Darkest Hour – Not Even Remotely Based on a True Story

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.

Sandford

14 comments

  1. The unfortunate thing about fictionalized movie versions of history is that they begin to be accepted by the general public as accurate depictions of the events portrayed. How many more people will watch the movie than read Lukac’s book?

  2. Exactly right, Professor Borins. I had read Lukacs’s book, and so was disappointed by the blatant inaccuracies of the film. Thank you for setting the record straight. The Underground focus group scene was beyond preposterous, not just because it didn’t happen, but because it presents the wrong view of how Churchill thought, as you say. Lukacs’s book takes pains to emphasize the cordiality of the debate between Churchill and the Halifax. And so on. Weirdly, John Lukacs is mentioned in the first few line of the credits as “Historical Consultant” . I guess McCarten didn’t listen very carefully.

  3. I just got off the phone with John Lukacs, who is an old friend of our family. Naturally he was disappointed in the movie, for the reasons you describe. I mentioned that you had written a piece explaining in detail how the movie had gotten it so wrong, as evidence that the flaws in the movie had not gone unnoticed. He seemed to draw some comfort from that fact.

  4. This. Is. A. Film. If you want accuracy read non-fiction, go to a museum, or watch a documentary. People go to movies for different reasons i.e. story, drama, narrative, escape. In any good story you need an antagonist. Hitler is a looming threat, but we never really get to meet him. Due to the scale of the problem, Churchill needs to be at odds with someone in close proximity. If Halifax was some benign onlooker who had polite disagreements with Churchill, you’d loose 80 percent of the drama. His position is exaggerated to create dilemma for the protagonist. Without which we’d see absolutely no growth from Churchill. A story about a protagonist who doesn’t grow, change, or learn something isn’t a story at all, but rather, a recitment of events — like historical non-fiction. For examples of liberties taken to create good character, drama, and narrative in historical non-fiction see: Every. Other. Historical. Film. Ever. Made.

    • Sure, for a movie accuracy is probably not good for accuracy’s sake, and some liberties and dramatization is probably needed. But that’s not the problem here, as Sandford states.
      If we cut out Gary Oldmen’s portrayal, what do we have left? An uninspiring cliche with no complexity and forgettable plot and villain. A movie that will be forgotten by the next day.
      Frankly, making Chamberlain and Halifax actual complex characters with important skills that Churchill need, who though have a different view point does always have the best of the nation at heart instead of selfishly trying to drag Churchill down, and who Churchill have to both maneuver pass and win over seems like a much more fascinating story than what we got.

    • I see your point, Jack. For me, I love & own DVDs of HBO’s “Band of Brothers.” I’m sure there were lots of scenes, dialogue which weren’t accurate according to the actual soldiers who contributed their first-hand knowledge to Ambrose’s book and the television series. But it is captivating in a way documentaries cannot do for me–and I love documentaries and watch the good ones.

    • The notion of drama presented here is as false as can be. Euripides manages to implicate the savagery of Athens and write a darn good play in THE TROJAN WOMEN and Aristotle suggested fiction was to be larger not less than fact. High or low, art wants to help us sort through the mess not walk around it. Fiction isn’t fake news. Accuracy for its own sake is old timey history to be sure. Accuracy can hold some larger truths. Fact can be a source for the truth of fiction.

    • First problem with the old, “it’s just a movie, silly” argument is, the people making them want to be taken seriously, so the argument that their work is not serious belies their intentions. They don’t think they’re being silly, so they ought to be held to a serious standard, or else be known as silly people. “Silly People Present….Darkest Hour” Don’t think they’d like that. How people cannot find the facts of history more astounding and even entertaining than their own imaginations is another puzzle. Truth is stranger than fiction they say, what they don’t say is that’s because it’s true. Finally, there is an excess of character assassination going on in these little dramas, presumably that’s ok, too. Except if it happens to you. Just because it’s legal to take a man’s identity, make it into anything you like for profit, particularly if he happens to be dead, doesn’t exempt one from correction. I appreciate the Professor’s nimble refutation of the distortions set up in this very popular film, which I just saw. Told my son, I’m not too sure about that subway scene, it was obviously a bit of a laugh. It intruded on the otherwise plausible (until now) presentation. And was Winston Churchill ever in any doubt about continuing to fight? Seriously?

  5. I thought two of the reasons Halifax did not become prime minister are 1) he was a member of the house of lords and most of the real work was done in the house of commons and 2) he admitted to getting ‘a bad stomach ache’ when the king asked him to be prime minister–that is, he wasn’t comfortable with the idea.

  6. I was intrigued by the scene in which the king visits Churchill late at night. Up to that point, the prime minister is portrayed as being increasingly uncertain as whether to defy Hitler or negotiate.

    First we’re prepared by a scene in which the king expresses his anger at Hitler. Then in the visit scene, it’s the king who is pivotal in changing his prime minister’s mind – offering royal support and even friendship – and suggesting Churchill consult the people. Later there’s a scene on the balcony of the palace in which there is reference to the king ruling – even from Canada.

    These scenes appear to suggest it’s the king who initiates the change and saves the nation.

    I wonder how much this is subtle royalist propaganda, when the end of the current sovereign’s reign is foreseeable.

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