WASHINGTON, December 29, 2017: Britain has been at war with Nazi Germany eight months when Winston Churchill becomes the king’s first minister on May 10, 1940.
He is the only member of the Conservative Party opposition leaders are willing to serve under in a unity government.
This highly charged moment is recounted in the new film “Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright and starring Garry Oldman as England’s valiant and anachronistic wartime leader.
Leaving the political wilderness
This is Churchill freshly out of the political wilderness. He is a man mistrusted by his party for his relentless attacks on his own Prime Minister, whose diplomatic acceptance of Hitler’s Czechoslovakian occupation Churchill said:
“The German dictator, instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.”
And King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is no fan of Churchill either.
“His record is a litany of catastrophe,” the king tells the outgoing Chamberlin. “Gallipoli [the failed Dardanelles Campaign of WWI]… 25,000 dead, the India policy, the Russian civil war, the gold standard, the abdication [of King Edward VIII] and now this… Winston lacks judgment.”
“But he was right about Hitler,” Chamberlin (Ronald Pickup) concedes.
“Well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” the king replies.
But a powerful few, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and Chamberlin himself, members of Churchill’s own war cabinet, believe England’s new leader should accept an offer by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to broker a diplomatic settlement between the German dictator and Britain’s new government, with the latter accepting the inevitability of fascism’s stranglehold on continental Europe.
But in his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, Churchill declares war a second time on Hitler’s Germany. He insists that his government’s policy is to “wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime… for without victory, there is no survival.”
The response to the speech is tepid at best.
A war within a war
This is a different kind of war film. It does not chronicle the contest between Churchill and his nemesis in Berlin. Rather, it portrays the internal struggle between Churchill and the holdovers from the previous government. Persons from his own Conservative Party whose policy of “Appeasement” legitimized Hitler’s designs on Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland.
Done at the Munich Conference of 1938 it vastly reduced England’s defense spending at a time Germany was rearming in violation of the Versailles Treaty.
When Churchill orders 4,000 British troops to engage German forces at Calais, an act of certain death, to buy time for 300,000 British troops marching to the coastal city of Dunkirk, his foreign secretary objects.
“The deadly danger here is the romantic fantasy of fighting to the end,” says Halifax. “What is the end if not the destruction of all things? There is nothing heroic in going down fighting if it can be avoided. Nothing even remotely patriotic in death and glory if the odds are firmly on the former. Nothing inglorious in trying to shorten a war that we are clearly losing. Europe is lost. And before our forces are wiped out completely, now is the time to negotiate, in order to obtain the best conditions possible. Hitler will not insist on outrageous terms. He will know his own weaknesses. He will be reasonable.”
“When will the lesson be learned?” asks Churchill, “when will the lesson be learned? How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased… before we learn you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
A choice between death and dishonor
Despite his bravado, Churchill is not sure what direction to take: does he try and convince his countrymen to fight a German invasion to the last man or to seek a peace agreement with a murderous and dishonorable despot.
And so, Churchill rides the London underground and takes an impromptu poll of sorts.
“Let me ask you this,” he says to the thunderstruck subway passengers, “if the worst came to pass and the enemy were to appear on those streets above, what would you do?”
To a man and woman, they shout, “Fight!”
“What if,” Churchill prods, “I put it to you all, that we ask very nicely, get very favorable terms from Mr. Hitler if we enter into a peace deal with him right now. What would you say to that?”
“Never,” they all respond. Even a very young girl.
The surprised Churchill asks her, “You will never give up?”
“No, never,” she says.
And with that, Churchill recites to her a portion of Lord Macaulay’s poem “Horatius at the Bridge”:
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.’”
A fight to the death it is.
“Darkest Hour” is playing in theaters nationwide.