Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. Winston Churchill, 1941
I’m going to be a bit of an outlier here, perhaps even a curmudgeon: I was underwhelmed by the newest Churchill movie, The Darkest Hour. It was, I’ll agree, entertaining. Gary Oldman was only vaguely recognizable as Gary Oldman, his physiognomy a remarkable facsimile of Churchill, if a bit mumbly at times. Beautiful and evocative, yes, in many ways. But the central conceit of the movie leaned heavily on the sort of thin sentimentalism found in an Up With People performance – all popcorn, very little meat.
The heart of the plot goes something like this: (Spoiler) Churchill agonized over whether to begin a negotiated surrender with Hitler and was crippled by the weight of the decision. Only a sturdy conversation in the subway with “the common people” quickened his resolve to stand firm, to fight, to never surrender. Newly strengthened, he addresses Parliament – “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” – and just before he speaks, he looks to his secretary who mouths the words from the galley, implying that she (an avatar of the common person) is giving him voice.
Reality was a bit less prosaic. In The Last Lion, William Manchester argues (implicitly) that Churchill’s unwavering, almost myopic hatred of Hitler and, more critically, what Hitler represented, was the motivating bulwark against English capitulation. There were some arresting scenes in the movie that allude to Manchester’s premise. The film opens on a black screen, complete darkness and then, poof, Churchill lights a cigar, highlighting his face. Later, an elevator rises from the “war room” (buried deep under London’s streets) and all is dark but for a single bulb in the elevator ceiling, illuminating Churchill. I am not suggesting that Churchill is a Christ-figure – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – he was nothing of the sort.
I am suggesting that the movie radically denudes a pivotal moment in world history and replaces it with after school special plot: a protagonist must confront inner demons of fear and doubt in the face of troubling bully but, with the help of friends and family, learns to stand firm. Jolly good, in its own way, but not nearly adequate to the weight of the moment.
Gone is an unflinching look at the terror into which Hitler had plunged Europe as he blitzkrieg-ed Poland and then Belgium, ignoring the distinction between solider and civilian, obliterating cities and towns and countryside on his way to Paris. Gone is Churchill’s almost lone voice, mostly ignored and mocked, crying “prepare” and “beware” for years prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. We see nothing of Hitler’s antipathy toward Churchill because he saw in Churchill a true adversary. And we have little sense of England’s war weariness, still recovering from the slaughter of a generation of young men in World War I and the understandable (yet profoundly mistaken) desire on the part of almost all to appease Hitler by any means necessary. The world was crippled with fear and dismay, desperately hoping “not again.” It was an almost impossible morass, in the midst of which Churchill addressed the House of Commons:
The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fall, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.” June 18, 1940
For all his considerable faults and blind spots – he was massive in ego, drank constantly, was unabashedly imperialistic – Churchill knew that the battle against Hitler was not simply to stop a genocidal tyrant, but to prevent a Dark Age in Europe, England and perhaps beyond. For that vision see The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon series with a plausible alternate ending to World War II. Only in hindsight do we see the “inevitability” of an Allied victory. The Darkest Hour borrows that sense inevitability and drains the moment of the crushing dread, felt by almost all in England, that soon, very soon, Nazi troops would land on their shores and inexorably and bloodily push their way to London. England could not stand against Hitler and, yet, it must. Churchill never doubted that.
In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal Review, Lynne Viola offers her pick for Five Best Books “on perpetrators of genocide and terror.” Common to them all is the sad march of “the people” to the drumbeat of history’s terrors. As much as we would like to think otherwise, we are all always capable of capitulating to evil or, as in England before World War II, we can become crippled by ambiguity and fear. Perhaps the writers of The Darkest Hour, rejecting the “the great man” read of history, were unwilling to see that sometimes we need people of uncommon vision and staggering resolve to lead us when all feels hopeless, or to guide us away from our worst selves into “the better angels of our nature.” Churchill was the leader the moment required, and his was a truly remarkable performance. He “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” forestalling, for a season at least, a more dystopian future. That’s a story with real substance, more so because it’s also the true story.