Hats off to Darkest Hour

If Gary Oldman should carry off an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, it will be well deserved and long overdue. As an ensemble piece, the movie is virtually flawless – a vehicle in which Oldman kills off any lingering doubts that he is Britain’s greatest living thespian with zeal, all the more so for being almost completely obscured by jowly prosthetics. Meanwhile, Kristin Scott-Thomas does a fine job of sparring with him in the role of Churchill’s rock, anchor and keeper, Clemmie.

For most of the film, the enemy that Churchill must confront is arguably the most watchable actor in Britain, Stephen Dillane, as the somewhat reedy, appeasing voice of the British Establishment in the form of Lord Halifax. The final addition to this leading foursome is the oft-overlooked Ronald Pickup, playing the part of the equally oft-overlooked Neville Chamberlain with both compassion and despair.

It is shot and acted beautifully, scripted reasonably well… indeed, even when watching it, one imagines that it will become a standard text on the period. Generations of children will be sat down to diligently watch this movie in school history lessons – and therein lies the problem. While the acting and the filming are all superb, the history is not.

We can overlook the fact that Churchill is depicted flying out to France in a C-47 (which didn’t exist then), instead of his D.H.95 Flamingo. Given the amount of CGI and special effects already in place, it wouldn’t have been too big an ask… but we can gloss over that. One CGI shot that was rather superfluous, however, was Churchill pontificating on a rooftop at night, watching a flight of four Hurricanes pass low overhead. Wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

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A de Havilland Flamingo – Churchill’s aircraft were not C-47s

This is but a prelude to the scene in which Churchill, alone and in the dark, begs President Roosevelt for destroyers and P-40 fighters. Yet the Royal Navy had ample resources at the time to see off the threat of the German Kriegsmarine. It is suggested that the Germans will come to Britain in high speed boats carrying 100 troops in each vessel – although these never existed. Churchill’s main concern was trying desperately to convince the French to send their navy across the Channel, lest it fall into German hands. In the end Churchill ordered the sinking of four French battleships, five destroyers and a seaplane tender when at port in Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria – and captured or sank those French vessels lying in British waters.

As for fighters, Churchill was fully focused upon stimulating the output of Britain’s own aircraft factories – starting with the vast white elephant at Castle Bromwich. Despite severe losses, the Hurricanes of the British Expeditionary Force had taken a mighty toll on the Luftwaffe as the Germans devoured Belgium and France, while belatedly the Spitfire was starting to appear in significant numbers. Quality was not in doubt but quantity was and, in Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill had an ardent quartermaster who ensured that the Battle of Britain ended with more fighters in front-line squadrons than it had begun with.

Not until Britain’s fight for immediate survival was long over did America grudgingly enter into the Lend-Lease programme… but try making a film about World War 2 these days that does not rely upon America’s righteous, guiding hand and see how far it gets through pre-production.

But all of these quibbles pale into insignificance next to the greatest red herring in the film: Churchill riding the District Line. This is the moment at which Oldman’s characterisation is powerless to stop Churchill being propelled into a new role: as a prototype for Tony Blair or David Cameron. You half-expect him to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and insist that the everyday Londoners call him Winston as he seeks their counsel.

The Darkest Hour

This segment of the film is an uncomfortable collection of anachronisms – a measure of what a modern British premier looks like to audiences around the world. Presenting this as historical fact – or as director Joe Wright prefers to call it ’emotional truth’ – is potentially disastrous not just for the film but also for its future viewers. In early 1940 more British people had died as a result of travelling in the blackout than from enemy action, and memories of the horrendous casualties of the Great War were still fresh. They supported appeasement. Appeasement at all costs. Appeasement however long and hard the road may be. When, later, Churchill visited the cities stricken by the Blitz he was booed.

Darkest Hour is a phenomenal piece of work by the cast – Oldman chief among them – and by the artists who created and lit every scene. For the most part it is exquisite. But mistaking its ’emotional truth’ for historical fact would be a grievous error. Enjoy it for what it is – a brilliant piece of movie making.

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8 thoughts on “Hats off to Darkest Hour

  1. Thanks for this post. I recently saw the film and quite enjoyed it, especially Oldman’s virtuoso performance. The perspective you provide is enlightening, especially for an American, as we are not as conversant with events and political circumstances before December 7, 1941, as we should be. I did pick up on the C-47 anachronism, though, as I should have, as my father flew them in CBI and North Africa, and in the invasion of Italy.

  2. Just came back from seeing the film. It is very well done, and Oldman deserves the Oscar, as does the cinematographer. Winston’s subway trip does seem out of character; FDR’s cheerfully putting him off Is indeed historical fact (even if the details are not quite right). And the DC-3/C-47 went into service in 1935… even if Churchill did fly in a Flamingo at the time. The film bookends nicely with “Dunkirk”, as well. (I can just see Detective-Inspector Foyle on the cliffs, looking out over the Channel, as well). Very happy to see this post, glad to hear a British perspective in Arizona.

    • Hi Mark, Yes the DC-3 went into service in 1935 but none were in service with British carriers and the militarised C-47 wasn’t built until after Pearl Harbor. It’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but it would have been fabulous to see a Flamingo. FDR was of course right up against it, in election year with a Senate being steered not only by isolationism but also pro-Nazis like Joe Kennedy, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Of course America ultimately came good and FDR was able to barter brilliantly, starting in August 1940 with exchanging 50 US destroyers of WW1 vintage for the right to create US military bases in Antigua, the Bahamas, Bermuda, British Guiana, Jamaica, Newfoundland, St. Lucia and Trinidad… but that’s entirely another story!

    • I agree about the underground ride. It seemed so out of place….absurd, even….that I couldn’t wait for the scene to end. (I almost expected a cherubic little girl to jump up and say, “Atta boy, Winston. Kick their Nazi arses says I!”). Further to the C-47, I think the one shown in the film was a later version than would have been in service at that time, even as a DC-3, based on the configuration of tail components.

  3. Your observation and criticism is excellent. I can not argue with the facts you refer to regarding the correctness of the machinery, I can only imagine that they used the wrong plane for some good logistical production reason, but as you say, it could have been corrected easily enough, but on the other hand, did it really matter? I agree with you that it was a minor detail.
    What perplexed me, as it did you, was the timing and of that phone call to Roosevelt from under the stairs. It was touching and illustrated the desperation he must have been feeling, but it threw the context of history completely out of kilter. The Battle of Britain could hardly have commenced just five weeks later if we’d been so desperate for planes that we were considering pushing a few of them across the Canadian border! And the line about having bought them with money they’d lent us was hilarious, but as you say, completely without precedent.
    I am not, however, bothered so much by the District Line scene. Like in many historical plays this was a dramatic vehicle used to set up an “emotionally correct”, as the director says, scenario. I am nevertheless intrigued that you should point out that a large number of “the public” should in actual fact have been opposed to action rather than, as this scene depicts, being all for it.
    It makes one wonder just who Churchill had behind his decision to stand up to Hitler… the House was apparently against him, the public seemed against it, so how was he able to mobilise opinion and order the entire country to full scale war?
    I loved the film, it was entertaining, and very moving, and it was drama, as was Shakespeare’s Henry V. These things don’t have to be 100% accurate to be good, but it does leave a few open questions and I wonder why in some cases.

    • Thanks, Mark – glad you enjoyed the film too – it’s a brilliant piece of work. It’s worth remembering how far in the wilderness Churchill found himself in the 1930s (or indeed right up until his appointment), but we get something of a flavour. The Establishment view was that Nazism was far less of a threat to Europe than Communism, and a strong Germany could only provide a bulwark to the the Soviet Union – a view which was cultivated through German foreign relations. Churchill ranted and raved that Edward VIII was being seduced by Hitler, as were a number of major political figures and industrialists. This resulted in innumerable visits to the UK from various Nazi-backed bodies, hosted by the Royal British Legion, the Midlands Police and other bastions of the community, against which Churchill’s objections were considered something of an embarrassment.

      Look at the grassroots popularity of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. You can count things like the two Donington Grands Prix and poor old Dick Seaman in that as well. The confidence that was felt in Germany that Britain would not fight lasted right up to July 1940 – all the more so in Hitler’s view after he ‘gallantly allowed’ the British Expeditionary Force to escape Dunkirk in such numbers. That’s why the Führer took June off almost entirely to savour his victory in Europe: it was inconceivable that there could be the political will to resist and that Churchill would be replaced by Halifax at any moment.

      When that did not happen, as described by the film, the Germans moved on and attempted to destroy Britain’s defences in July-September 1940 – intended to bring sense to the British and herd them to the negotiating table. When that failed – and, worse, Churchill made great capital from the failure – they resorted to attacking British cities in the Blitz of 1940-41, which was intended to weaken her industry and cause a popular uprising against Churchill. That policy ended with the sacrifice of Rudolf Hess in the failed bid to galvanise the pro-Nazi factions of the British establishment towards Churchill’s overthrow.

      So how did Churchill manage it? Exactly as the film said: by mobilising the English language, creating triumph from disaster, creating victory in the ‘Battle of Britain’ and convincing enough people – not least American people – that Hitler could be beaten, while those around him worked hard to ensure that logistically we could continue to hold out.

      • To your final comment, I think it summarizes the film and the history very nicely. Ridley Scott has stated that his forthcoming remake of “The Battle of Britain” will be a work of passion rather than commerce, so I’m looking forward to it very much.

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve not yet seen the film and will watch it for what it is, entertainment. I hope that it is not used as historical matter, particularly if it does have so many blatant errors. These days CGI can be used to create an entire world, so why not a fairly basic aeroplane or the like. A great and honest review

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