exception. He captures completely the look of Churchill and the cadence of his speech. Little suspension of disbelief is needed, as Oldman completely disappears in his magnificent Churchill portrayal. He conveys well one of the overlooked facets of Churchill, his humor:
The film’s dramatic tension is supplied by the fact that many people, particularly among the English establishment, thought that he was not up to the job, and the additional fact that the War seemed to be lost. Churchill had been in public life for three and a half decades. He was a celebrity as well as a politician, noted for his military exploits as a young man, his journalism throughout his career, and his skill as a writer and a historian, who by 1940 had written nineteen books, most of which were well received. Everyone conceded that Churchill was brilliant. His speeches in the House of Commons often drew standing room audiences. However, his judgment was suspect. His career was littered with colossal disasters like Gallipoli, and his enthusiasm often seemed to go far beyond his common sense. His own party often viewed him with suspicion. Churchill had started off as a Conservative and then switched to the Liberal party in 1904. He switched back to the Conservatives in 1925. (As Churchill noted in 1923: “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”) Most members of the Labour Party viewed Churchill, who was a vociferous anti-Socialist, as a hopeless reactionary, although he did have some support among Labour members of Parliament due to his leadership in the Thirties in speaking out against Nazi Germany. The film does an excellent job in showing how uncertain support was for Churchill in his early days as Prime Minister.
As to the War, Churchill took over coincidentally on the same day that the Nazis launched their blitzkrieg, against Belgium, the Netherlands and France. In what seemed to the Allies a complete nightmarish debacle, France, which had successfully withstood Germany for almost four and a half years in the Great War, was conquered in slightly over a month. Small wonder then that Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, pressed for negotiations with Germany, with Italy serving as an intermediary. And it is here that the film falters.
Churchill is portrayed as much less decisive than he was. In our day we want our leaders to have feet of clay, to show human weakness, and in the film Churchill is shown as frequently indecisive and lacking in drive.
This is completely mistaken. Although he did suffer from periodic depression, he called it the Black Dog, Churchill was always decisive, both publicly and privately. Churchill may have often been in error but he was never in doubt. In a completely made up scene, Churchill riding the London subway, he only did this once in the twenties and got lost, seeks the counsel of ordinary Britons who encourage him to fight on against Nazi Germany. This is wrong on so many grounds. First, although Churchill believed in Democracy he would never have sought the counsel of ordinary Britons, especially a random group assembled on the subway. Churchill believed that leaders were to lead, and not to seek the opinions of the led. Second, British morale, before Churchill rallied it, was at rock bottom. We know this because the British had an excellent system of keeping tabs on public opinion called Mass Observation. Most Brits thought that the War was lost and only about half thought that Britain would continue to fight on once France fell. The film falls down badly with the subway scene. It is false as to history and false as to what made Churchill tick: an unbeatable confidence in his nation and himself.
The film recovers by accurately showing Churchill’s speech to the 25 man outer cabinet which put paid to the idea of negotiations with Hitler:
“I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man [Hitler]. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out. The Germans would demand our fleet — that would be called disarmament — our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up…And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side we have immense reserves and advantages.
And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
The film ends with a stirring rendition of the “never surrender” speech as Churchill girded his nation to carry on what seemed to be a hopeless fight. As Churchill predicted, this was the finest hour of Great Britain and Churchill’s finest hour.
The film is vastly entertaining and, with the large exception noted above, true to history. I highly recommend it.