On January 24, 1965, Winston Churchill died. The next day, Leo Strauss, a Jewish scholar of political philosophy who fled the rise of the Nazi regime, spontaneously eulogized the late British prime minister to his students at the University of Chicago.
The difference between Churchill’s statesmanship and Adolf Hitler’s tyranny, according to Strauss, had become a timeless lesson for everyone.
“The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant – this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time,” Strauss said.
“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman, depicts this lesson. It chronicles the beginning of Churchill’s premiership in the summer of 1940, culminating with his decision against negotiating a peace with the Nazi war machine. This depiction of Churchill’s resolve in the face of disaster is an expression of what Strauss taught: While Hitler commanded his forces with totalitarian brutality, Churchill instead took strength from the British people and carried out their will.
On Dec. 16 in the Searle Center, Oldman joined the film’s producer Douglas Urbanski and College President Larry Arnn for a panel discussion of the film, which was screened on campus the night before. Arnn, a Churchill scholar, praised “Darkest Hour” for showing just how perilous the summer of 1940 was. Nothing about victory was inevitable.
“That moment wasn’t about trends or social movements. It was about a choice, and a providential one at that,” Arnn said.
Because everyone knows the war’s outcome, the struggle for a film like this is keeping the audience on the edge of its seat. To achieve that sense of suspense, “Darkest Hour” is shot like a thriller. Wright, known for his 2005 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice” and his 2007 war drama “Atonement,” uses light and motion in his cinematography to communicate both the stakes of the conflict and Churchill’s lonely position.
Unlike so many films about historical heroes, “Darkest Hour” does not engage in a revisionism that undermines its subject’s greatness. Both Oldman and Urbanski said their admiration for Churchill grew as they worked on the movie, and that they came to understand the greatness it took to stand against fascism with little hope even for survival.
During the panel, Oldman recounted a visit he made to the Churchill War Rooms in London while doing research for the film. There, he saw the chair Churchill sat in during cabinet meetings and noticed small divots Churchill made on the chair’s arm by tapping his ring on it.
“In this piece of furniture, you can see his anxiety and stress,” Oldman said. “This was a man on fire with energy and a fixity of purpose. I tried to work that into my performance — acting isn’t just an intellectual activity.”
Hollywood and the entertainment media are abuzz with rumors that Oldman’s performance as Churchill may win him Best Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards. He deserves to win.
While most actors depicting Churchill portray him as a grumpy drunk, Oldman’s Churchill is the animated Churchill of the newsreels, confidently flashing the V‑for-Victory on his way to the next world-historical speech.
But Oldman takes his performance beyond hagiography by highlighting the fits of depression Churchill suffered. Both sides of the man are important to understand his greatness; Oldman’s Churchill is no invincible superhero, and he is all the more worthy of wondering at for his humanity.
Based on the work of noted historian John Lukacs, especially his book “Five Days in London: May 1940,” the film has received praise from Churchill scholars for its historical authenticity, with the exception of one sequence towards the climax of the film.
Screenwriter Andrew McCarten imagined a scene in which Churchill takes the London Underground to Westminster, and his conversations with ordinary British subjects during the ride give him the courage to continue the fight against Nazidom.
Critics for a number of outlets have criticized the scene as an ahistorical contrivance — which it is. There is no record of Churchill ever taking such a trip. That said, the scene still conveys an historical truth about Churchill: He took his strength and courage from the people of the British Empire.
“Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable,” Churchill said in a 1954 speech. “It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
In this sense, the message of “Darkest Hour” reflects the message of another 2017 war movie set in 1940, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”
Unlike “Darkest Hour,” Nolan’s film forgoes historical exposition. Instead, it focuses on the men enduring the war on the frontlines and their miraculous salvation. Nolan strips down the war epic’s formula precisely because he wants to show the remarkable courage of the average Briton which Churchill praised so highly.
Both films end with a recitation of Churchill’s June 4, 1940 “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. In “Dunkirk,” one of the rescued soldiers quietly reads it aloud out of the newspaper, and in “Darkest Hour” Oldman performs it in all its glory.
The speech serves, in both cases, as an articulation of a deep truth: British resistance to the forces of tyranny saved the world. The days surrounding the evacuation of Dunkirk may have been Britain’s darkest hour, but it was also her finest hour.
“We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence,” Strauss said in his eulogy for Churchill. “For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.”
Churchill and the British people’s fight against Hitler’s onslaught was great because it represents the triumph of civilization over savagery, the victory of freedom over despotism, and the primacy of good over evil. They rallied when the world needed them most.
“It fell to me…to express [the British people’s] sentiments,” Churchill wrote in the second volume of his history of the war. “This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran though our Island from end to end.”
The same white glow which then wreathed Great Britain and her allies now shines through in “Darkest Hour.” The film is a beautiful tribute to the greatness of the British people and the man who led them through the most terrible crisis of modern history.