A film for our time?
We continue to be fascinated by Winston Churchill. We face nothing like the same peril as a nation as in 1940, but perhaps we sense something missing from our leaders. A new film sheds some light on why. Christians on the Left was invited to an early showing.
When this country faces times of crisis and opposition, it is usual to hear calls for some ‘Dunkirk spirit’. We still herald that great retreat of 1940, made in the face of considerable odds. It was, as Wellington remarked of the victory at Waterloo, “the nearest run thing”, not just in terms of rescuing British and French soldiers but because the nation was itself was saved. Disaster at Dunkirk would have seen Britain without much of an army and even more vulnerable to invasion. The stakes were considerable and to be a leader at that time was to be under intense pressure.
Christopher Nolan’s film released last year, Dunkirk, focused on the heroism on that beach and at sea. Darkest Hour focuses on what was happening in Whitehall and in particular on the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. It stands out amongst the considerable canon of Churchill films.
Darkest Hour begins with the Norway debate in the House of Commons, which took place in early May 1940. The Norway campaign was a catalogue of errors, with soldiers and supplies landed in different places, ill defined objectives, and little air cover. It came to represent a lack of grip in government, for which Neville Chamberlain was held responsible. Chamberlain won the adjournment debate but with a considerably reduced majority and resigned, to be replaced by Churchill. Churchill was by no means universally loved by the Conservative Party even though his appointment was popular in the country. Yet he became Prime Minister just as Germany launched its invasion of Holland, Belgium, and France. As the Germans proved successful and the United States remained aloof, Britain became increasingly alone and at risk. Defiance was one option. Negotiation appeared to be another.
Darkest Hour follows Churchill, played well by Gary Oldman, as he deals with unfolding developments in France and with cabinet members and military leaders yet to be convinced of his leadership abilities. His determination that Britain should fight on was driven by his understanding of British identity and freedom and by his judgement that in reality there could be no faithful compromise with Hitler. Yet for a brief period he did entertain efforts by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax to explore negotiations, via the Italians, essentially to buy both military and political time. Once the Dunkirk evacuation appeared to be proceeding well, Churchill was able to exert his full authority, telling the full cabinet at the end of a powerful speech, “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 on the ground.”
It seems most Churchill dramas are compelled to include the same Churchill tropes and it can be entertaining to check these off as they appear. Churchill dictating naked in the bath; new secretary/typist reduced to tears but subsequently experiencing his kinder side and coming to love him; his wife Clementine complaining about his spending Clementine cautioning him against treating people too harshly; Churchill's 'black dog' periods of depression; established colleagues and military officers whispering doubts; the whisky and cigars; Churchill meeting 'ordinary' people, affecting all emotionally; the classic speeches. Darkest Hour is no different and yet most of the time gets it right, using the tropes as signals and avoiding mawkishness. It is also unafraid of extended scenes of Churchill giving speeches, weaving them into the drama and taking a risk with some cinema-goers. Indeed, even much of the dialogue is faithful to the written records of the time.
The film most departs from history in its suggestion that Neville Chamberlain was actively scheming for Churchill's downfall. This probably maligns Chamberlain because the working relationship between the two men remained on good terms and especially during such perilous times it stretches the imagination to believe that Chamberlain would have acted in this way. In reality there were differences over policy and the extent to which the government should consider negotiations with Germany but Chamberlain ultimately supported Churchill.
Darkest Hour is a fine film. But why do we continue to be enthralled by this person? The combination of his leadership qualities, and weaknesses, with his powerful oratory, at a time when all was at stake diminishes his successors in comparison. Likewise, his sense of this country living its own ongoing story in which we each have a part to play has no parallel today. An overarching narrative is dismissed, yet is no less needed, especially since we face great uncertainty about our place in the world and the future of democracies. Everyone in politics, and not least a Christian on the Left, needs to rediscover that combination of political ability, effective leadership, and vision. And soon.
This article was first published on the Christians on the Left site on 5 January 2018.