For The Australian …
Troy Bramston of The Australian newspaper had pertinent questions about the new movie Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. With the thought that Troy’s queries might be of interest, I append the text of the interview.
The Australian : Of all the things Winston Churchill is purported to have said and done, the myths and misconceptions, which are the most prevalent and frustrating for scholars?
None of these appear in the film, but there are three things that rankle: 1) The lies—that he was anxious to use poison gas; that he firebombed Dresden in revenge for Coventry; that he exacerbated the Bengal famine, etc. 2) The personal nonsense—that he was an alcoholic, that he had an unhappy marriage, and so on. 3) The many one liners he never said: “poison in your coffee,” the phony “success” quotes. I’ve spent forty years researching and exploding those canards.
Politics of 1940
Australian : Darkest Hour shows Churchill under enormous political pressure and somewhat hesitant in the war cabinet about confronting Adolf Hitler. In truth, did he have any moments of self-doubt?
Doubt about the outcome, yes. Doubt in himself, never. It was not in his make-up. In the past his self-confidence had done him harm—as over his support for the Dardanelles naval action (1915) without plenary authority to direct it. In the main, he’d learned to avoid this by 1940. The two chief misconceptions in an otherwise very good film involve its suggestions of self-doubt: The scene where the King tells him to take his cue from the people, and the Underground scene where he does just that. Actually, he knew what the people wanted. He said of them later:
Their will was resolute and remorseless, and as it proved unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.
It is true about the tremendous political pressure. He got the job on 10 May 1940 only because nobody else wanted it. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and the only other likely candidate, Lord Halifax, had powerful support. He needed to acknowledge their views, to go through the motion of considering their proposals. But in his soul, Churchill knew there was no compromising with Hitler. “We should become a slave state,” he said about any peace deal. Thus his game-changing speech to the wider cabinet on 28 May 1940, so ably dramatized by the film, and by John Lukacs’ Five Days in London: May 1940: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
Australian : Is it accurate to conclude that without Churchill rising to power at that moment, May 1940, with Nazi Germany on the warpath in Europe, that Britain could well have ended up suing for peace? Without Churchill—one man—would history have been very different?
Probably. No one can know the outcome if things had been otherwise. The odds against victory were high. The case for a peace deal was credible. But Churchill had two unique qualities: supreme confidence and the skill to communicate. With these he inspired the nation—and the Commonwealth. That included the efforts of Australia, which made powerful contributions under its wartime prime ministers, Menzies and Curtin.
Australian : How tenuous was Churchill’s position as PM in his early months? Were Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain really contemplating Churchill losing Tory support or facing a vote of no confidence in the Commons?
Remember it was a coalition government—he needed Labour and Liberal as well as Tory support. There was never a threat of a no confidence vote at that time. But on 10 May 1940, Churchill was politically vulnerable. There was huge residual good will for Chamberlain, who had tried to save the peace. By May 28th, encouraged by the ongoing evacuation at Dunkirk, Churchill knew the bulk of the army was safe. Britain had a chance. His speeches did the rest. An old RAF flyer, briefly his Scotland Yard bodyguard after the war, told me: “After one of those speeches, we wanted the Germans to come.”
Australian : We are presented in the movie with a Churchill who puts a lot of effort into his speeches, writing and rewriting, to make them compelling. Do the documents and the testimony of those who worked with him show this?
Yes. He used to say, “One hour of prep for each minute of delivery.” That was an exaggeration—or was it? It didn’t take that long to compose his “Finest Hour” speech of 18 June 1940. But we should consider that he’d been mulling over those ideas—a valiant Britain resisting a continental tyrant—since writing the life of Marlborough—which took him ten years. Read Marlborough and you can see those speeches forming. It was his greatest work—far more than a biography. The scholar Leo Strauss called it “an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding.”
Australian : Some things are, obviously, invented, such as the scene in the London Underground. Churchill did not use the subterranean War Rooms often. And I don’t think he had a direct line to Franklin Roosevelt until later. But does any of this really matter in dramatizing this story?
Not a lot. True, he disliked the War Rooms, slept there only a handful of nights. (Among other things, the place stank—sanitation was rudimentary.) The Underground scene is unfortunate because it misrepresents his resolution. Hollywood likes to reduce great figures to the ordinary. They aren’t. That is not to say Churchill didn’t harbor serious doubts. His bodyguard, Inspector Thompson, recalled May 10th with moving emotion. When Thompson offered his congratulations, observing that the task was enormous…
Tears came into his eyes as he answered gravely: “God alone knows how great it is. I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.” As he turned away he muttered something—to himself. Then he set his jaw and with a look of determination, mastering all emotion, he began to climb the stairs of the Admiralty. It was the greatest privilege of my life to have shared those few moments with him.
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One can only imagine what he muttered to himself, but I’ll hazard a guess. It is from Marvell’s Horatian Ode to King Charles I—a phrase Churchill frequently repeated. He said it about the British people in 1940, about Roosevelt in 1941 and, improbably, about the abdicated King Edward VIII. Why wouldn’t he have said it about himself, in that hour? “He nothing common did or mean, Upon that memorable scene…”
Australian : Churchill is seen drinking and smoking to excess, being cranky and barking orders, working in bed etc. Did you find this portrayal close to the real Churchill?
Yes, and in some versions the producers thought it necessary to say smoking, which is naughty, is only there for artistic purposes. Oh dear!
My new book, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality, addresses these canards. Inspector Thompson wrote: “He likes to smoke a cigar, but he realises that the public like to see him doing so even more. He, therefore, takes good care to ensure that a cigar is in his mouth on all special occasions!” His sipped or drank alcohol most all of the day, every day, but it was spaced out. Contrary to the film, he never drank whisky neat. He warned those who did that they would not enjoy a long life. His heaviest consumption was at mealtimes, when it was easier to absorb without effect. In his single-minded intensity, he did bark and become obstreperous—his wife successfully got him to back off. But his staff was devoted to him, for the most part. They understood the pressure he was under.
Setting a mark
Australian : Overall, how does Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill compare to the many other small and large screen treatments of his life? Do you have a favourite?
For me, nobody will ever replace Robert Hardy in The Wilderness Years. But that was a sustained performance, an eight-part mini-series, pinpoint accurate and perfectly cast. Robert followed with many separate performances. However, most everyone agrees that Gary Oldman is masterful. It is a real treat after all the many recent movie misrepresentations. I’d rank Oldman very high. He is marvelous. And his make-up artist is a magician.