Culture

Winston Churchill and Britain’s Darkest Hour

After reading the many favorable reviews of Darkest Hour, I decided to see the film. I have to say that I was disappointed in how Churchill was portrayed.

The film’s plot centers around discussions in the British war cabinet, in late May of 1940, of the possibility of a negotiated peace with Hitler. Britain’s fortunes were then at their lowest ebb; France looked (and was) beaten, and it appeared that the bulk of the British Army would be captured at Dunkirk.

Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, wanted Britain to signal that it would be open to mediation by Italy and would at least entertain any serious terms that were offered. Churchill argued that once such discussions began, the logic of negotiations would pull Britain into accepting a state of vassalage to Germany, and that, at a minimum, discussions should be postponed until Britain had shown it could fight on alone if necessary.

Eventually Churchill made his case to the entire cabinet — the “outer” cabinet — which supported him at a meeting the film correctly portrays as the political climax of the struggle.

Both Churchill and Halifax were acting for reasons that were deeper than those they were willing to disclose. Halifax had been a notorious appeaser and might well have been willing to accept peace at too great a price. As for Churchill, everything about his character, background, experience, and temperament impelled him to fight on, whatever the odds and whatever the cost, and to believe that Britain would win if it persevered.

I don’t object to the film’s dramatizing this episode more, perhaps, than history warrants, but I part company with its portrayal of Churchill. In several early establishing scenes, the film shows Churchill as a bit of a dodderer, forgetting words and names, disconnected from the flow of daily events, rather uninformed as a leader, and dependent on one of his secretaries and his wife Clementine not just to curb his fits of temper (Clementine undoubtedly did that) but for the moral and emotional support necessary to carry on.

That was not Winston Churchill. By the time he became prime minister, Churchill had held all of the great offices of state in the British government, except foreign secretary. Age and infirmity were not a problem for him at that stage of his career. He was 66 years old, but he had the constitution of an ox. His habits and hours were highly eccentric — the film shows that well — but he had a tremendous capacity for work and an encyclopedic memory.

Churchill knew clearly how he wanted to run the machinery of government and implemented those plans from the first day on the job, especially in matter relating to the war. He was already a member of the war cabinet and first lord of the Admiralty when he was asked to form a government; he had been first lord before, and he had also been secretary of state for war. He had fought in two wars himself and he was an accomplished student of military strategy. In fact, one of the reasons Halifax declined to become prime minister himself was that he knew Churchill would still be first lord and would end up dominating the conduct of the war anyway.

In that judgment at least, Halifax was surely correct.

The film suggests that Churchill’s arguments for fighting on were primarily emotional. There is no question that Churchill appealed to the patriotic instincts of his colleagues, and of course his speeches rallied much of the world against Hitler. But Churchill had sound reasons for believing that, given the strength of the Royal Navy and even if the Army was captured at Dunkirk, Hitler could not successfully land an invasion force in Britain without dominance in the air. And Churchill thought there was a good chance that the RAF could hold off the Luftwaffe in a defensive battle over the island — a judgment that was subsequently validated in the Battle for Britain.

I don’t begrudge the film its fantasy scene of Churchill taking the subway and being encouraged to fight on by the people he met there. Churchill did go out among the people a lot, especially during the Blitz, and he no doubt drew strength from them; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that he and his people drew strength from each other.

Yet the film was wrong to portray this incident as the basis for Churchill’s appeal to the outer cabinet. Churchill went to great pains to explain to the cabinet, and then to the Commons, why he believed that Britain could successfully resist a German invasion. It was vital that he do so, because he was speaking also for the benefit of foreign leaders — chiefly Franklin Roosevelt — whose calculations had to be more hard headed.

I don’t want to be too hard on Darkest Hour. The acting was superb, and the film captures well the stakes that were in play at that moment in history. The film is worth seeing, even if — in my admittedly non-expert judgment — it gives short shrift to the energy, decisiveness, intellect, and command presence of the main character.

I’d be very interested to see what NR readers think.

Jim Talent — Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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