It is notable that in the past year alone we have seen the release of three films involving the Battle of Dunkirk in May 1940—Dunkirk, Their Finest, and Darkest Hour. Darkest Hour, the story of Winston Churchill taking over the leadership of Britain right at the time of the battle, itself overlaps with two other shows from 2017: Churchill, which portrays him at the time of D-Day, and The Crown, a TV series about the early reign of Elizabeth II, in which Churchill is an important supporting character.
The world’s continuing fascination with Winston Churchill can be measured by the sheer number of times he been portrayed in the movies and on television. A short list of the actors who have played Churchill includes Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Bob Hoskins, Rod Taylor, Simon Ward, John Houseman, and Timothy Spall. The most recent films add three new actors to the mix. John Lithgow, the only American in the group (and to date the only actor to play both Churchill and FDR), won an Emmy for his performance in The Crown,but neither that program nor his performance will be considered here. The two movies that will be considered are Darkest Hour, for which Gary Oldman is a much-deserved, odds-on favorite for this year’s Best Actor Academy Award, and Churchill, in which Brian Cox gave an unfairly neglected
Even if Churchill did not have the reputation of being the savior of Western civilization, it is obvious why actors would want to play him. His soaring eloquence, his indomitable courage, his lapidary wit, his volcanic temper and his outrageous eccentricities all make him a unique and formidable character, a feast for any actor up to the task.
Like most Americans born in the years after World War II, I grew up revering Churchill, and I still do. This is what makes the revisionist history on him so hard for me to swallow, even as I realize it must be true. Churchill was an old-fashioned imperialist, hellbent on saving the Empire, and as such the list of horrors that can be laid in the doorway of Chartwell is long and appalling. Churchill sent the Black and Tans against Irish independence fighters, and armed troops against striking workers; he allowed the mass imprisonment and torture of thousands, including Barack Obama’s grandfather, during the Kenyan uprising of the early 1950s; he caused a wartime famine in Bengal, in which as many as 3 million people died, by requisitioning Bengal’s rice crop for the war effort and then refusing to send emergency replacement rations. His racist remarks are well-documented, as is his prewar praise
for Italian Fascism, a depressingly common phenomenon among upper-class Britons in the 1920s and 1930s.
In short, Churchill always gave plenty of ammunition to his enemies, of which he had and still has many. There are those who say Churchill should be ranked not with Roosevelt and Eisenhower, but with Hitler and Stalin. Against that, we can only point to the greatest moment of his career, in which he woke to the evils of Hitler much sooner than the rest of the British leadership, and eventually led his country to victory against the greatest threat it faced in its thousand-year history. In this, Churchill was magnificent.
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, presents Churchill at his most beleaguered and most awe-inspiring. In May 1940, Churchill—who had served for the previous eight months as First Lord of the Admiralty—assumed the office of Prime Minister from Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), just as Britain faced a disaster of unimaginable proportions: the Battle of Dunkirk. As more than 300,000 Allied soldiers languished on the beach, lacking sufficient transport to escape the Nazi troops surrounding them, a dying Chamberlain and his ally, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), called for immediate peace negotiations with Hitler. Facing enormous pressure for peace talks from Parliament, Churchill nevertheless declined. The movie trailer contains the money quote: You do not, Churchill said, negotiate with a lion when your head is in its mouth.
Darkest Hour makes it plain that Churchill by no means had the confidence of the nation when he became Prime Minister. Even his own Conservative Party was wary of him as a bellicose extremist. His heavy drinking was held against him, as was his ludicrous and solitary effort in 1936 to try and keep Edward VIII on the throne. Darkest Hour makes a point The King’s Speech elided: George VI (played here by Ben Mendelsohn) did not trust Churchill at the start of the war, or regard him as a friend. As the film shows us, it took Dunkirk to cement the bond between the two leaders. (The film also has it that a lovable corgi helped.)
Darkest Hour, then, is the story of how Churchill gained the confidence of king and country. It is, of course, a fiercely dramatic story, Wright’s direction charging full speed ahead over some of the most fateful and dangerous days of the war. However, it is Gary Oldman’s performance that gives Darkest Hour its distinctive power and weight. Oldman seems more authentically Churchillian than any other actor who has played the role; part of the credit goes to Kazuhiro Tsuji, the masterful makeup artist Oldman asked to come out of retirement for Darkest Hour, but most of it must go to Oldman himself. Whatever your own conception of Churchill, Oldman’s is the Churchill of legend, in all his contradictions—ferocious and tender, stubborn and vulnerable. As well as looking like Churchill, Oldman has captured the timbre and cadence of
Churchill’s voice, so that when he intones the famous phrases from the Parliamentary speeches, he sounds absolutely authentic.
Oldman also brings an impish sense of humor to the role, all the better to play the wild quirks of behavior that Churchill famously exhibited. “I’m coming out as Nature made me!” Churchill shouts as a warning to his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) just before he emerges naked and dripping from the bathroom. (It is interesting that Darkest Hour, Churchill and The Crown all depict Churchill as learning important lessons in humanity from his secretaries. The truth of this is hard to assess—Churchill was notoriously hard on all members of his staff—but, again, it fits the legend.)
Darkest Hour benefits from a splendid cast, which also includes Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill and Samuel West as Anthony Eden. The film has a rousing final act arising from a “fun fact” about Churchill’s life: he rode the London Tube only once, and got hopelessly lost. Wright and McCarten contrive a second subway ride for him; whether there is any historical basis for it, it sums up something noble about the British national character, Churchill’s as well as that of the people on the train.
Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, on the other hand, is a sad story of a great man in decline. The thesis of the screenplay by historian Alex von Tunzelmann is that Churchill staunchly opposed the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, to the point that Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham) simply overrode him and went ahead with the invasion.
But did Churchill oppose the D-Day invasion? My admittedly superficial reading on the subject turns up sharp disagreements on this point, many of them politically motivated. Churchill apparently favored Allied landings in the Mediterranean for troops to enter Germany through its “soft underbelly,” but some historians insist he never tried to stop an invasion of Normandy. Thatcherite historian Andrew Roberts vehemently rejects the notion; of Churchill the movie, Roberts said, “It is a depiction that Dr. Goebbels would have been delighted with.” Sir Martin Gilbert, the pre-eminent living biographer of Churchill, insists it was Roosevelt, not Churchill, who delayed a Normandy landing from 1942 until 1944. Other historians, however, say Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that weather conditions and troop strength necessitated a delay until spring 1944, leaving
Stalin—by all accounts a vociferous advocate of the invasion—champing at the bit.
Whatever the truth about D-Day, there seems little doubt that Churchill in 1944—nearing his seventieth birthday and feeling the effects of a lifetime of heavy smoking, heavy drinking, overeating and overwork—was a frailer man than he had been only four years earlier. There also seems little doubt that Churchill—whether or not he actually opposed the Normandy invasion—was depressed at its prospect, and for good reason. Nearly thirty years before, Churchill had championed an invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli as a quick end to World War I. The invasion turned out to be a catastrophe, dragging on ten months to an Allied defeat that cost 250,000 casualties. Although the incompetence of the commanders present at the battle was mostly to blame, Churchill was pilloried, and his reputation did not really recover until Dunkirk.
Churchill’s own writings show his grief over the losses at Gallipoli, and Churchill the movie shows that grief spilling over into the prospect of D-Day. The first scene is a dream sequence in which Churchill is walking on the beach near Dover. He accidentally drops his hat in the surf; bending over to pick it up, he sees the water is tinged with blood.
This sets the tone for Churchill, a well-made but mournful and downbeat film. The reasons for Andrew Roberts’ disapproval are obvious. Churchill is portrayed at loose ends; his hands tremble, he is prone to blackouts, and his temper and drinking are out of control. Brian Cox captures the Churchillian manner and voice as well as any actor who has ever attempted the role, with the single exception of Gary Oldman. It is not Cox’s fault that the Churchill he is given to play is—to be blunt—a downer.
The film benefits greatly from Miranda Richardson’s performance as Clementine. In fact, Richardson may be the outstanding cinematic Clemmie to date. Churchill shows to what extent Clemmie was her husband’s moral and emotional support, and what that role cost her. In Churchill, the strain is so great that she is on the verge of leaving him. Richardson makes Clemmie’s love for her husband, and her rage against him, immediate and heartbreaking. The scenes between Cox and Richardson are by far the best in the film, as a moving portrayal of a difficult but loving marriage.
Considering the two films, it is not surprising that Darkest Hour was the hit. In a current scene of venal, visionless politicians, it is good to see a hero in action. Whether Churchill deserves to be regarded as a hero is up to you. Whatever else might be clear, Winston Churchill is still with us, puffing his cigar and flashing his V for Victory, and he is not going away soon.