Darkest Hour – How Much Of It Is True?


Following Gary Oldman's Oscar win for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in biopic ‘Darkest Hour’, Brian Lavery’s book ‘Churchill Warrior: How a Military Life Guided Winston’s Finest Hours’ has hit the bookstores. Here, Mr Lavery tells the Forces Network what the film gets right and wrong about our iconic wartime PM.

Winston Churchill had a unique experience of all three services which made him a natural war leader. 

He had been a junior cavalry officer then served in the trenches of the Western Front.

His two terms as First Lord of the Admiralty and his naval reforms just before World War One are greatly underestimated in my opinion.

He expanded the first naval air service, failed to learn to fly, saved the RAF from extinction just after the first war, and made a special study of air power in 1930.

In addition, he had determination, a combative style and a unique way with words, both written and spoken. 

Churchill 1900
Churchill as a war correspondent in 1900 covering the Boer War (image: Library of Congress)

But not everyone agreed that he should lead the country during the grave crisis of 1940.

There were plenty who remembered his recklessness in the past.

‘Darkest Hour’ tells the story of how he overcame these doubts.

The House of Commons we see in the film is bigger, darker and even rowdier than what we are used to seeing on television.

All the same, it is quite true that Churchill came into power due to an ultimatum by Labour, who would not join a coalition under Neville Chamberlain.

The main theme of the film is how he won over the Conservatives who mistrusted him, and some of whom were anxious to make a deal with Hitler. 

Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is the best I have seen, including those by Albert Finney, Timothy Spall and Robert Hardy.

With help from the makeup department, he looks more like Churchill than any of them. 

We have an accurate picture of his work and home life (though the two were practically inseparable as he dictated memos from the bath or in bed.) 

His wife’s lecture at the beginning, telling him to be less grumpy, was actually in a letter which she tore up then stuck together again and gave to him.

It seems to have worked. 

Churchill on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales; he was there for a conference with US president Franklin Roosevelt to establish the Atlantic Charter that would shape the post-war world
Churchill on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales; he was there for a conference with US president Franklin Roosevelt to establish the Atlantic Charter that would shape the post-war world

It is often said that Churchill had never been on a bus – not literally true as he was taken to the front line with his regiment on one in 1916, but it was a sign that he did not always have his finger on public opinion. 

But the least realistic scene in the film is on the London Underground.

For one thing, a single stop to Westminster Station would not take more than two minutes, not much time to make a case, and as everyone knows, passengers never talk to one another on the tube.

And the historical records show that it never happened. 

The rousing (but inaccurate) London Underground scene from 'Darkest Hour'

If Churchill needed a gauge of public opinion, he did not need to look any further than our dear old Dad’s Army (my own father was a member).

On 20 May, as the German tanks rolled through France and Belgium, Anthony Eden broadcast a call for volunteers and had a fantastic response even before he had finished speaking, with a million and a half men by the end of the month. 

Maybe they were no more competent than we have seen on TV, but they were just as enthusiastic as Captain Mainwaring and his men.

This was not a nation which wanted to make peace with the Nazis.

Second World War
Churchill with Stalin and Roosevelt at the Yalta, or Crimea, Conference towards the end of the war (image: Library of Congress/US Signal Corps)

The importance of Dunkirk is exaggerated in the film, and in any case, most of the men were taken off by naval ships from the harbour, not all by civilian craft as the final title states.

Even if the operation had failed, Churchill with his vast and unique experience knew full well that the Germans would still have had to defeat the Royal Air Force then the Royal Navy before invading Britain.

He never really believed that was likely but he used the threat, as he used Dunkirk and the Home Guard, to build up morale and impress the Americans. 

The film is certainly worth seeing, but historically it leaves something to be desired.

To get Brian Lavery’s book, click here. Enter the code Churchill18 to receive a £5 discount.

Churchill Warrior by Brian Lavery front cover

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