Top-flight performances from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Clementine, have generated a keen interest in Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright’s depiction of Britain tottering on the edge of defeat to Nazi Germany in May 1940. The film looks terrific and has an air of authenticity. However, this is a movie that purports an authentic telling of how Churchill and his freshly formed coalition government responded to the prospect of an imminent German invasion.
To its credit, Darkest Hour acknowledges that Churchill, when faced with Lord Halifax, a foreign secretary who saw negotiation via Mussolini as a necessity, did reluctantly sanction clandestine talks. But any such initiative was overtaken by events at home and, crucially, across the Channel, enabling Churchill after the war to foster a popular belief that he never wavered in his determination to “go it alone”.
In a fictional scene, the prime minister’s spine is stiffened by consulting defiant passengers on the Tube and calling on the full cabinet to rally behind him. A meeting of ministers did take place, albeit not on the scale depicted in Darkest Hour; but by then the balance of power within the five-man war cabinet had swayed in Churchill’s favour. With the “miracle” of Dunkirk, the Royal Navy controlling home waters, the RAF’s defensive and offensive potential by no means shattered, and the full resources of the empire complementing the British war effort, survival was conceivable, if scarcely possible. Lord Halifax, kept at the Foreign Office in the interest of Conservative Party unity, became an isolated figure within a war cabinet where even Neville Chamberlain, deposed premier and arch appeaser, now recognised Churchill’s determination to carry on the fight.
Halifax is Darkest Hour’s villain, colluding with Chamberlain and George VI to take Churchill’s place. However, the king begins to see the prime minister in a fresh light, Chamberlain acknowledges the power of his successor’s rhetoric, and old enemies on the Tory benches find themselves cheering their hero’s usurper. In reality friendship between Churchill and George VI evolved over time; the terminally ill Chamberlain was surprisingly loyal; and, other than stalwart anti-appeasers on the back benches, Conservative MPs first cheered Churchill after the French fleet was sunk at Mers-el-Kébir in early July 1940.
Crucially, Lord Halifax did not conspire to become prime minister, as on 9 May 1940 – the day the film begins – he was given the chance to take office. In a crucial meeting with Chamberlain and Halifax, Churchill stayed silent when the then PM asked if there was any reason why a peer should not take over at No 10. At such a dire moment a constitutional accommodation was possible.
Yet Halifax admitted to close allies that he was in no mood to seize the levers of power, especially if Churchill was left running the war. For the remainder of 1940, Halifax maintained a relatively cordial working relationship with Churchill until appointed ambassador in Washington, DC in 1941. Earlier in his career he was a reformer when viceroy of India, and at a critical moment in the Czech crisis had taken a surprisingly firm line when the Führer upped his demands. “The Holy Fox”, as he was nicknamed, was synonymous with privilege, patronage and high church piety, but was not the cold, calculating Iago we see in Darkest Hour.
The film opens with Clement Attlee attacking Chamberlain in a shrill, snarling voice at odds with his actual mode of parliamentary assault – understated, succinct, pointed and quietly effective. The Labour leader, so crucial in supporting Churchill’s uncompromising position, then all but disappears from the film. Instead, Anthony Eden, minister of war and always a wary ally of Churchill, becomes an ad hoc member of the war cabinet. Thus, Eden is ever present at the PM’s side, while Attlee makes no contribution to the stand-off between Churchill and Halifax. (And if Churchill ever did describe Attlee as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, it certainly wasn’t in 1940.)
Eden was of course a more glamorous figure than Attlee, and for a scriptwriter it makes sense to place him centre stage. The price, however, is yet again overlooking Labour’s key role at the most dangerous moment in this country’s history.
Too often Tory attack dogs label the Labour Party “unpatriotic”, but in May 1940 its leaders gave Churchill the unequivocal support he needed when refusing to surrender. Ignoring Attlee’s vital role is just one more failing in a deeply flawed film.
Adrian Smith is emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Southampton.
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history