James Bowman: why Americans should see “Darkest Hour”

Summary: James Bowman reviews Darkest Hour, a powerful film about May and June 1940, the beginning of Britain’s finest hours (Churchill’s phrase; he never called them the “darkest hours“). It shows the willingness of many Brits to negotiate with Hitler, Churchill’s adamant leadership — which kept Britain in the war — and has an important message for us today about leadership.

“He {Churchill} gave a brilliant little speech.”
— Diary entry of John Colville, Churchill’s well-bred personal secretary, about Churchill’s “blood, sweat, and toil” speech on 13 May 1940. Before the speech the House cheered Chamberlain but Churchill “was not well received.

Darkest Hour

Review of Darkest Hour

By James Bowman. From The American Spectator, 6 February 2018.
Reposted from his website with his generous permission.

It is now impossible for us to watch a movie like Darkest Hour, or to contemplate the colossal historic presence of Winston Churchill, without the benefit of hindsight. He was right when almost everyone else was wrong. He led his country through great suffering to victory and so is remembered as a great man. But he was also lucky. It could so easily have turned out differently; he might have led his country and the empire only to ruin, in which case he would now be remembered as a fool and a bungler, if not one of history’s villains.

The virtue of Darkest Hour is that by showing Churchill (Gary Oldman) as having been full of doubt and hesitation as to the course about which he was outwardly so confident as to brook no compromise, it captures some of that feeling of the looming failure in the effort whose success we would otherwise be tempted to regard as merely a foregone conclusion — which nobody at the time could or would have done.

But the film’s director, Joe Wright, and screenwriter, Anthony McCarten, seem to me to have taken this idea to an unfortunate extreme. Some attempt at simplification of complex political countercurrents was inevitable if they were to win and keep an audience, but too often they only have recourse to cinematic cliché bordering on caricature, particularly in the case of Churchill’s main Conservative adversaries, Halifax and Chamberlain (Stephen Dillane and Ronald Pickup respectively) who are as opaque as the movie Churchill is transparent — as opaque as any movie bad-guy whose only function it is to submit himself to being vanquished by the appropriate movie good-guy.

Nazi flags flying at University of Greenwich, London.Nazi flags flying at University of Greenwich, London

I think they would have made a much better movie if they had done things the other way around and shown us Halifax and Chamberlain, and with them the considerable British constituency they would have represented in 1940, from the inside and shown Churchill only from the outside — as the greatness of great men should, perhaps, privilege them to be shown. Greatness is, or ought to be, something of a mystery. At any rate, this is the way people at the time would have seen him, which is what made his greatness possible. How much better, in other words, to have left the mystique of his charisma and leadership undisturbed instead of reducing it to an allegedly human but frankly rather banal scale.

Lily James as Elizabeth Layton
Lily James, who plays Elizabeth Layton.

But, given that that’s not the movie they made, we should appreciate the good things they have done in process of making it. The climactic scene of Churchill’s address to Parliament is genuinely moving and gives something of the sense of what it must have been like to be there on that most memorable, in retrospect, of occasions.

Both here and elsewhere, Mr Oldman’s performance as Churchill, like that of Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, is very fine, as are several of those in supporting roles, including Lily James as the young secretary, Elizabeth Layton, whose fragile presence goes very much against the grain of the current Hollywood prejudice in favor of feminine kick-ass toughness but who forms all the connection the great man needs with those outside the Palace of Westminster whose fates are being decided by those within it.

And that is what makes it so great a pity that the film-makers thought it necessary to include a wholly fictional scene in which the new Prime Minister, as he is being driven to parliament, ducks out of his official car and into an Underground station in order to sound out ordinary Londoners about what they think he ought to do after the fall of France and before the extraction of the greater part of the British army from the beaches of Dunkirk. He does this at the urging of the King himself (Ben Mendelsohn), which makes it all the more absurd in my view, and as he was coming under pressure from his own party to arrive at some kind of accommodation with Herr Hitler.

This, too, gets the the real-life story of Churchill’s leadership — and, indeed, leadership itself — the wrong way around. Not only did real-life Churchill never do anything of this kind, but if he had he would certainly not have encountered the kind of unanimity for fighting on that the film displays among ordinary people — including a happy, Macaulay-quoting black person whose presence here also jerks us for the moment out of the politics of London in 1940 and into those of Hollywood in 2017. Also in 1940, there would in all probability have been a majority for making a deal with Germany. It was precisely because Churchill, through the force of his own personality as a leader supplied his country with the fighting spirit which had been lacking up until that point that we now remember him as a great man.

Churchill’s own words, uttered at his eightieth birthday celebration nine years after the war ended with the victory he promised, should not be taken at face value. “I have never accepted what many people have kindly said — namely, that I inspired the nation,” he averred. “Their will was resolute and remorseless, and as it proved unconquerable. It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” For that kind of modesty is also part of what it means to be a leader. By giving the credit to those who follow you — or, as Shakespeare’s Henry V does after the battle of Agincourt, to God — you show that magnanimity (literally “largeness of spirit”) which induced people to follow you in the first place.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Clementine Churchill
Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Clementine Churchill in the film.

Movies about historical events always tell us more about the time in which they were made than they do about the time in which they are set. Though not intended and, so far as I know, hitherto unrecognized, there is an interesting parallel in Darkest Hour between the (fictional) Conservative-led government of 1940 and the (actual) Conservative-led government of today. See, for instance, the editorial in The Daily Telegraph headed: “The Tories don’t know what kind of Brexit they want. They aren’t showing real leadership.” The editorialist goes on to ask, rhetorically, “What is wrong with the UK Government? Where is its courage? The politics of the moment are complex, for sure, but Theresa May governs with the mandate of both a referendum and an election victory. If national consensus appears to be lacking, it is the job — the duty — of the Government to build one.”

That, as it happens, is exactly the job that the real-life Winston Churchill took on and succeeded at long before there seemed any realistic prospect of the victory that he promised in the great speech to Parliament that is the movie’s climax and that consensus ultimately led to. It is also the real reason why many still regard him as the greatest man of the 20th century. As a military leader his record was decidedly spotty, but as a political leader it was unparalleled.

That Darkest Hour forgets this and instead portrays him as acting only after setting up an impromptu focus group in a railway carriage is, as the Telegraph editorial suggests, symptomatic of a larger cultural loss of memory as to just what real leadership involves — in a democratically governed country as much as in any other.


Trailer for The Darkest Hour


James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

The data debunks the legend. The impact of Churchill’s speeches is exaggerated: “Winston Churchill’s speeches were overrated and some ‘went down badly’” by Jasper Copping at The Telegraph. Much as in the US, the effectiveness of the President’s “bully pulpit” is wildly exaggerated.

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about film and TV reviews, about Winston Churchill, about WWII, and especially these…

  1. Losing touch with our past weakens us.
  2. A Destiny of Failure – Germany’s plans to invade England during WWII.
  3. The teaching of ignorance: what nation most contributed to the defeat of Germany in WWII?
  4. James Bowman gives an extraordinary review of “Dunkirk.”

One of the best biographies of Churchill.

A three volume set by William Manchester — The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill.

  1. Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 – about his youth and exciting early career.
  2. Alone, 1932-1940 — his years in political exile.
  3. Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 — his glory years and long slow decline.
Visions of Glory: 1874-1932
Available at Amazon.
The Last Lion - Alone: 1932-1940
Available at Amazon.
Defender of the Realm: 1940-1965
Available at Amazon.


7 thoughts on “James Bowman: why Americans should see “Darkest Hour””

  1. Stimulating review. I appreciate the point of internal doubts and reasoned outward certainty . I will watch the movie and make further comments.

  2. Interesting to consider that the conservatives were defeated in a landslide in ’45, despite Churchill’s popularity.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Manchester discusses that in his biography. Churchill was popular as a war leader. He was put into office by the support of the Labour Party. But they did not like him, and certainly did not trust him to run Britain after the war.

  3. The reviewer gets it exactly backwards. Churchill was a fool and a knave not to negotiate an end to the war in 1940. Germany had no demands to make on the British Empire, and was not even insisting on the return of the overseas colonies that were stolen from her at the end of the Great War. Hitler would certainly have agreed to evacuate all his forces from Western Europe, as he never wanted a second war with the western democracies anyway, and had previously and publicly accepted all the territorial revisions in the west that were arrived at through Versailles (even including the permanent ceding of Alsace-Lorraine to France, which no German govt during the Weimar period dared to do!)

    So given all that, all Churchill had to insist on in peace negotiations would be that Germany allow the re-constitution of an independent, sovereign Poland that was centered on Warsaw and Krakow. Just as a matter of realism, let Germany keep West Prussia and Danzig (which had always been German anyway). Hitler would probably have taken the deal. He always wanted peace and even friendship with Britain, and as a nationalist himself, he certainly could understand the need of the Poles for a nation of their own.

    That Churchill rejected this line of thinking and chose instead total war, and the sure death of tens of millions, seems flat-out insane. God preserve us from such “leaders” in the future!

    So please, let’s not glorify Churchill. His decision in the early summer of 1940 to fight on was the most catastrophic decision of the 20th century. The price is horrifying to even contemplate.

    P.S. In the event of a negotiated peace in the West in 1940, it’s quite possible there may have been a subsequent German-Soviet war. But in that case, the western democracies could have stayed neutral, continued building their strength and arming themselves to the teeth while the two dictatorships tore the guts out of each other, and waited on subsequent events.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Churchill would have fought until the British Empire was burned to the ground rather than sign a deal with the Nazi’s. I think most people in the West agree with him.

      You obviously don’t. That’s sad. But we’re not going to discuss it. Good-bye.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “I certainly don’t, Farewell..”

      I don’t understand your comment. You don’t what?

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