If you didn’t trust history, you might think Winston Churchill was fiction.
A larger-than-life figure from cradle to grave, the British prime minister battled Adolf Hitler in a Manichean, good-and-evil struggle the likes of which the world has not seen since. Hitler bended Europe to his will and sought to exterminate an entire people, the Jews. Churchill, who embodied the glory of old Britannia, fought for the survival of the West, and led it into war in 1940.
Nearly a century later, we have shown no slack in our interest over this titanic conflict. As bloody as World War II was, our primary fascination is not so much with the evildoers, but with the noble few who rallied the English-speaking peoples to the terrible task of saving the world. The grandest subject of them all, Winston Spencer Churchill, receives a stylish and stirring close-up in a new film, Darkest Hour, directed by British auteur Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice).
Darkest Hour covers the pivotal period of spring-summer 1940, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as British prime minister and Churchill moved into the role. The film shows us the devastation the peace-seeking policy of Chamberlain, Viscount Halifax, Horace Wilson, and the “Men of Munich”—the appeasers of Hitler—wrought. These men thought they were the architects of Britain’s salvation; in truth, they were running up a civilizational deficit so steep it was nearly insurmountable. This is the thing about failing to face down threats, and failing to square with reality: someone has to pay the butcher’s bill.
This is the thing about failing to face down threats, and failing to square with reality: someone has to pay the butcher’s bill.
Portrait of a Great Man
In a miracle of common grace, Winston Churchill was up to the task. After all, Churchill had endured the 1930s, a desperate decade for him considering the heights of his familial heritage and the arc of his star in years past. The son of Randolph Churchill, a brilliant if unstable politician, Churchill’s line went back to the first Duke of Malborough, a war hero nearly unmatched in the long annals of British history. Winston himself was born in Blenheim Palace, an edifice so resplendent it makes the manor of Downton Abbey look like a well-appointed outhouse.
But all this was forgotten, or had at least ebbed, by the 1930s. As recounted in by William Manchester’s magisterial study of Churchill, The Last Lion (Volume Two), by 1940 he had seemingly aged out of consideration for higher office (he was nearly 70). The outcome an ambitious man like Churchill most dreaded had seemingly occurred: the seals of England’s highest governmental post had passed him by.
But then history’s page turned, and Churchill rose to power. Darkest Hour introduces us to him not in the chambers of Westminster, but in the creaking confines of Chartwell, his beloved country home, as word of his ascendancy arrives.
Gary Oldman plays the great old man, displaying with skillful abandon the full range of Churchillian eccentricity and genius. He does not have Churchill’s voice exactly—Churchill’s was lower, and rubbed with gravel—but he does capture the strange slurry speech pattern, the fiery temper, his unique romance with wife Clementine (the graceful Kristin Scott Thomas), the stooped but bullet-like stride, the tippling habits, and above all, the oratorical power. Outside of the church, there has never been a speechmaker like Churchill; Wright knows this, and wisely focuses the movie around the conversations, addresses, and cabinet meetings dominated by him.
Wright’s previous work includes numerous memorable scenes and shots—the one-take panning of the Dunkirk beach, for example, in Atonement, or the rain-soaked encounter between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. In Darkest Hour, Wright stages transitions in arresting fashion, capturing the sheer will of the prime minister as he strides into Buckingham Palace, travels the bleak corridors of the underground war rooms, and stalks the halls of Parliament.
There is a lesson in these visuals: in every situation, Churchill kept on and was the same man, whether dining with the king or pouring forth oratory on his way to his next world-in-the-balance meeting. We can learn much here about persistence, courage, leadership, and manhood—qualities in short supply in the performative, post-moral pop culture of our time.
We can learn much from Churchill about persistence, courage, leadership, and manhood.
Two scenes stand out. Wright zeroes in on the tense, crackling debates waged in the war cabinet between Halifax and Churchill. The Crown veteran Stephen Dillane plays Halifax persuasively, always agitating for the seductive delusion that if the Führer could just be given the right set of terms, the world would cease to burn. In another breath-stopping moment, Churchill dictates to his secretary that there will be no rescue of the embattled British forces in Calais. These brave and doomed soldiers held off the Nazis just long enough for the Dunkirk evacuation to take place. We feel palpably the weight—the cost—of the decision.
Darkest Hour is not a perfect film, though it is a very good one. The parliamentary give-and-take in the House of Commons is straightforwardly done; it would be challenging for any director to do justice to such speechifying. Occasionally Wright frames an event oddly, as when he shoots the first meeting of King George VI and Churchill in a lighthearted tone. Later, the prime minister rides the Tube for a hammy chitchat with the common man.
The acting is generally solid, but two performances stand out: Lily James as the prime minister’s typist, and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI. James gives us a moving picture of valiance in the face of surging grief; Mendelsohn has both an arresting voice and a regal hauteur that flexes for both comedy and nobility. They help make Darkest Hour a must-watch movie (fathers should take their sons, in particular; also, the movie is generally clean, with just a bit of bathroom humor).
Churchill was not a gospel-captivated Christian from what I can tell. He was an Anglican, but he filtered his religion through his greatest love, the love of country. Nevertheless, as Oldman plays him in an Oscar-worthy performance, he is a hero, a man for all seasons.
The lesson here is a living one, for in politics, theology, and even the life of the local church, we will all be tempted at some point to seek a third way when one does not exist.
In the 1930s, long before the ascendance of postmodernity, Churchill dealt with a stream of leaders who looked everywhere for a third way on the Nazi question, following the quest all the way into the lion’s jaws. They, and the country they led, were very nearly swallowed. The lesson here is a living one, for in politics, theology, and even the life of the local church, we will all be tempted at some point to seek a third way when one does not exist.
The film serves—with its focus on smoky back rooms inhabited by powerbrokers—as a fitting counterpoint to Nolan’s combat-oriented Dunkirk. Both films show us the terrible price of compromise and visionless leadership.
As in 1940, so in 2017. The hour is dark. The enemy is among us. The wolf is at the door. Placed in a time like this, we need a recovery of the Word and the gospel. We need conviction and loving courage from the officer-corps of the church, the pastor-theologians who lead doxological congregations. We need clear moral thinking and living in an age that entices us to make peace with evil.
As in 1940, so in 2017. The hour is dark. We need clear moral thinking and living in an age that entices us to make peace with evil.
But our reflections cannot end with us. Our eschatology is distinctly, indivisibly, Christological. Put more simply, there is one greater than Satan at hand. There is a figure that renders Winston Churchill, a leader of epic courage and wisdom, but a speck of dust in comparison.
In worthy portraits like Darkest Hour, we gain a glimpse—just a glimpse—of the coming king. He will come robed in power and glory. He will stride onto the world stage when the very possibility of his presence seems unthinkable. He will arrive at our darkest hour, at the time of the Father’s choosing. And in that moment, he will not merely do battle with his enemy, but will destroy him entirely.
Like the vaunted heroes of old, Jesus Christ may appear to be historical fiction. Soon, however, we shall see him as he is.