Darkest two hours revisited

I gave my quick take on the highly praised Churchill film Darkest Hour in my post “Darkest two hours.” By contrast, Steve Hayward declared the film “great” in this post and put it in the context of other depictions of Churchill on film in a valuable Weekly Standard column.

In praising the film, Steve joins other esteemed Churchill experts who have written about it (Larry Arnn, Victor Davis Hanson, and Andrew Roberts). Steve quoted Roberts on the film in “Andrew Roberts for the win.”

After reading the screenplay of the film that has been posted online, after seeing the film a second time, after reading every account of Churchill in May 1940 that I have in my library, I participated with Steve in a podcast that allowed me to elaborate on my reservations about the film. Steve called our podcast “Shedding light on Darkest Hour.”

The film is worth seeing. Gary Oldman’s performance in the film is astonishing. One aspect of Oldman’s performance that leaped out at me the second time around was Oldman’s intense admiration for Churchill. He loves the man. He seeks to convey his love and admiration for Churchill in his performance. You can’t miss it.

It is unfortunate, however, that more people will now “learn” about Churchill from this film than any other source. They will take the film at face value. That is regrettable because the film overlays an ahistorical contemporary interpretation of events on the facts as we know them. Watching the film the second time around, at a matinee in a suburban arthouse theater full of an older crowd, I wanted to scream at the screen during the unbearably stupid subway ride in which Churchill supposedly rediscovers his fortitude.

Andrew Roberts has now been provoked into writing a second column about the film. Published today in the Sunday Times, Roberts’s second take is “Have no doubt — this was Churchill’s most certain hour.” I don’t agree with the slack Roberts cuts the film, but Roberts says enough in his unamused account here to allow the intelligent reader to make up his own mind:

Even the ludicrous scene in which Churchill goes down into the London Underground to try to ascertain the will of the people over the question of whether to fight on against Hitler was acceptable, on the grounds that Hollywood needed to include diversity in a movie that was otherwise going to be dominated by white, middle-class, middle-aged males.

Yet now that Anthony McCarten, the film’s screenwriter, has attempted to justify the scene on political and historical grounds, rather than just as a politically correct necessity, it is time to point out that in every single statement he has made about Churchill in May 1940 he is completely factually incorrect. Fortunately, this does not detract one iota from Darkest Hour, whose heart is in emphatically the right place when it comes to the glory of Churchill.

Churchill has not been doing well at the movies recently….That’s why it is such a relief to watch Churchill depicted in Darkest Hour as lovable, decent and brave. However, now that McCarten has stated that the scene on the Tube is “in some ways the most truthful scene in the whole movie”, he must be challenged.

“We are very proud of that scene,” he goes on, ”because we thought it brought together all the ways and reasons in which Churchill finally made up his mind that he would not transact with the Nazis. People forget that he was full of doubt about this, but it was when he spoke to the people that all the other factors in his mind came together. It was the working class that convinced him. He was a working-class hero. And it was very characteristic of him to go off and disappear and then pop up somewhere else, so this is why we did it this way.”

What rot. Churchill was not in any doubt whatsoever about the need to fight. He did not “finally make up his mind that he would not transact with the Nazis” in May 1940; he was utterly opposed to making peace with them, and for a decade had been their most vigorous opponent in Britain. Over four fraught days of war cabinet meetings in 1940, from May 25 to 28 inclusive, he used every means to avoid having to go down the route of negotiating with Hitler.

Although Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, wanted to find out via the Italians what Hitler’s peace terms might be, Churchill repeatedly said that he was opposed to the idea. Churchill made two statements that, if wrenched out of context — which McCarten does on both occasions — sound as if he would consider Hitler’s terms if they were reasonable. When read in context, however, it is clear he was attempting to keep his fellow war cabinet members — Clement Attlee, Neville Chamberlain and Arthur Greenwood — onside by sounding as reasonable as possible, thus outmanoeuvring Halifax. No serious historian believes anything else, and the war cabinet minutes have now been in the public domain for nearly half a century.

Nor was Churchill in any way influenced by the views of the working class, except insofar as its political leaders, Attlee and Greenwood, supported him in not seeking terms (something the film does not make clear). Otherwise, the working class was not consulted, any more than any other class was. If the public had been, they might not have given the full-throated cry that McCarten assumes. No fewer than 11.6m Britons signed the Peace Ballot in 1935, and huge pacifist meetings drew thousands throughout the Phoney War.

The British Union of Fascists and the Communist Party opposed the war, and there were plenty of working-class members of both. The strikes in the factories producing Hurricanes and Spitfires in 1940 and 1941 also suggest that solidarity among the working class for Churchill’s vision was no more to be trusted than it was among any other class.

Churchill did not follow anyone in his opposition to the Nazis. He led it. The Underground scene belittles him by implying that he was so doubtful that he could not give his inspiring speeches without confirmation from others….

Here is the good news. Roberts’s biography Churchill: Walking With Destiny is forthcoming. The bad news is that few will read it compared to the number seeing the film.

The title of Roberts’s forthcoming biography of Churchill is taken from the magisterial final paragraph of Churchill’s The Gathering Storm. It too reflects poorly on the film:

During these last crowded days of the political crisis my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3.a.m., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Eleven years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary Party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years and been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.

I quoted from this paragraph in the podcast with Steve. The film gives us a contemporary dream of Churchill. As Churchill says here, however, facts are better than dreams.

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