Plaudits have been raining down on Darkest Hour, the latest in a very long line of films to attempt to capture the life and times of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Remarkably effective make-up; an energetic, bravura performance by Gary Oldman; a superbly resilient Clemmie played by Kristin Scott-Thomas; bold, thrillersesque directing by Joe Wright… And so it goes on and on. Over half a century after his death and the Great Man again demands our attention.
But I won’t join in the resounding applause for Darkest Hour. I will give it one cheer, maybe two, but it is a film that irritated me as much as it enthralled. First, let’s get the verdict on the central character out of the way first. Oldman is good, especially given the physical disparities with his character. But actually, I preferred Brian Cox’s less tiggerish and more measured, more authoritative Winston in Churchill, last summer’s offering, which played fast and loose with the hours leading up to D-Day.
Which is where I will direct my criticism of Darkest Hour – with a warning that plenty of ‘spoilers’ follow.
The events of 25-28 May 1940 are so extraordinary, so dramatic, so vital to the future of these islands, that film-makers don’t really have to mess about with them. Read John Lukacs’s masterful Five Days In London: May 1940 and you’ll understand how even an understated account of those pulsating days in history can read like a thriller.
Perhaps my problem with this film was that I was not a general viewer. I would be reluctant to call myself an expert of the period, but I did study it in detail for my book All Behind You, Winston, so I’m more than familiar than most with those days. I read all the cabinet minutes, consumed all the diaries of the key players and ploughed through all the reflective memoirs that followed. It is more than clear that this could have been an exhilarating film without all the dramatic license, which led to a host of errors and conflations of events. Put simply, you didn’t have to make it up.
Let’s start at the end, because this annoyed me most. Cheers resound in the House of Commons for Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches … never surrender’ speech on Tuesday May 28. Except he didn’t deliver it on May 28 – it came a week later, on Tuesday 4 June.
Actually – because I could appreciate the need to pack all the drama of the film into one day, and that speech was inconveniently seven days away, following the escape from Dunkirk – that didn’t bother as much as what followed. The camera pans to the viewing gallery in the Commons, where Churchill’s great cabinet foe, Lord Halifax, is watching. Resignedly, the ‘Holy Fox’ acknowledges final defeat in his battle with Churchill to sue for peace with Germany, and turns to a colleague to say, ‘He has mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.’
Oh no he didn’t. The brilliant American journalist Edward R Morrow uttered that wonderful line in a CBS broadcast about Churchill a full fourteen years later – on 30 November 1954, to be precise. President Kennedy then commandeered the glittering phrase and uttered it to Churchill himself when granting him honorary American citizenship in 1963.
Much of the action in Darkest Hour in those tumultuous four days between May 25 and 28 takes place – very evocatively, you have to concede – in a mockup of the Cabinet War Rooms, where Churchill calls for sacrifices at Calais, and discusses whether to sue for peace with Germany via Italian mediation. Great for atmosphere, but very bad history, I’m afraid. Of the eight War Cabinet meetings in those four days, seven were held at No 10 Downing Street and one in the Prime Minister’s room in the House of Commons (the film gets that one right). But none were held in the underground War Rooms – that venue would be used in September 1940 when The Blitz was in full flow.
And why is Lord Halifax depicted lurking in the background in those scenes, at a table of his own (or did my eyes deceive me)? As Foreign Secretary, he sat straight opposite Churchill when they were round the cabinet table; in his face, as it were. But presumably the film makers wanted him skulking in the shadow for the best possible dramatic effect and character development.
I won’t add to anything that’s already been said about the scene where Churchill goes down into the London Underground and conducts his own vox populi. It’s absurd in historical terms – Churchill reputedly only travelled on the underground once, when much younger, and got hopelessly confused and lost – but it’s enormous fun.
There are other minor aberrations that I could mention, but I’d prefer to finish on one of the biggest omissions of them all – the role of Clement Attlee, Labour leader, and Arthur Greenwood, his deputy, in rendering vital support to Churchill in those tense cabinet meetings. In Darkest Hour you catch the barest, most fleeting glance of them. The reality was that without their support – and that of Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Liberal leader – in those debates, Halifax might well have won the day. Read the cabinet minutes (National Archives, CAB 65/13) and you’ll understand how vital their sporadic, yet consistently supportive, interventions were to Churchill.
The taciturn Attlee and blunt-speaking, good-humoured Greenwood would have made good characters for this film, if their characters had been properly fleshed out. But then, of course, they would have detracted from Winston.
‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it myself,’ the Great Man once famously said. Now director Joe Wright has added another chapter for him.
Roger Hermiston is the author of All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45, published by Aurum Press