Darkest Hour

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There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI in which various young noblemen are arguing in the Temple Garden and they all dramatically pluck either red roses or white roses to declare their allegiance to either Lancaster or York.  It’s a great image and it really, really should have happened … but it didn’t.  Shakespeare made it up.  That’s a great shame, because it’s a great scene.  There’s one like that towards the end of Darkest Hour.  Winston Churchill (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman), as the British Empire Stands Alone, is seriously considering entering peace talks with the Nazis.  He decides to take a trip on the Tube, where he asks various salt-of-the-earth ordinary people what they think.  Every single one of them says that we must fight on and never surrender.  That makes up Churchill’s mind.  No negotiations.  “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  It’s still an incredibly moving and inspirational speech, even after nearly 78 years.

Of course, Churchill did not make that trip on the Tube.   Nor, as far as I know, did the King roll up chez Churchill late at night, just before then, to assure him that he also thought that we should fight on and never surrender.  Big black mark for lack of historical accuracy.  But big gold star for drama.  It stirs the blood.  We know that the Nazis will eventually be defeated.  Churchill, George VI, and all the salt-of-the-earth ordinary British people at the end of May 1940 sure as hell didn’t.   It’s so frightening, no matter how many times you’ve thought about it, to think how close the Nazis were to victory in mid-1940.

Ed Murrow, the American journalist, came up with a wonderful line about how Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.  That line’s used in the film.  It’s one of two lines which, apart from the Tube scene, really sum the film up.  The other one is Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) telling her husband that “You are strong because you are imperfect”.  Churchill’s very much shown in this as an eccentric.  He goes from angry to soppy in a matter of seconds, drinks too much, forgets what he’s doing, wanders around in a strange-looking dressing gown, talks to his butler (Grantly from Waterloo Road) through the toilet door, doesn’t realise that V signs are very rude when made with the palm facing inwards, and doesn’t get on with the rest of the War Cabinet, most of whom are in favour of entering negotiations with the Nazis.  The other Tories don’t like him because he’s got a catalogue of disasters behind him and has crossed the floor of the Commons twice, and the King isn’t keen on him because he sided with Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis.  That much is true enough, even if it does get exaggerated for historic effect.

And we do tend to think, because it’s what Churchill made us think, that the mood of the time was all about fighting on the beaches and never surrendering.  This film’s a sobering reminder that coming to some sort of terms with the Nazis was a real possibility at the time, because victory looked so unlikely.  And we think very disparagingly of the “appeasers”, but the film reminds us that it looked likely that the Armed Forces could be wiped out and civilians suffer horrendously as well, and that this was little more than twenty years after the end of the bloodbath that was the First World War.  You can see where Halifax, Chamberlain & co were coming from.  But thank heavens for Churchill.  If ever someone was the right person in the right place at the right time.  The film falls down on historical accuracy, but it gives a genuinely meaningful depiction of Britain’s darkest hour, the world’s darkest hour, and the man who got us through it.

3 thoughts on “Darkest Hour

  1. Chris Deeley

    However, we will never know what might have happened if the UK had not guaranteed the neutrality of Poland. We do know that Poland suffered more than any other country from WWII, so the UK’s guarantee was of no value to the Poles or to the British Empire – a bit like the Washington Naval Treaty (or Agreement). Those entrusted to promote and safeguard national and imperial interests were derelict. Unlike the UK’s American “allies”, Hitler was an admirer of the British Empire and never had any intention of attacking it. I’m not saying that the USA planned to attack the British Empire – only to destroy it, which they did.

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    • I don’t think Britain could have stayed out, not when the Nazis had swallowed up most of Europe. The idea’s usually that Hitler admired both the British Empire and the Catholic Church – but the Vatican’s role is another story, and not a very nice one!

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