I am currently reading The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson, the finest writer of history around in this historian’s humble opinion. If past events excite your imagination, I encourage you to read his other books as well. His most recent work inspired me to go back and watch Darkest Hour, a film that covers roughly the same first few days as the book I am currently perusing. The old cliché is that the book is better than the movie, and while the movie is not based on this book, historically speaking, the book is vastly superior to the movie. Not that Darkest Hour is bad. It is one of those dramatizations of times gone by that both entertain and frustrate.
What I am trying to say here is that there is what actually happened, as in The Splendid and the Vile, and the story in Darkest Hour. Not that the latter gets it entirely wrong, though. Sure enough, as we see early on, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) replaces Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on May 10, 1940. This takes place as a result of Chamberlain’s perceived complacency in not only leading his nation in the early days of World War II, but letting Adolf Hitler rise to European dominance in the first place. Churchill comes to office resolved to stand up to the German war machine, having warned of Hitler’s danger throughout the 1930s. Forcefully urging caution in the face of Churchill’s bravado is Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), a politician who many thought would have been a better candidate for Britain’s highest political office. What is making matters worse is the fall of France and the encirclement of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the beaches of Dunkirk across the English Channel. This basically constituted the bulk of the British army, and if it were to be destroyed it would mean that negotiations (abhorrent to Churchill) with Hitler for peace would have to commence. As the German army tightens its grip on the BEF trapped at Dunkirk, Halifax increases his demands for peace talks, threatening to resign in a move that would undermine Churchill’s government. Yet a miracle occurs when Churchill musters as many boats as possible and the majority of BEF manages to slip back to England. This bolsters the Prime Minister, and further buoyed by the resolve of his countrymen that he encounters on a ride on the London Underground, Churchill goes before Parliament and gives the speech for which history remembers him best, pledging to fight on the beaches and wherever else warfare could be conducted. Spoiler alert: the British and the rest of the Allies win World War II, though that is not here pictured.
Darkest Hour is quite dramatic and exciting, but that is also part of the problem. For example, Halifax was never as antagonistic towards Churchill as the film suggests. Every movie needs a bad guy, but is Hitler too obvious of a choice? I guess you could not have the stirring verbal sparring between Halifax and Churchill featured here as to whether or not Britain should pursue peace if the actual history had been presented. Perhaps the most glaring historical error, though, is the inclusion of Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) as Churchill’s private secretary. In actuality, that position was filled by a man named John Colville. Layton was real alright, but she came along after the events depicted in the film and while she certainly worked closely with Churchill, she was a personal typist. As such, many of the wonderfully filmed and acted moments could not have happened. Perhaps they needed a young and vibrant female lead? And yet the emotional core really is Churchill, and Oldman does a masterful job (even with all the prosthetics he was forced to wear) of conveying a leader with the weight of the world on his shoulders. A better choice might have been Clementine “Clemmie” Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill’s rather posh wife who was in real life every bit her husband’s intellectual equal. And despite her age at the time, she still carried herself well. I do not wish to detract from the quality of movie-making contained herein. Truly, Churchill was every bit the dynamic leader here portrayed, Dunkirk did happen, and he made that wonderful speech. I am just puzzled by the specific historical decisions made.
Had the focus on the moves made by the German army under Hitler’s leadership been more of the focus in Darkest Hour, there would have been more of a Catholic angle to discuss here. I say this because of how awful the proposition of war is to a Faith founded by the Prince of Peace (Crusades excepting). Still, Hitler made the decision to fight that much easier, and this was driven home over and over as World War II dragged on. The film seems to trade on the idea that most people would be familiar with how bad was the German dictator, and thus he is more of an abstraction in it. Indeed, the war itself is barely noticeable. But if you like political intrigue and drama (albeit some of it complete fabrications), then this is the film for you.