I saw Director Joe Wright’s homage to Winston Churchill – Darkest Hour – at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend. It will not be released until November 22, so this is a very early review.
The movie deeply disappointed me – not because of Gary Oldman’s powerful portrayal of a force of nature – but because screenwriter Anthony McCarten bastardized the true story of British Government decision-making during the critical month of May 1940. This was the month when the British forces in Europe were retreating to the beach at Dunkirk and the Nazis, through the Italian government, were proposing negotiations.
The question of whether the UK would negotiate with the Nazis was discussed at nine meetings of Churchill’s War Cabinet between May 24 and May 28. The War Cabinet consisted of Churchill, two ministers from the Conservative Party (former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax), and two ministers from Labour, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. The Labour ministers supported Churchill in opposing negotiations, Halifax favoured negotiations, and Chamberlain was undecided. For this discussion, Churchill invited Liberal Party leader Archibald Sinclair, a firm supporter of his position.
The War Cabinet discussions were recorded almost verbatim and, after the minutes were released in 1970, became the basis of John Lukacs’s definitive history Five Days in London: May 1940. Halifax advocated negotiations to avoid anticipated military and civilian losses, while Churchill argued that, as the British would be negotiating from a position of weakness, the Germans would likely demand the destruction of its armed forces, surrender of its Empire, and establishment of a puppet government in London. Halifax expressed his willingness to resign from the Government, which would have been disastrous for Churchill’s then shaky hold on power. A key moment, for which no records exist, was a “walk in the garden” Halifax and Churchill took. On the final day of these meetings (May 28), Churchill broke from the War Cabinet to meet with the other members of Cabinet and received ringing support for his determination to fight, not negotiate. He then took this endorsement back to the War Cabinet, and Halifax quietly ceased his advocacy of negotiations. The true story, then, is one of Churchill both outflanking Halifax and appealing to his sense of responsibility to stay in Cabinet.
Darkest Hour’s version of the story is very different. Halifax and Chamberlain are portrayed in a more sinister light, scheming to replace Churchill by putting his policy to the test of a vote of confidence. Churchill is portrayed as being at a loss about how to get control of the situation. He turns to the King, who suggests that he see what “the people” think. For the first time in his life, Churchill decides to ride the Underground. In a journey of two stops he asks a half-dozen people standing near him whether Britain should fight or negotiate. This impromptu focus group urges him to fight and never surrender. Armed with this popular “mandate,” Churchill has the courage to overrule Halifax. Churchill then meets the other members of Cabinet, who endorse his position, and he goes from there directly to the House of Commons, where he delivers his famous “we shall fight on the beaches … we shall never surrender” speech, and receives a standing ovation, including Chamberlain. At that point, Halifax admits defeat. In the final screen of the movie, we learn that Churchill sent Halifax “to Washington” several months later.
There are several things inaccurate about this version of the story. The subterranean focus group is pure fiction. Halifax gave up his advocacy of negotiations at the War Cabinet meeting of May 28. Churchill gave his “we shall fight on the beaches” speech a week later, on June 4. Finally, Churchill did send Halifax to Washington – as Ambassador.
Seen in this light, screenwriter Anthony McCarten was attributing Churchill’s public policy victory to his successful reading of the mood of “the people” and his oratory. The use of the subterranean focus group represents a kind of populism, a belief that “the people,” not the elites, know best. In fact, Churchill’s policy victory was the result of his ability to win over the other members of the elite in the War Cabinet, including Chamberlain, and to neutralize Halifax. McCarten neglecting to mention that Churchill sent Halifax to Washington as ambassador was because McCarten had painted Halifax as a near-traitor, so that appointing him to represent the UK in its most critical diplomatic relationship would have made no sense. Had Halifax been portrayed in a more nuanced way, the appointment would have been understandable.
The great screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once asked “What is the big deal about accuracy for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true to be the enemy of the good?” I don’t believe in accuracy for accuracy’s sake, but in this case the true would have been a better and more compelling story than the bastardized one McCarten told.