Culture

Winston Churchill: The Man Who Saved Civilization

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Photo: Jack English/Focus Features)
Darkest Hour is an extraordinarily deft and moving depiction of the storied leader.

This year’s best movie about a spirited band of resisters fighting an empire of evil isn’t the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise, but Darkest Hour, an extraordinarily deft and moving depiction of the outset of Winston Churchill’s prime ministership during World War II.

Cabinet meetings and political intrigue aren’t the most natural cinematic material, although the underlying event in Darkest Hour is one of the most dramatic in modern history: one man standing defiant before the onslaught of an enemy army, rallying his nation with his willpower and words.

Discounting for Hollywood embellishments, the movie is worthy of this story, which is high praise indeed. In particular, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is so compelling that the Academy Award for best actor should be signed, sealed, and delivered to him right now.

Upon taking power, Churchill faced disaster on every front in the war, yet he bucked internal political pressure to explore a deal with Adolf Hitler. In his marvelous history of this crucial interlude, Five Days in London: May 1940, the great historian John Lukacs writes, “Then and there he saved Britain and Europe, and Western civilization.”

By his account years later, Churchill felt a sense of relief at being put in charge: “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.” But his bodyguard reported that when he congratulated Churchill on his ascension and noted the enormous task ahead, the new prime minister replied, tears in his eyes: “God alone knows how great it is. I hope it is not too late.”

In 1937, Churchill’s reputation had been at a low ebb, but he recovered on the strength of his acuteness about Hitler. When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, Churchill gave a speech in the House of Commons declaring that “we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.” Britain’s position slid downward from there.

The same day that Churchill became prime minister, Hitler’s army invaded Western Europe in earnest, sweeping all before it and eventually trapping the British at Dunkirk.

Given the circumstances, the desire of Viscount Halifax, Churchill’s inherited foreign secretary, to explore peace terms wasn’t unreasonable, just profoundly wrong. Lukacs writes that Halifax knew “how to adjust his mind to circumstances rather than attempt to adjust the circumstances to his ideas.” Churchill thought differently. A contest ensued between the two of them in the War Cabinet, where the new prime minister’s position wasn’t unassailable.

Churchill opposed any deal. He was convinced, Lukacs notes, “that such a settlement, under any conditions, could not be counter-balanced by a maintenance, let alone a guarantee, of British liberty and independence.” Churchill bent a little toward Halifax when he initially felt it politically necessary, but ground him down and ultimately outmaneuvered him.

Churchill tapped into and built up the resolve of the British people.

In a key episode, Churchill went to the larger Cabinet and won overwhelming approval for his stalwartness. Here, he made his famous statement, “We shall go and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.”

After the war, Churchill wrote of the reaction of his colleagues: “Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and came running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation, I should have been hurled out of office.”

He didn’t falter. Churchill tapped into and built up the resolve of the British people. “There was a white glow,” he wrote later, “overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.” Hitler wouldn’t neutralize the British, who escaped Dunkirk and kept up the fight.

The so-called Great Man theory of history might be overly simplistic, but history indisputably has its great men. Darkest Hour does justice to one of them.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. Copyright © 2017 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

Most Popular

U.S.

The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Religion

Billy Graham: Neither Prophet nor Theologian

Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some and there are many "miracles around us today, including television and airplanes." Graham was no theologian. Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said "a prophet hath no honor in his own country." Prophets take adversarial ... Read More
Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More