In Re: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour goes into general release this Friday, but its early release in selected theaters, presumably for Oscar promotion purposes, has generated considerable controversy, which likely helps its Oscar prospects. Kyle Smith hated the film over at NRO (“An Injustice to Winston Churchill”), as did the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last and Sonny Bunch on the “Substandand” podcast (though John Podhoretz liked it in the Standard’s print edition review, which was a bit of a surprise as John usually takes a close critical eye to historical films that might be out of balance—see his critical review last spring of Dunkirk for example). Roger Simon emailed to say that he turned it off in disgust about two-thirds of the way through (as a member of the Motion Picture Academy, he had access to a “screener” DVD, which made me jealous).

And then there’s our own Scott Johnson’s “Darkest Two Hours,” where he argues “The film reduces Churchill to a quivering jellyfish with remarkable oratorical gifts. Here the tight historical focus of the film serves the fabricated story line. . . The thing is so stupid it made me want to blubber.”

When I finally caught up with the movie last week in Los Angeles it took all of my restraint to keep from yelling out at the screen—inaccuracies begin with the very first scene about the May 9 debate in the House of Commons—and I left the theater completely annoyed, requiring a couple of stiff whiskeys to calm down about it. But then a strange thing happened. I started thinking about the movie, breaking down its parts, analyzing the intent and effect of its improvisations and inventions, and after literally tossing and turning in bed all night, by the next morning I had . . . changed my mind.

I now think Darkest Hour is a great movie, and a genuine achievement, particularly for non-specialists. Not perfect, not without grounds for complaint and criticism; there are several elements of the film where I think the sacrifice of accuracy was unnecessary to be supremely dramatic. But the distortions of the truth are not fatal as they are in some other Churchill movies (like last summer’s Churchill, which is an abomination), but in fact are in service of getting some big things right. Churchill experts are likely to be annoyed with many of the liberties the director Joe Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have taken, but I think I get what they were after, and the result is a film that will stand the test of time.

Tomorrow I’ll have a long article coming out online at the Weekly Standard that explores why it is so difficult to make a good movie about Churchill. With the exception of The Wilderness Years with Robert Hardy and The Gathering Storm on HBO with Albert Finney, nearly every Churchill movie is a disappointment when not a downright failure. Look up Richard Burton’s 1974 version of The Gathering Storm on YouTube if you want to see a complete embarrassment.

There’s so much to say about this that Scott and I are aiming to tape a podcast tomorrow to go through it all in detail and perhaps argue a bit (stay tuned for future announcements), but for now I want to look closely at one of the three major elements or themes of the film, which is the suggestion that Churchill drew his inspiration and found his voice at the last from the people rather than from within himself. This is the purpose of the wholly ahistorical scene of Churchill taking a ride on the London underground where ordinary Londoners encourage him to fight on, no matter what. No such event ever took place, though the film sets up this fictional scene with an early reference to the fact that Churchill only ever tried to ride the underground once in his life—during the General Strike of 1926—and got lost. In the film, Churchill gets off at the right stop this time—Westminster—no longer lost, in other words, after which he gives his crucial “choking in our own blood” speech to the full Cabinet. (A speech, incidentally, which was not known about publicly until the 1980s, a story I’ll explain in the podcast.)

While the scene is a complete contrivance, perhaps in a larger sense it is not that ahistorical. But it would require jumping ahead in the actual timeline to understand this point. After the Blitz started in September, Churchill often did visit the sites of the worst destruction, where crowds would cheer him, and offer exhortations “Give it ‘em back!” The theme “London can take it,” and the lately revived meme “Keep calm and carry on” arose at this time. It is this aspect of the film that most annoyed the New York Times’s supercilious movie critic A.O. Scott, as I previously noted here. Worth repeating the key excerpt from Scott’s execrable review:

And like “The King’s Speech,” Mr. Wright’s film is a serviceable enough historical drama. But like “Dunkirk,” it falls back on an idealized notion of the English character that feels, in present circumstances, less nostalgic than downright reactionary, and as empty as those ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” internet memes. Rather than invite the audience to think about the difficulties of democratic governance at a time of peril, the filmmakers promote passivity and hero-worship, offering not so much a Great Man Theory as a great man fetish. . .

Churchill’s resolve, like the bravery of the soldiers, airmen and ordinary Britons in “Dunkirk,” is offered not as a rebuke to the current generation, but rather as a sop, an easy and complacent fantasy of Imperial gumption and national unity. Standing up to the Nazis, an undeniably brave and good thing to have done, is treated like a moral check that can be cashed in perpetuity. “Darkest Hour” is proud of its hero, proud of itself and proud to have come down on the right side of history nearly 80 years after the fact. It wants you to share that pride, and to claim a share of it. But we have nothing to be proud of.

Here I think it is time to invoke a first-hand witness—my British great aunt Florence Trevanion, who wrote faithfully throughout her life to my British-born émigré grandfather who lived in Los Angeles. I dusted off the stack of letters in the family archives, and a few excerpts make clear what a total horse’s ass A.O. Scott is, and also provide some background for understanding the theme of Churchill’s relation to public sentiment in Darkest Hour. The first letter here is dated 10 May 1940—the day Churchill became prime minister, and whose envelope bears the seal of the censor who reviewed it:

10 May 1940: Florence to Norman Hayward:

Things have become really serious now and the war has started in earnest. You already know that as I write this today Holland and Belgium have been invaded, and that glorious city of Brussels is being bombed. . .

We are daily becoming face to face with real danger, and more so as our government has been changed to the man Hitler hates like fury—Winston Churchill is now prime minister. His methods are different from our dear Chamberlain’s more gentle ones, and Hitler knows it. . .

As for ourselves, our little family are all very calm and not agitated at what might happen.

The next letter is dated 2 June, addressed to my grandmother:

Dear Mary:

. . . Each day is full of stirring events, such as will never come again (we hope) in our lifetime. . . The bombing of Paris has started, and soon our turn is expected. . .

You have no idea how very serious things are for us here. The Prime Minister has made a speech in the House today, in which he has told us about the events in France and how he had expected to have to give the nation the news that the whole of our British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army were done for—thank God they have been rescued, by last week’s marvelous evacuation, and by fiercely fighting every inch of the way. But—the future looks ominous. The invasion of this country which we are all expecting will be terrific, and while I don’t shrink from bombing, if it comes to street fighting and being slaughtered in the way the refugees on the continent have been, my heart sinks. The Prime Minister does not mince matters, and I know by the serious look on the faces of my friends who have high commands that the outlook is desperate and we may all be fighting here.

Tomorrow I’ll cut the speech out of one of our more reliable papers (The Times) and send it to you, so that you can read it all.

And again, 17 August 1940:

Mary dear,

The time has come when for us the war is really at our doorstep, as the raids on London have started—although not yet with full force, as we expect they will be terrific presently.

Hitler & co must be getting wild with rage at getting checkmated like this. Here, our summer passing rapidly, and they have been able to do so little to Britain.

So far Hitler has accomplished everything he said he would and it has all gone his way all according to plan, even to entering Paris a day ahead of the date he said he would. He announced that he would have “brought England to her knees” by August 15th, and on that day I wonder what he felt, and if he knew we were all making jokes here at his expense. At one lunch party, some official function to do with the French, there was his chair, as he said he’d be in London by then, and also one for Mussolini, with their names on both left empty!

There have been terrific raids and air battles 300 miles along the coast all this week, and on Thursday was the start of visiting London. Yesterday we had to take cover twice. It is a queer feeling realizing that we never know what may happen to us from one hour to another, knowing that a bomb may get us at any time, but we are all very calm over it.

The lies the Germans spread, the news their wireless pours out that we are in a complete state of distress here is, to us, merely amusing, and I wish Hitler could see the way the British sense of humour is to the fore, by the newspaper men writing up the number of German planes brought down in the form of a cricket score. . .

These are hectic days here and for all our men but everyone is tranquil and the morale is amazing. Such a hill for Hitler to come up against—something different!!

I don’t know if she sent any letters in September, when the blitz on London began in earnest, but I suspect not, as the next thing I find in chronological sequence is this one-sentence postcard, postmarked October 18, 1940:

Just a line to let you know we are still alive and are well so far.

Fond love, Florence Trevanion

There are several more letters like this from the rest of 1940, 1941, and into 1942, telling the story of daily life, the rigors of rationing, evacuating to the country, watching for falling shrapnel in London, her husband—too old for active duty—working nights as a bomb spotter for the Home Guard, and so forth. Then there’s a long gap in the letters until Summer 1944, after D-Day. I don’t know if there were letters that have been lost, but this one from 23 July 1944, after V-2 rockets had fallen in her London neighborhood, doing considerable damage, shows the enduring spirit of Londoners that A.O. Scott finds embarrassing or contemptible:

Mary dear,

. . . I feel I must tell you again, as I said last week, that your American soldiers in London are so good and are on the spot at once when a bomb has crashed near them to help get out the buried people. They are amazed at the courage of Londoners and have said they had no idea when they had heard the phrase “London can take it” just what the people were taking. They have had such an eye opener as to how awful this war on civilians is, and many of them have lost their lives in it with us. What the world will owe to Britain for sticking this out—when we were all alone—can never be appreciated because you have to be in it to know, but your men will have something to tell you when they get home. If we had not held out, this dreadful brutal Nazism would have spread over the world, and your beautiful California, which as Norman [my grandfather] says doesn’t take the war seriously (only because they are so far away that they can’t) would, in time, cease to have the lovely peaceful life it is used to. . .

Well, the news has taken a vastly interesting turn. Personally I am rather glad Hitler was not killed, because while he is there insisting on keeping supreme command we profit from his mistakes. He is such a conceited brute with his intuitions that it helps us. Perhaps if he had not insisted on taking control in the Russian campaign things might have gone better for Germany, so we must be thankful that he rushes madly along the wrong track to our benefit. Anyway, things could not have gone worse for him on that front.

This last paragraph tracks closely with something Churchill said earlier: “Never fear, the German soldiers are good, and so are their commanders, but we have one good friend over there, Corporal Hitler; he’ll keep us, you mark my words.”

Anyway, there’s a lot more like this in this large cache of letters. Maybe I should do a longer series?

In a rare moment of modesty in 1954, Churchill remarked:

I was very glad that Mr Attlee described my speeches in the war as expressing the will not only of Parliament but of the whole nation. Their will was resolute and remorseless, and as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar. I also hope that I sometimes suggested to the lion the right places to use his claws.

I think this is what Wright and McCarten were trying to get at with their fictional underground scene, and the juxtaposition in the film with the weakness and half-heartedness of the Conservative Party grandees like Halifax and Chamberlain. The people were better than their political leadership. Certainly the film is dead on that a majority of the Conservative Party was unenthusiastic about Churchill as prime minister, and that his position in his first month in office was highly precarious (though the film carries this too far through a couple of invented details). As I noted in one of my books about Churchill:

[Cabinet secretary] John Colville wrote: “In May 1940 the mere thought of Churchill as Prime Minister sent a cold chill down the spines of the staff working at 10 Downing Street. . . Seldom can a Prime Minister have taken office with the Establishment. . . so dubious of the choice and so prepared to find its doubts justified.” “This is not the last war administration by a long way,” a leading member of Churchill’s own party remarked. Another Tory MP, Peter Eckersley, wrote: “Winston won’t last five months! Opposition from Tories is already beginning.” MP David Kier wrote in his diary a month after Churchill took office: “The more I think of the position, the more uncertain the future of Winston’s present Government is.”

Darkest Hour gets this aspect of the story just right, if not with perfect historical accuracy. The fact that we’ve had a different impression over the decades is party of Churchill’s own making. He mistold the story of that first month in office in his memoirs for a number of reasons (in part so as not to besmirch even more the reputation of many eminent Englishmen). Darkest Hour should prompt a closer look at that key period, and concentrate our minds on the difficulties of political life.

Everyone go see Darkest Hour. Now I can’t wait to see it again.

P.S. I haven’t said anything about Gary Oldman’s performance. If you have five minutes, worth taking in his comments about the unalloyed greatness of Churchill in this conversation with several other A-list actors, such as Tom Hanks (who reveals he knows little about Churchill), James Franco, and Willem DeFoe. You can see the skepticism in their looks when Oldman says the only comparable person to Churchill is Lincoln, and the other British actor in the bunch (who I don’t recognize) is clearly a Churchill critic—but Oldman stomps on him.

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