“Darkest Hour” is quite bad
The latest Darkest Hour movie is enjoyable and has high production values. It is, as lots of people say, rather a good flipside to the blockbuster Dunkirk. But whilst Dunkirk had merely a few absurdities amongst its conceits, Darkest Hour is, I declare, positively unethical in important parts of its story-telling.
[I am no expert in all this, so I suggest you read the Hansard record of the House of Commons debates mentioned below. (Easily done online.) I also recommend looking at Andrew Roberts on Darkest Hour in The Sunday Times, 28 January, 2018. I think he is too soft on the ethics of the issue, but he is of course much better informed on the history than I am.]
Grown-ups in the culture game have a duty to their audiences, and especially to their young audiences for whom infotainment is a substantial part of their education. Film-makers, like journalists or historians, have a duty to try be honest to the evidence, even as they necessarily tell a tale, or are positively revisionist.
Darkest Hour seems to have fallen victim to a few pretty standard soft-left liberal tropes, riffs or missions.It doesn’t like Tories and elites but loves Labour and The People.
The movie invented a vast keynote exposition in the House of Commons in early May 1940 which portrayed Attlee as a vigorous, powerful – almost Leninlike – Labour leader of the opposition, and his restless, vital, active supporters crying out, like a Cromwell and his supporters, for the vacillating, Tory, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to stand down. All the while, Chamberlain’s quiescent, disciplined supporters sit sullenly under the onslaught.
This didn’t happen. The Norway or Narvik debate of the time, which did indeed lead quite quickly to Churchill’s becoming PM, had a completely different focus. It didn’t discuss the merits of Chamberlain as Prime Minister directly. Government conduct of the few months of war thus far was indeed discussed, and the criticism as much came from Tory as from Labour benches. One of the things which was remarked was that Labour had refused repeated offers to co-operate in the conduct of the war, just as they had repeatedly resisted expenditure on rearmament before the war.
It is true that there was debate the previous year, in September 1939, in which there were calls for Chamberlain to declare war (not to stand down). The next day he did (and stayed as Prime Minister). Arthur Greenwood, Labour, did indeed make a rallying speech for war. He was urged on not least by the Tory Leo Amery, to “Speak for England”. So: not Attlee, not a call for resignation, and not merely a Labour call for action.
But the film-makers liked the idea of Toff Tories (who were, rightly given some marvellous lines) being put right by the doughty Labour-ites whose peaceability (arguably a decent stance, had it been show) was forgotten. Actually, and it’s important to note, Attlee was in some matters a supporter of Churchillian policies, and was admired for it by the Great Man.
The film-makers also liked to forget that The People – or The Audience – are not angels and are often Wrong. As a matter of history, it was reasonable of his doubters to disparage Churchill’s bellicosity. He was a wonderful man, and a turncoat and an opportunist. Before the war, and during it of course, his military admirers loved him, obeyed him, argued against him, despaired of him and were profoundly grateful for him. But in early May 1940 – as the film does actually show – it was perfectly reasonable and decent to cling to the hope that Hitler might be negotiable. (John Charnley’s book on Chamberlain strikes me as evidently fair and thoughtful.)
Darkest Hour invents a scene on the Underground which as silly as the scene it invents in the House of Commons. It isn’t silly because Churchill did not do such a thing. It was bad and horrible because it implied that The People knew we had to fight Hitler, and were up for it, and all Churchill had to do was be their voice, and take their message to the House of Commons and the Tories. But actually Churchill was not Corbyn reading out Tweets from The People. He was, rather, an astonishingly bold war leader who articulated a startling message and threw it down as a gauntlet and a rallying cry to a nation which had probably rather more war-shy voters than it had willing or even reluctant warriors. He turned that situation round: he was an elitist of the highest order. He was, after all, an aristocrat. But he had American blood, too: he had that sort of dash. He was a cavalry officer who knew about ponies, who went on to understand vast battleships, and tanks.
As someone, not an admirer, said in Darkest Hour, Churchill mobilised the English language. Exactly. Or as we would say now, he weaponised it. It is not unpatriotic, pedantic or paranoid to point out that rhetoric can corrupt thought: as Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar famously outlines.
This matters not least because it is important to understand what leadership can be like. Churchill was not the only model of leadership by a long chalk. Plenty of leaders are vital and not in the least like him. The post-war Attlee, or the present May, or Thatcher, or Blair – or Chamberlain – are not remotely Churchillian: isn’t it right to be interested and grateful that in their time they played their part, even if one doesn’t like their policies? It could be said that Hitler mesmerised a nation through the radio; well, so did Churchill. There is no serious moral equivalence between these propagandists, but back in May 1940 – to repeat – it was not unreasonable to resist Churchilliana.
One last ghastliness of Darkest Hour, and it is wholly unforgivable because it was a gratuitous untruth. The endnote of the movie spelled out in plain words that the civilian Little Ships brought the British Army home. No they didn’t. A few troops – some of them French – may have come all the way across the Channel in small boats. Actually, it was the Royal Navy – and some quite big civilian, Merchant Navy ships – which brought the majority home. The RN would have brought more had some of their grey rescue vessels not been bombed, killing many navy sailors and rescued soldiers alike. The movie Dunkirk was far more right about beach-to-ship ferrying role of the Little Ship fleet.