This year’s best movie about a spirited band of resisters fighting an empire of evil isn’t the latest entry in the “Star Wars” franchise, but “Darkest Hour,” an extraordinarily deft and moving depiction of the outset of Winston Churchill’s prime ministership during World War II.
Cabinet meetings and political intrigue aren’t the most natural cinematic material, although the underlying event in “Darkest Hour” is one of the most dramatic in modern history: One man standing defiant before the onslaught of an enemy army, rallying his nation with his willpower and words.
Discounting for Hollywood embellishments, the movie is worthy of this story, which is high praise indeed. In particular, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is so compelling that the Academy Award for best actor should be signed, sealed and delivered to him right now.
Upon taking power, Churchill faced disaster on every front in the war, yet bucked internal political pressure to explore a deal with Adolf Hitler. In his marvelous history of this crucial interlude, “Five Days in London: May 1940,” the great historian John Lukacs writes, “Then and there he saved Britain and Europe, and Western civilization.”
By his account years later, Churchill felt a sense of relief at being put in charge: “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.” But his bodyguard reported that when he congratulated Churchill on his ascension and noted the enormous task ahead, the new prime minister replied, tears in his eyes: “God alone knows how great it is. I hope it is not too late.”
In 1937, Churchill’s reputation had been at a low ebb, but he recovered on the strength of his acuteness about Hitler. When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, Churchill gave a speech in the House of Commons declaring “we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.” Britain’s position slid downward from there.
The same day that Churchill became prime minister, Hitler’s army invaded Western Europe in earnest, sweeping all before it and eventually trapping the British at Dunkirk.
Given the circumstances, the desire of Viscount Halifax, Churchill’s inherited foreign secretary, to explore peace terms wasn’t unreasonable, just profoundly wrong. Lukacs writes that Halifax knew “how to adjust his mind to circumstances rather than attempt to adjust the circumstances to his ideas.” Churchill thought differently. A contest ensued between the two of them in the War Cabinet, where the new prime minister’s position wasn’t unassailable.
Churchill opposed any deal. He was convinced, Lukacs notes, “that such a settlement, under any conditions, could not be counter-balanced by a maintenance, let alone a guarantee, of British liberty and independence.” Churchill bent a little toward Halifax when he initially felt it politically necessary, but ground him down and ultimately outmaneuvered him.
In a key episode, Churchill went to the larger Cabinet and won overwhelming approval for his stalwartness. Here, he made his famous statement, “We shall go and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.”
After the war, Churchill wrote of the reaction of his colleagues: “Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and came running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation, I should have been hurled out of office.”
He didn’t falter. Churchill tapped into and built up the resolve of the British people. “There was a white glow,” he wrote later, “overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.” Hitler wouldn’t neutralize the British, who escaped Dunkirk and kept up the fight.
The so-called Great Man theory of history might be overly simplistic, but history indisputably has its great men. “Darkest Hour” does justice to one of them.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.