“Darkest Hour,” the movie: an interview with The Australian

“Darkest Hour,” the movie: an interview with The Australian

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.”

What if?

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.”

Oldman’s portrayal

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.

* * *

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.

14 thoughts on ““Darkest Hour,” the movie: an interview with The Australian

  1. Pur­su­ing sins of omis­sion is end­less and leads nowhere. Dark­est Hour is about British lead­er­ship and pol­i­tics. It is per­fect­ly under­stand­able that British sac­ri­fices at Calais would be men­tioned. (Let’s also note that many brave French­men defend­ed the Dunkirk perime­ter, as well as Bel­gians, Cana­di­ans and oth­ers.) But on June 4th, Bel­gium was out of the war, and Churchill try­ing to keep France in it. It beg­gars belief that he would have chal­lenged Rey­naud on any­thing at that moment. It is rather nar­row to cred­it Churchill for doing his best for his coun­try. He did his best for the world. He promised the French, “we will win all back for you.” Mean­while, for a year Britain and the Empire stood alone, until as Churchill said, “those who hith­er­to had been half-blind were half-ready.”

    2) Baldwin’s refusal to sup­port Flandin, who want­ed only tac­it sup­port to demand that France resist the Rhineland occupation—and the log­ic of Belgium’s “armed neu­tral­i­ty” in the Cham­ber­lain era—are dis­cussed at length in my book, Churchill and the Avoid­able War.

    3) Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s fail­ures to com­pre­hend the storm about to engulf them are also part of that book. Alas it seemed that they found a rea­son to spurn every friend­ly for­eign hand stretched toward them, includ­ing one from across the Atlantic.

  2. While Dark­est Hour high­lights the hero­ic defense of Calais, it could have just as eas­i­ly high­light­ed the Bel­gian Army’s last four days’ stand on the riv­er Lei (Lys). But, that would have taint­ed the “fight on the beach­es” end­ing. The audi­ence is not made aware told that Churchill, in his zeal to keep France in the fight, used King Leopold III as scape­goat to appease the French, who also need­ed some­one to blame. There is no doubt that Churchill inher­it­ed this mess and he did his best for his coun­try and peo­ple. We will always be grate­ful his con­tri­bu­tions to our lib­er­a­tion and peace.

    2) The Bald­win and Cham­ber­lain gov­ern­ments (1935-39) had a major effect on ear­li­er Bel­gian pol­i­cy, espe­cial­ly in 1936 when they and the French did not oppose Hitler reoc­cu­py­ing the Rhineland. This left Bel­gium with­out its pro­tec­tive buffer zone. Thus King Leopold III and his for­eign min­is­ter Spaak declared Belgium’s armed neu­tral­i­ty, which was guar­an­teed by Britain France and Ger­many. The King explained Belgium’s posi­tion in Octo­ber 1939.

    3) On 10 Jan­u­ary 1940, when a Ger­man plane crashed in Bel­gium, Bel­gians learned of Ger­man war plans to attack the west. At some risk, King Leopold through Sir Roger Keyes offered Britain staff con­ver­sa­tions and free pas­sage to Anglo-French troops, pro­vid­ed the Allies guar­an­tee to restore any lost Bel­gian ter­ri­to­ry after a war, and include Bel­gium in peace nego­ti­a­tions. Prime Min­is­ter Cham­ber­lain spurned this offer, deny­ing the Allies an oppor­tu­ni­ty to enter Bel­gium before the attack.

  3. Daniel, thank-you for your fur­ther note below. I glad­ly rec­om­mend Joshua Levine’s book on the basis of your approval. I am relieved how­ev­er that the offend­ing state­ment in Churchill’s 4 June 1940 speech was edit­ed out of Dark­est Hour. A movie can’t be expect­ed to tell the whole sto­ry, and to include it would require a lengthy expla­na­tion to cor­rect it. It’s well that it was omit­ted. Dunkirk, in which heroes go unmen­tioned whole­sale, is anoth­er sto­ry. At the same time it is unfor­tu­nate that Lord Keyes main­tains that Churchill stuck to the lie “for the rest of his days.” He cer­tain­ly did not, and made haste to cor­rect him­self. He and his son had prodi­gious rows, many in lat­er life when he was aged and his pow­ers were fad­ing. That inci­dent alone is not dis­pos­i­tive, and two wrongs don’t make a right. Thanks for your per­sis­tence in defend­ing King Leopold.

  4. Richard, we tru­ly appre­ci­ate your fair­ness and com­plete­ly respect your defense of Churchill. Although Dark­est Hour is ends with his June 4th speech, his com­ment, “Sud­den­ly, with­out pri­or con­sul­ta­tion, with the least pos­si­ble notice” is not includ­ed. It is this I refer to in my state­ment that movie mak­ers dis­re­gard this very ger­mane inci­dent. In regard to Rey­naud and the stance tak­en by the Bel­gian gov­ern­ment of the time, you are right to say I should hold them equal­ly or more cul­pa­ble for their actions. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the lie is broad­ly believed in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world, and we had hoped the film mak­ers would have vin­di­cat­ed the hon­our of our King and Army. We did find an ally in Josuha Levine, who inter­viewed our Pres­i­dent, Col. Louis Van Leem­put, for his book, Dunkirk: The His­to­ry Behind the Major Motion Pic­ture Levine goes to great lengths to vin­di­cate our King and our Army. We thank you for your gen­uine sup­port in bring­ing the facts of what real­ly hap­pened to the Eng­lish-speak­ing world.
    Daniel A. Wybo, Lon­don, Ontario
    Roy­al League of Vet­er­ans of His Majesty King Leopold III

  5. Daniel, I’m sur­prised you would say that, with­out ref­er­ence to my arti­cles estab­lish­ing King Leopold’s hon­or and innocence—considering that you helped me write them. The lat­est ver­sion is here.

    Lord Keyes is quite right the the “great lie” about Leopold orig­i­nat­ed with French Pre­mier Rey­naud. Churchill’s speech of 4 June 1940, in sup­port of Rey­naud, was the act of an ally in des­per­ate times. As Lord Keyes says, lies are excus­able “in a great emer­gency.” But Keyes is dead wrong that Churchill blamed Leopold “to the end of his days.” Only sev­en months lat­er, Churchill expressed “a good deal of sym­pa­thy with Leopold” to Roo­sevelt. In 1949 in his draft mem­oirs, Churchill soft­ened his words about the Bel­gian sur­ren­der. And, refus­ing to pla­cate French opin­ion, he omit­ted the Bel­gian mate­r­i­al from his sec­ond French edi­tion.

    Rather than Churchill, blame the hys­ter­i­cal Rey­naud (who after all was about to lose his coun­try). Blame the scur­rilous Bel­gian politi­cians, who not only vil­i­fied their King but court-mar­tialed in absen­tia Bel­gian pilots who had flown to Britain or North Africa rather than sur­ren­der. While we’re at it, let’s not omit King George VI, for refus­ing to invite King Leopold to Princess Elizabeth’s wed­ding in 1947—apparently he was not quite so pro-Leopold as Lord Keyes would have us believe.

    I don’t know about Dark­est Hour, but you are right to crit­i­cize Dunkirk. That movie nev­er men­tions the valiant Bel­gians, fight­ing to hold the line so the evac­u­a­tion could pro­ceed. View­ers wouldn’t know they exist­ed. Indeed, one hard­ly knows who the ene­my was in this vague­ly PC film, deter­mined not to offend any­body. Bel­gian and Cana­di­an evac­uees from Dunkirk go unmen­tioned. See: “Don’t let’s be beast­ly to the Ger­mans.”

  6. The movies Dark­est Hour and Dunkirk fail to tell the truth about Churchill and his lying or delib­er­ate untruth­ful­ness in blam­ing the Bel­gian King and the Bel­gian army for the British Expe­di­tionary Force’s defeat in 1940, when in truth it was the Bel­gian King and the Bel­gian army that sac­ri­ficed them­selves to allow the BEF to escape. Lis­ten to Lord Keyes as he speaks to the BBC on “the great lie.”

  7. Richard, is there a way to get a decent copy of Wilder­ness Years? I bought a DVD set on eBay but the qual­i­ty was so poor I couldn’t watch it. BTW, your writ­ings on WSC are most valu­able.

  8. Churchill did not SHOUT or SCREAM as Old­man does. He did NOT speak from his throat, he spoke from his tummy—more of a “lispy” growl. It seems to me it was more the fault of the direc­tor not doing his job than Old­man. Oscar per­for­mance? Maybe, since he has more or less led a squeaky clean life and car­ries no “sex­u­al luggage”—they might give him one for that rea­son, but for his per­for­mance? No.

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