“Then out spake brave Horatius…” A Review of “Darkest Hour”

“Then out spake brave Horatius…” A Review of “Darkest Hour”

This review was first pub­lished by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For remarks on Dark­est Hour by Hills­dale Pres­i­dent Lar­ry Arnn, and excerpts from Gary Oldman’s appear­ance at the Col­lege, click here.

Hour of Trial, and Triumph

Dark­est Hour, a film by Focus Fea­tures, direct­ed by Joe Wright, star­ring Gary Old­man as Win­ston Churchill, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemen­tine Churchill, 2hrs 5 min, Decem­ber 2017.

Then out spake brave Hor­atius,
The Cap­tain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die bet­ter
Than fac­ing fear­ful odds
For the ash­es of his fathers
And the tem­ples of his gods…”
—Thomas Babing­ton Macaulay

 I final­ly saw Dark­est Hour on Feb­ru­ary 16th. The delay had not stopped me from cheek­i­ly pon­tif­i­cat­ing to The Aus­tralian, weeks ear­li­er when they asked about cer­tain sce­nar­ios. I have no changes to make, but an impor­tant elab­o­ra­tion. Unex­pect­ed­ly, I found the fic­ti­tious scene of Churchill in the Lon­don Under­ground tremen­dous­ly mov­ing.

Star of the show is Gary Old­man, who deserves every acco­lade. Hereto­fore I thought Robert Hardy unmatch­able as a Churchill actor. I believe now there is a tie. Robert him­self was con­fi­dent, before he died, that Old­man would make a superb WSC. He was right. Equal praise to the inge­nious make-up artist Kazuhi­ro Tsu­ji, who came out of retire­ment to bring Churchill back to life. Kirstin Scott Thomas plays an excel­lent Clemen­tine. The late Eliz­a­beth Lay­ton, a faith­ful wartime sec­re­tary, would love her por­tray­al by Lily James.

* * *

The script adds depth to the char­ac­ter by weav­ing in quips. (“All babies look like me” … “stop inter­rupt­ing me when I am inter­rupt­ing” … “I can boil an egg. I’ve seen it done”). The rest of the cast is fine. I feel sure Lord Hal­i­fax, “The Holy Fox,” was not the lowlife por­trayed by tal­ent­ed Stephen Dil­lane. The scenes of wartime Lon­don are con­vinc­ing (though by 1940 vehi­cles had blink­ered head­lights).

Churchillians will find nits to pick over cer­tain facts, a few mis­quotes, and var­i­ous short­cuts made to set a scene or con­duct the nar­ra­tive in the rapid way movies must. This has not detract­ed from the film’s impact on the gen­er­al pub­lic, which has been main­ly pos­i­tive. As I write, Mr. Old­man has won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor. His elo­quent accep­tance speech hon­ored many, but did not omit his own hero, Sir Win­ston. We expect there will be a few more speech­es like that to come.

Grand climacteric

In Dark­est Hour the action builds like a sym­pho­ny. As the sit­u­a­tion grows ever more des­per­ate, the Prime Min­is­ter falls into las­si­tude (as in fact he did), think­ing he may have to seek peace with “That Man.” King George VI tells him to ask the peo­ple, and take his cue accord­ing­ly. So he does—abandoning his lim­ou­sine and dart­ing into the Lon­don Under­ground!

In real­i­ty, of course, while Churchill had respect for the peo­ple, he need­ed no prompt­ing. If he had led a gov­ern­ment of one he would have gone down fight­ing. Nev­er­the­less, Dark­est Hour takes us into the Under­ground. The result is elec­tric. Tears come to the eye. Churchill would call it “a grand cli­mac­teric.”

In a rush­ing sub­way car, the Prime Min­is­ter con­fronts his pub­lic. One of them, “Mar­cus Peters” (Ade Haas­trup), might be from the Caribbean. Churchill begins to recite Macaulay (top of this arti­cle). He hes­i­tates, and Peters com­pletes the stan­za: “…For the ash­es of his fathers, And the tem­ples of his gods…”

* * *

What stunned me was the thought of Churchill’s Macaulay being known to and mem­o­rized by a man from the dis­tant reach­es of the Empire—a shared her­itage, from an edu­ca­tion British sub­jects of all sta­tions once received. It’s akin to Churchill’s broad­cast reply to Roo­sevelt in 1941, quot­ing a poet he didn’t have to name, since every Eng­lish school­child knew: “West­ward Look, the Land is Bright.”

Cyn­ics have a dif­fer­ent take. “It was just polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, since there are no oth­er minori­ties in the film…. Dunkirk was crit­i­cized for its lack of minori­ties or women. Dark­est Hour is avoid­ing that mis­take.” Well, if that was Dark­est Hour’s intentit is all right. The tube scene is mar­velous fic­tion. It per­fect­ly sym­bol­izes the courage of Lon­don­ers, as Churchill described them lat­er…. “ Their will was res­olute and remorse­less and, as it proved, uncon­quer­able…. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar. ”

“Genius exacts its high price”

My impres­sion con­tin­ued through the the­atri­cal but effec­tive way Churchill scrib­bles the tube people’s names on a match­book, and blends them into his May 28th speech to the out­er cab­i­net. That ora­tion clinched his sup­port to fight on, what­ev­er the out­come. It was not record­ed; nobody knows exact­ly what he said. It leads us to Dark­est Hour’s final scene, in the House of Com­mons six days later—the great­est speech of his life, until then…. “Fight on the beaches…fight in the fields, and in the streets…Never sur­ren­der.”

In an intro­duc­tion to a vol­ume of Churchill’s 1931 speech­es on India, the schol­ar Man­fred Wei­d­horn cap­tured the mes­sage Dark­est Hour in its own way con­veys:

If Churchill had been amenable to pru­dence in 1931, he would have spared every­one embar­rass­ment, but that same pru­dence would have dic­tat­ed in 1940 nego­ti­a­tions with Hitler. Only the pugna­cious mule of 1931 could see his way through the impos­si­bil­i­ties of 1940. A more civ­i­lized, com­mon-sen­si­cal soul like Hal­i­fax did nego­ti­ate with Gand­hi. And, had Hal­i­fax rather than Churchill been made prime min­is­ter on 10 May 1940, he would have cer­tain­ly nego­ti­at­ed with Hitler. Genius exacts its high price. If we like the way 1940 turned out, we have to com­pre­hend 1931.

After more than our share of his­tor­i­cal clangers recent­ly, Churchill admir­ers can wel­come all this movie offers. Unlike any recent pro­duc­tion, it gen­uine­ly hon­ors the hero­ic mem­o­ry. And that’s a spe­cial thing these days. Give Gary Old­man, the cast and pro­duc­ers a tip of the hat.

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