Darkest Hour (2017)

darkesthourposterHitler is at the height of his power in 1940. His forces are pushing aside opposition in France and Belgium and the British are retreating. An invasion of Britain is a real possibility. It’s not just the ‘other side’ the new wartime leader Winston Churchill has to worry about either. Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Halifax (Stephen Dillane), think that the best hope is a deal with the Nazis and and are plotting (seemingly with some approval from the King, George VI, at least at first) to undermine Churchill’s cabinet.

Churchill is the hero of this film and his many faults are downplayed. There is reference to his poor judgment and Galipolli and we do get a taste of his ruthless streak when he sacrifices troops like disposable pawns.

His extreme political views on certain topics are not referenced. As far on as 1937, then aged 62, he justified mass genocide of indigenous peoples on the grounds of white supremacy, announcing to the Palestinian Royal Commission: “I do not admit […] that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia.

“I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

That was nothing new for Churchill. In December 1910, aged 36, Churchill wrote to prime minister Herbert Asquith warning of the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes” (general terms then used to describe the mentally ill and impaired).

Their rapid growth, he asserted, together with the “steady restriction [of the] thrifty, energetic and superior stocks” (folks like himself, of course), constituted “a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”

He argued that they should be “sterilised” or “segregated under proper conditions so that their curse died with them and was not transmitted to future generations.”

As home secretary in 1911 he brought the artillery on to the streets of east London in a somewhat onesided battle to deal with Latvian anarchists in the siege of Sydney Street.

In 1910 he ordered the military into Tonypandy to support local police and authorities in quelling disorder and the strikes of the miners.

When Iraqis and Kurds revolted against British rule in northern Iraq in 1920, Churchill, then secretary of state at the War Office, said: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes. It would spread a lively terror.”

In the 1926 General Strike Churchill edited the government’s newspaper, the British Gazette, and used it to put forward his anti-union and anti-Labour views.

Before the War he even had a good opinion of Fascism and Hitler.

He wrote to Mussolini: “What a man! I have lost my heart! […] Fascism has rendered a service to the entire world […] If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely.”

As late as 1935 he wrote of Hitler: “If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”

In 1943, a famine broke out in Bengal and up to three million people starved to death. He bluntly refused any aid, raging that it was the Indians’ own fault for “breeding like rabbits.”

Of course these views, which jar with our values today, were far from unusual at the time. The past is another country. That’s not to say that there were not many even then who would have had an opposed view. There were. Let’s hope that some of those who go to see the film take a closer look at the history behind it.

He was certainly a bastard but to use the Sumner Welles phrase he was “our bastard” – at least during the War. He is described as the one UK politician who frightened Hitler and, perhaps, that is true. He was also, in my view, right on the likely outcome of appeasement.

The film does present Churchill as the contradiction he was. This is brought out in scenes with his long-suffering wife Clemmie (Dame Kristin Ann Scott Thomas) and family as well as scenes with his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).

An underlying theme of the film is the power of language and the importance of oratory. There are many scenes where we see Churchill mobilise the English language and send it to war (as Halifax puts it). Oldman’s Golden Globe-winning performance is forceful and effective and Churchill’s speeches have lost nothing of their persuasive and stirring qualities through his delivery.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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