Some years ago, I read John Lukacs’, Five Days in London, based on the transcripts of the War Cabinet meetings from May 24 to May 28, 1940. In those critical five days, the Churchill led cabinet took the decision to fight on in the face of seemingly insurmountable military odds. This was indeed Winston Churchill’s finest “hour”. His greatest contribution to Western civilization was not that he “won” the war; rather, that he did not lose the war. And by refusing to enter into peace negotiations and thereby concede totalitarian control of all continental Europe, Churchill laid the basis for the later liberation of Western Europe.
The film Darkest Hour is fine drama and well-acted. Yet one cannot escape the feeling that the film is melodrama rather than a strict rendition of the historical record. Leaving aside the obviously fictional tube ride by Churchill, where he gauges popular opinion, (as if the real Churchill needed to talk to ordinary commuters to assuage his self-doubts), the main characters almost ring true, but do not entirely.
Gary Oldman as Churchill, well deserves the accolades for his portrayal. Of course, nobody could be better than the late Robert Hardy. Yet even leaving that aside, I had moments of doubt, not on account of the acting, I may say. Is there any evidence for the scene in which Churchill sits on his bed in a slough of misery and self-dought, needing to be propped up by his wife and the King? We do know that Churchill suffered from “black dog” depressions. But these occurred during periods of inactivity, not in periods of crisis and furious endeavour. All the historical evidence points to Churchill thriving during crises, and certainly, during this darkest hour. The film’s diversion into a form of psychodrama is nonsensical.
Paul Collits: Our Darkening Hour
Lord Halifax, portrayed by Stephen Dillane, is a steely eyed hectoring protagonist. One is left wondering why such a character would have passed up the opportunity to become Prime Minister when the position was his for the taking. After all, he was preferred by the Conservative Party establishment, Neville Chamberlain, and indeed, the King. We are told in the film that the Labour Party, led by Clement Attlee, would only join a coalition under Winston Churchill and nobody else. But the historical record says otherwise. In fact, Halifax was acceptable. The film’s depiction of Halifax, and to a lesser extent, Neville Chamberlain, strays from the historic record.
Yes, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, favoured the exploration of peace talks. Certainly, if he, not Churchill, had become Prime Minister, we might have seen a negotiated peace of some description — and a very different world today. Nor can we say that both parliament and the public would not have accepted a quasi-surrender in the face of impossible odds. In that sense, Halifax appeared as the man of reason and Churchill the hopeless romantic dreamer.
The real Lord Halifax was a far more tentative figure. He was quoted as saying, “Winston talks the most frightful rot”. On the other hand, he was no match for Winston Churchill in cabinet meetings and the shouting matches depicted in the film are dramatic license. He was a hesitant advocate. Certainly, he allowed his parliamentary understudy, Rab Butler, to pursue contacts with shadowy and, indeed, shady figures. But over those five critical days, Halifax became increasingly isolated in the cabinet and was quietly talked out of any thought of resignation. Churchill vetoed Butler’s nefarious diplomatic pursuits. Contrary to the film, Chamberlain expressed little or no support for Halifax’s position. Nor is there any evidence of plotting by Halifax and Chamberlain to bring down Churchill.
King George VI, as played by Ben Mendelsohn, is very close to the historic record. Initial doubts and prejudices are soon succeeded by an honourable support of and an increasing closeness to Churchill.
Gary Oldman’s rendition of Churchill’s famous “We will fight on the beaches” speech serves as both the climax of and conclusion to the film. His is a truly awe-inspiring performance which stirs emotions nearly 78 years after the darkest hour.
Finally, whilst one can quibble some of the dramatic license, we are left with the fundamental question: what might the British Government have decided in that darkest hour in the absence of Winston Churchill?
I suspect the majority would have followed Lord Halifax, a decent and honourable man, in his quest for peace negotiations with Adolf Hitler. Prime Minister Halifax, with the support of a probable majority, would have pursued what he believed was a rational policy. Only an atypical romantic like Churchill could have rallied the nation and saved Western civilisation.