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Darkest Hour: More Than a Historical Film Drama

By Denis Bright

The portrayal of Winston Churchill’s political counter-offensive to Hitler’s blitzkrieg in May 1940 has attracted good cinema audiences. Rolling Stone magazine describes the lead actor, Gary Oldham, as one of the most outstanding contemporary performers. He has an acclaimed profile from previous roles including Sid Vicious (In Sid and Nancy) and Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK).

Credits must be extended to the English director Joe Wright with a record of weighty productions such as Pride and Prejudice, Hanna, Anna Karenina and Pan.

For Universal Studios, the distribution of Darkest Hour was a financial risk. It has paid off well. Even the official trailer from Universal Studios has attracted numerous and largely favourable comments.

From the Movie to the Politics of Imperial Survival

Despite the threat of imminent invasion of Britain in May 1940, the War Cabinet’s temporary dalliance with peace overtures to Hitler through Mussolini came at the right moment to permit the tactical withdrawal of over 300,000 British and allied troops.

In her secondary role of Lisa Bruce as Churchill’s private secretary, Elizabeth Layton, adds an empathetic extension to the historical drama. Elizabeth’s brother is killed near Dunkirk. She continues to type on regardless to support a quite demanding Winston Churchill.

As a stalwart of the British Empire in a civilizing force for humanity, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) is capably portrayed as the essential leader in the Darkest Hour of the British Empire. The rhetorical flourishes of Churchill’s Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat Speech to the Commons on 13 May and the rallying cry of the Fight Them on the Beaches Commitment are incorporated into the movie script. Audiences are free to evaluate the appeal of populist rhetoric in emergency wartime situations.

The movie script claims that absolute commitment to the survival of Empire had strong grassroots support despite some hesitation from royal and elite political circles in Britain as the prospect of a German occupation became more likely.

Churchill tests out public opinion in an impromptu journey on the London Underground. Could this sounding of public opinion really have happened on the way to a meeting of the Outer Cabinet and an oration in the House of Commons that had not been cleared by a scheduled meeting of the War Cabinet?

How did Britain find itself in this desperate situation in May 1940 when some of Churchill’s own colleagues and military advisors sought a peace deal with Hitler?

Historically, it was this Empire First Strategy which prevented British statesmen from warming to a more inclusive role for Germany in international relations prior to 1914. Churchill was a part of the rallying cries to strengthen the Empire during his early years as a colonial military officer. Such broader biographical and historical issues are of course inappropriate for a movie that focuses on the events of May 1940.

Like our contemporary Donald Trump, Winston Churchill was always steadfast in commitment to an Empire First outlook. American author Gore Vidal (1925-2012) also traced the long saga of an evolving American Empire in a series of seven novels from the earliest phases of nation-building to the Cold War Period. Britain itself would become an integral part of this global strategic empire in the post-1945 era as the financial burden of maintaining an independent nuclear arsenal became too overwhelming. These strategic ties with the U.S. had the complete endorsement of Churchill himself during the Cold War era.

Churchill’s own advocacy of Empire First Strategies was acted out in his own military career in the late nineteenth century. Even more than Donald Trump, Churchill’s family background had prepared him for conservative leadership roles.

As the son of a Conservative MP and Viceroy to Ireland, Churchill was prepared for political leadership through military service in India, Sudan and the Boer War with the ongoing emotional support of his wife Clementine, as capably portrayed by Kristen Scott Thomas.

Churchill’s aristocratic family roots as the second son of a Duke from Blenheim Palace was topped up by this early military career. These stars aligned themselves at the Khaki election of 1900 when Churchill became the second successful candidate in the multi-member constituency of Oldham in Lancashire at a time when young veterans from the Boer War had an added appeal.

Churchill displayed very little liberalism in his own decision-making as a Liberal Cabinet Minister. This is shown in his handling of the Cambrian Colliery Dispute, the crackdown on the Suffragette Movement and Britain’s support for the White Army in Russia after the 1917 Revolution.

Churchill also spent a hundred days on the Western Front in 1916 as Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Scottish Fusiliers. This practical demonstration of patriotism by example assisted with a 78.2 per cent mandate at the Dundee by-election in 1917.

To his credit, Churchill was an astute opponent of aspects of the harsh peace settlement imposed upon Germany at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 which his own Coalition Liberal Party strongly endorsed. Churchill was Secretary for War and Secretary of State for Air but outside the War Cabinet where he may have achieved greater influence over the final drafts of the Treaty of Versailles.

Electoral defeat in Dundee followed in 1922. However, Churchill was back in the House of Commons at the general election on 29 October 1924 for the constituency of Epping closer to London. Churchill’s quest for a new constituency encouraged him to stand as an unsuccessful candidate for the by-election in Westminster Abbey on 19 March 1924. This involved a change in political colours from Liberal to Constitutionalist then Unionist and Conservative, all in the space of decade.

A change in constituencies to Woodford in Essex became necessary for Churchill in 1945 when Epping had become too marginal. It was held by Labour for one term. In the leafy Woodford as a Conservative member, Churchill continued to represent his constituents until his ninetieth year. He did not contest the 1964 general election when Wanstead and Woodford were combined due to population changes and his own political exhaustion as the British electorate tilted to the Left under Harold Wilson as Prime Minister (1964-70).

Significance of Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the product of New Zealand’s filmmaker and playwright, Anthony McCarten (born 1961). He received acclaim for script-writing in Ladies Night and The Theory of Everything.

Just what motivated Anthony McCarten’s interest in Winston Churchill in Britain’s Darkest Hour invites further speculation. In a YouTube Interview with Anthony McCarten for Hollywood Reporter, there is discussion of his attitudes towards cinematography. Anthony McCarten acknowledges his commitment to the fine-line between the enactment of history, public education and popular entertainment.

David Smith of The Guardian notes that The Darkest Hour reflects the new-found interest in political leadership which has been generated in the American psyche by the rise of Donald Trump (The Guardian Online 26 November 2017).

Nostalgia for the Churchillian style of international relations reconstruction of history is still alive and well in the Trump White House:

On his first full day in the White House, Donald Trump returned a now infamous bust of Churchill to the Oval Office. He subsequently told Theresa May: “It’s a great honour to have Winston Churchill back.”

The finely tuned mind-set of Anthony McCarten is unlikely to be Churchillian in political style

Darkest Hour is perhaps a subtle warning against following Empires that are on a downward spiral but there is substance in the script for all shades of political persuasion.

Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting pragmatic public policies that are compatible with contemporary globalization.


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  1. Jaquix

    I’ve seen the movie and thought it was brilliant. Lead actor fantastic. Was enthralled from beginning to end. No matter his other failings, Winnie did what nobody else was prepared to do. And took the people with him. America stayed “neutral”. Until Pearl Harbour. Google YouTube for Churchill’s speech to US Congress December 1941 for an example of his oratory skills.

  2. John Kelly

    As a WW2 tragic, I watched this film with great interest and wholeheartedly recommend it. The characters and the script gave me an insight into the desperation experienced by Churchill at England’s unpreparedness for war. The Dunkirk issue being the most difficult to manage in the early stages. While, I have always had my suspicions about Churchill’s capabilities in leadership, he clearly was the man for his time, if only for the lack of any viable challenger. Halifax and Chamberlain would both have sued for peace in 1940 and bowed to the might of Hilter’s military superiority.
    Gary Oldman does a superb job and deserves an Oscar. An interesting side issue was Roosevelt’s initial unwillingness to help with aircraft, given an existing non-aggression agreement with Germany. I didn’t know about that. I did know, however, that some of America’s richest industrialists helped bankroll Hitler.

  3. Paul

    Thanks Denis for sharing this history!

    I look forward to checking out the movie soon. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. doctortrish47

    I hope it tells the story of how this warmonger sacrificed the Channel Islands to Germany to protect England. Menzies emulated this act by proposing to give the north of Australia to the Japanese across what was known as the Brisbane Line.

  5. diannaart

    If I see this movie, it will be to watch Gary Oldman’s performance more than any other reason. Have been a fan since he played Sid Vicious all those years ago (Sid and Nancy – love kills). His range is terrific, although he is especially entrancing as a baddie.

  6. Mia

    A good biographical perspective on Winston Churchill . The movie kept me interested from start to finish as I was unaware of those historical events.
    The article was a good overview of Churchill’s career – he was obviously the man required for those difficult times when England’s survival was at stake but ruthless and erratic at other times.

  7. Lalnama

    Great movie, reflecting this part of world history, well worth seeing

  8. 1petermcc

    An outstanding movie and I went in with high expectations because of Gary Oldman. It has a strong supporting cast too in Ben Mendlesohn and Kristen Scott Thomas but also great work from Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain, and Stephen Dillaine as Viscount Halifax.

    I’ve always been unsympathetic of Churchill but never considered the position he faced when he took the top job. Unwanted by his Party and risking a party revolt, 300,000 troops stuck in France facing capture by the Germans, an expected invasion as soon as the troops were surrendered. That’s usually when pollies let the girls have a turn as Leader.

    I was delighted to see Clemmie knocked it back when offered the until they corrected the role of Mrs Churchill. They didn’t fix all of it, but made good strides to addressing how important she was in supporting Winnie.

    Last year I saw the movie Dunkirk which was a very poor effort, and Churchill which was another outstanding flick. I guess I’m going along any time they do movies that cover WW2. Mark me down as a tragic too. 🙂

  9. Tess

    So the great statesman was also a compulsive political opportunist with no respect for the rights of trade unionists and Suffragettes?

  10. James

    I’m yet to go so this one but it looks interesting. Better to prevent wars with innovative foreign policies. 1940 was simply 50 years too late for appeasement with Germany.

  11. Chris

    Perhaps Universal Studios could do a sequel on Churchill’s 100 Day assignment to the Western Front in 1916 while in transition between two parliamentary posts.

  12. Stella

    Denis, I enjoyed reading your article about the film, Darkest Hour and finding out more about Churchill. Would like to watch it after reading your review. Thank you.

  13. Sue

    The politics of empire is a recipe for preparation for permanent warfare.
    Humanity must move towards more noble pursuits.Churchill was simply not a New Age leader.

  14. diannaart

    @ Sue

    I agree.

    Will anyone seeing this movie learn anything useful in terms of the immediate and long term cost of war?

    Short losses of innocent lives, the waste of resources , long term generational harm and the continuation of the big fat myth that war actually advances progress… the only people who progress are those giving the orders!

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