I love going to the movies, but I don’t do it much these days. I feel like I should spend the time with the characters in my head, rather than with someone else’s characters on a screen. But this past weekend, friends and I went to see Darkest Hour about Winston Churchill’s early weeks as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940. The basic conflict is between Churchill who wants to fight Nazi Germany to the bitter end and others in the Conservative Party who want to negotiate peace. As the military news grows more dismal, Churchill is torn. He hates the idea of seeking a truce with Hitler, but (despite his famous V sign) he wonders if victory is possible.
Even though we know what happened—how the British army is rescued at Dunkirk—the tension in the movie is gripping. The acting was great and the relationships depicted between the characters realistic. I found myself caught up in the drama as if the fate of the Western World were truly at stake—which it was.
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill carried the film, but I also enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas in the part of his wife Clementine. The movie portrayed their support of each other throughout his long political career. There is a statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill in Kansas City called “Married Love,” and locals here have often scoffed at the notion of honoring Winston Churchill for his role as a husband, rather than as a politician or author. But after seeing how Oldman and Thomas played the couple in Darkest Hour, I can almost see the reason for the statue.
I also liked the character of Churchill’s secretary, played by Lily James. I assume this is a mostly fictional or composite character, but her role allowed the film to show a human side of Churchill beyond his curmudgeonly, cigar-smoking, alcohol-imbibing persona. I wouldn’t call him charming, but he was compassionate toward her, after his initial blow-up that almost caused her to quit.
I watched this film in part as a study in leadership. While few leaders are as eccentric as Churchill, his power with words and his focus on pursuing right as he defined it (despite failures of his instincts in the past) are aspects of leadership to which every leader should aspire.
Although the film contains one scene of Churchill relating to common Britishers, for the most part it focuses on the political intrigue that complicated his early days as Prime Minister. It was the rivalries within the Conservative Party along with the menace in Germany that caused Britain’s darkest hour—which was most likely Churchill’s personal darkest hour as well.
The movie depicts Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) as the political rival most antagonistic to Churchill. Yet even Halifax has reasons for disagreeing with Churchill. While history proved Halifax’s desire to seek a truce with Hitler wrong, the film makes clear that at the time it was quite possible he would be right. We root for Churchill’s desire to preserve liberty and democratic ideals, but we feel the possibility he might not prevail, and therefore have some sympathy for Halifax.
And at the end, Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup), who had been booted out as Prime Minister for his appeasement of Hitler, admits that it is a poor leader who cannot change his mind. He finally supports Churchill after scheming against him for months.
The film also depicted the relationship between King George VI (played by Ben Mendelsohn) and Churchill. Both represented British traditions—the monarchy and Parliament—and they developed from mutual distrust (and even distaste) to respect. Neither man had anyone else with whom confiding was comfortable, yet Great Britain’s future rested on their shoulders. Every leader needs someone to serve as sounding board, and perhaps these men found it in each other.
Darkest Hour also shows another aspect of leadership worth remembering—the importance of leaders telling the truth. Early in the film, Churchill lies in his radio address to the British people about the military situation in Europe. King George reprimands him for this. But Churchill is redeemed when he calls on the British people to overcome the enemy at hand, to fight to the end. And, of course, we know they do.
I had watched Dunkirk a few months ago, which depicted the travails of the soldiers on the beach awaiting rescue as well as the heroic efforts of the civilian fleet that rescued them. While that film did a good job of showing the horrors of war and in humanizing the bravery of both troops and civilian boatowners, I found Darkest Hour much more compelling. Darkest Hour did a better job of describing the stakes for Britain and the Western World in the early days of World War II. There are viewers who disagree with me and prefer Dunkirk to Darkest Hour. But hearing Churchill’s rhetoric brought tears to my eyes.
There is no question that Churchill was a man of words—written words and spoken words, words that inspired his nation and the world. In fact, Churchill made most of his income from writing books and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” His speeches to Parliament are some of the most rousing moments in the movie.
One friend who went to the movie with me decided to read Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which is a four-volume history covering the almost 1900-year period from Caesar’s invasions of Britain to the beginning of the First World War. I’m not that motivated to study British history, but I learned a lot in the two hours I spent watching Darkest Hour. And I appreciated the opportunity to be inspired by a great leader in the midst of desperate circumstances.
What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?