Darkest Hour: another film about 1940

Is this film any better at history than Dunkirk? Does it matter when you have such a multi-faceted central character as this ‘real war leader ’? Review.

David Elstein
20 April 2018

Darkest Hour poster.Quite why two films about the same few dramatic weeks in British history in 1940 should have been released in 2017 is one of the quirks of the movie industry.

Dunkirk was a massive box-office and critical success, and won three Oscars (all in technical categories). Darkest Hour cost much less – and earned much less – but snared a more coveted Oscar for Gary Oldman as best actor: his remarkable performance carrying the entire film, and fully compensating for his lack-lustre turn as Smiley in the big screen re-make of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

How do the films compare as history? I was unimpressed by Dunkirk’s technical conceits but even more disappointed by the central historical errors, so puzzling in such a compressed time-frame. In point of fact, Darkest Hour covers a longer period, and commits far more errors: but even if the key historical events are consistently misrepresented, at least we have an impressively multi-faceted portrait of its central character, eschewing the clichés of jutting bulldog jaw in search of a deeper emotional truth. How true that portrait is to the real Churchill – and his behaviour in those crucial weeks – is another matter, but probably not one that will worry its cinema audience.

John Lukacs – who was well into his 70s when he published “Five Days In London: May 1940”, nearly 20 years ago – is the historian who pioneered the focus on those crucial days, and the attempt, led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, to induce Churchill to open talks with Mussolini with a view to negotiating peace with Hitler. Lukacs is credited as an (or “the”?) historical consultant for Darkest Hour, but would surely cringe at the film’s opening and closing captions, not to mention the many howlers in between: that said, a 94-year-old can surely be forgiven.

Less indulgence can be expected by Anthony McCarten, the film’s writer. He artfully injects into the script a wide range of Churchillian references and quotes, even if not always in the right context. But he also gives much greater emphasis to the Halifax manoeuvre (and supposed support for it from Neville Chamberlain, still in the War Cabinet after relinquishing the premiership) than it merits.

Chamberlain actually largely supported Churchill’s policy, and the supposed option of persuading Mussolini to use his good offices to spare Britain from the fate of France had a minimal possibility of succeeding, reflecting essentially Halifax’s limited vision.

David Owen’s recent book (Cabinet’s Finest Hour), incorporating all the relevant cabinet documents of those days, traces the genesis of the idea, but also exposes its unreality. Churchill was never really in any danger of being dislodged by “the holy fox”. He and Chamberlain enjoyed a good relationship. It was aided by his generosity in allowing his predecessor to stay on in 10 Downing Street, and in entrusting him with the chairmanship of the War Cabinet during frequent Prime Ministerial forays into France, as he attempted to bolster resistance to the nerve-shattering German invasion.

Those documents debunk a risible scene in the movie where Churchill apparently watches a film presentation, ostensibly assembled by the chiefs of staff, demonstrating how the German army could successfully invade Britain, using high-speed motorboats, somehow evading the Royal Navy and the RAF. Of course, there was no such film, and the pessimistic briefing document that presumably inspired this invention was rapidly replaced by a more realistic version, as Owen’s assemblage reveals.

McCarten’s script compounds the foolishness by blurring the difference between General Ironside, who had been involved in the drafting of the first document, and General Dill, who replaced him the next day as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and signed the amended text – which was itself immediately and vigorously challenged by Churchill for over-stating the favourable German ratio in fighter aircraft at 4:1 (Churchill argued that it was more like 5:3, and that British combat superiority would quickly even that out.) According to McCarten’s script, Ironside was still attending the War Cabinet a week after he had been replaced – and Dill is never mentioned.

The problems of historical accuracy, of course, begin much earlier in the movie: right at the start, actually. Somehow, the German invasions of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway are merged with the impending assault on Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium and France, which has not yet begun, and about which British politicians knew nothing. Yet the script tells us that, on May 9, the “search is on for a new leader”, as “Hitler is poised to conquer the rest of Europe”.

The captions in the film itself are actually a little different from those in the published script. “Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway. 3 million German troops are now poised to conquer the rest of Europe. In Britain, Parliament has lost faith in its leader. The search for a replacement has already begun.” (The significance of the 3 million – other than to sound menacing, and match accompanying shots of marching German troops – is not clear: the combined totals of French, Belgian, British and Netherlands troops available to repel German attacks significantly exceeded 3 million.)

We then come to one of the director Joe Wright’s favoured top shots, this time of a packed and stormy House of Commons debate, with Clement Attlee speaking on behalf of the opposition. Despite the caption telling us that we are already at May 9, what we are seeing in fact happened on May 7. The debate that day was about the failed British attempt to seize Norway, foiled by a pre-emptive German strike (turning Chamberlain’s taunt that Hitler had “missed the bus” against him).

The Navy’s operation at Narvik had achieved significant success – arguably inflicting enough damage on the German fleet to make all the difference, in Admiral Raeder’s view, to his ability to assure Hitler that he could mount an invasion of Britain later that summer. The naval success had been Churchill’s responsibility, as First Lord of the Admiralty; but the Army assault on Trondheim had been improvised and muddled, and quickly failed.

As it happened, it was Arthur Greenwood, not Attlee, who made the most effective speech for Labour on the first day of the Norway debate (just as he had on the eve of war, when Attlee was away ill, with his “speak for England, Arthur” speech); and it was Herbert Morrison who led for Labour on the second day.

But the key speeches (ignored by the film) actually came from Conservative backbenchers, most notably Admiral Sir Roger Keyes and former Colonial Secretary Leo Amery. It was Amery who famously cited Oliver Cromwell, telling Chamberlain “in the name of God, go”. When the vote came, 60 Tories abstained, and 41 opposed their own leader, so reducing the government’s majority of over 200 to just 81. Chamberlain had appealed to his “friends” for support: the appeal backfired, as his friends deserted him.

At one point, director Wright (or, more accurately, writer McCarten, as can be seen from the script, which is available online) chooses to show an empty seat next to Chamberlain, and we hear the question “where’s Winston?”, implying that Churchill had abandoned his leader. Far from it: Churchill intervened in the debate, and wound up for the government, so forcibly that Lloyd George advised him not to continue acting as Chamberlain’s air-raid shelter.

The vote was taken at the end of the second day, May 8, and effectively torpedoed Chamberlain’s premiership. With Labour making clear it would not serve under him in any new, broadly-based national government, his fate was sealed.

There are many versions of how Churchill came to succeed him: in episode 2 (Alone) of The World At War, I used R A Butler’s account of the meeting on May 9 between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill (Tory chief whip David Margesson was also there). According to Butler, Chamberlain assumed that Halifax would take over, but Halifax demurred (ostensibly because a peer would have difficulty in leading a government essentially answerable to the Commons, though Butler mischievously suggested he also had a stomach ache). Churchill, on advice, said nothing, and stared out of the window: he was, by default, the only alternative.

The film’s version of the handover of power – far less dramatic and revealing – is a white tie dinner attended by Chamberlain and Halifax (but not Churchill), where Halifax sidesteps the question, saying his time has not yet come. In point of fact, Chamberlain briefly contemplated staying on, as news of the German attack on Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium came through on the morning of May 10, but he was dissuaded from doing so, and by the evening Churchill was Prime Minister.

One of Wright’s best touches in the movie is a beautifully lit scene between the King (who has just recited to Chamberlain all the reasons why Churchill should be mistrusted – Gallipoli, India, the Russian Civil War, impaling Britain on the gold standard) and the man who had for so long urged his older brother not to abdicate the throne.

What Churchill did not do – as portrayed in the movie – is move in to 10 Downing Street (he allowed Chamberlain to stay on, for more than a month, and continued to work from the Admiralty). Least of all did Anthony Eden – not even in the War Cabinet – greet him inside 10 Downing Street: why on earth would the Secretary of State for the Dominions do that?

Nor – contrary to the film – did the War Cabinet at this time meet in the underground war rooms: that happened much later, once systematic bombing of London and other cities began. Downing Street was the normal location. But then, nor did Miss Layton – the ingénue typist through whose eyes we observe Churchill’s eccentric work habits – join his staff till some after the film’s time frame concludes.

Not much of this matters, of course. Sensibly, McCarten and Wright choose where possible the dramatic over the actual. Even the most criticised scene in the film – an entirely fictitious encounter in the London Underground between Churchill (who never travelled on the tube) and a select bunch of ordinary passengers – has entertainment value that exceeds its absurdity.

We do not see Churchill buy a ticket. He travels one stop on the District Line, the only passenger to get on at St James’ Park and get out at Westminster. And that journey, normally lasting barely sixty seconds, takes five minutes in the film, as he engages with this artfully chosen cross-section.

One of them (the only black passenger), hearing Churchill quote Macaulay’s epic poem Horatius (“and how can man die better than facing fearful odds”), duly and improbably responds “for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods”. A mother, nursing an infant, allows the writer to inject another famous Churchill quote (“all babies look like me”). Collectively – and spuriously – they encourage him to stand up to the appeasers (as does the King, in another apocryphal scene).

The truth was rather more prosaic. We see Churchill rehearse the speech he is about to give in the Commons (“we will never surrender”) on June 4 before a group of Conservative junior ministers and backbenchers (the actual meeting, in his Commons office, was just with the “outer” cabinet, and took place a week earlier). He is seen citing the non-existent people in the tube who had encouraged him to express defiance. We have watched Halifax and Chamberlain apparently trying to trap him into formally refusing to open a form of negotiation with the Italian ambassador, which would then be the trigger for their joint resignations and an expected ejection of Churchill from office.

This, indeed, is the central conceit of the film, and does not really stand up to any close examination. The idea that Chamberlain was trying to force Churchill out within three days of his becoming Prime Minister, when his actual relationship with Churchill at this time was cordial and sympathetic, is far-fetched. It is true that Chamberlain remained (after discussion with Churchill) leader of the Conservative Party (not chairman, as the script says), and had great sway over his parliamentary colleagues. But when illness forced Chamberlain’s resignation in October, the Party duly elected Churchill in his place. It is easy to exaggerate the significance of the Party’s suspicions about Churchill in May 1940. And the notion that the Labour Party would accept Halifax as Prime Minister on May 14 when it had not called for his appointment on May 10 has no basis.

Unfortunately, the film effectively deletes the Labour War Cabinet members – and other Labour ministers – from the action, though they do feature, briefly and inaccurately, in the script as “all having lost faith in Churchill” before the end of May: a complete fabrication. Even the scene where Chamberlain tells Halifax he is dying of cancer is wrong: the diagnosis of the cause of his “trouble with his insides” – as he described it to his sisters – was not made till two months later.

As for talks with ambassador Bastianini, these had barely got past the preliminary formalities (which Churchill had reluctantly approved): anything substantial, involving Mussolini and then Hitler, was a remote gleam in Halifax’s eye – indeed, by June 4, Mussolini was less than a week away from joining the war, anxious to seize some territory in the south of France before Germany wrapped up the whole campaign.

In other words, the underlying premise of the film is deceptively simplistic, and has been dragged out of context. The early exchanges between Churchill and Halifax over Italy had been quickly resolved, and the more heated debate actually took place in nine cabinet meetings across just three days, much later in the chronology, from May 26 to May 28. This debate was very much within the context of French appeals for Britain to join in trying to persuade Roosevelt to invite mediation from Mussolini before French resistance collapsed, or even for Britain to offer Italy major concessions, such as joint sovereignty over Gibraltar, in order to trigger such mediation. The former was just about imaginable: the latter, almost certainly unacceptable.

Halifax wanted to support the French Prime Minister, Reynaud, by at least sounding out Italy. Churchill felt that any approach risked being seen as a sign of British weakness, but did not finally resist the idea. However, the surrender of the Belgian army on the morning of the 28th further imperilled the hundreds of thousands of British troops now surrounded at Dunkirk. He preferred to wait until the results of an evacuation operation were visible, as success there would indicate that we had good grounds for believing that British air superiority was sustainable.

When Halifax’s draft to the Italian ambassador was discussed by the War Cabinet, even he conceded that an approach “holds out only a very slender chance of success”, and noted that his own ambassador in Rome judged “that any further approach would only be interpreted as a sign of weakness and would do no good”. Chamberlain’s concern was that France might blame Britain for its defeat if the idea of an approach were refused: or, as Churchill summarised that view, Chamberlain believed “nothing would come of the approach, but that it was worth doing to sweeten relations with a failing ally”. Churchill, by contrast, felt that France would be better served by Britain taking a firm stance, rather than “ruin the integrity of our fighting position” – “let us not be dragged down with France: if the French were not prepared to go on with the struggle, let them give up”.

The debate between Halifax and Churchill was largely hypothetical (or “probably academic” as Halifax put it). Churchill had acknowledged that the key issue was retaining Britain’s independence. Suppose, said Halifax, Hitler guaranteed that, but, after a French military collapse, would not offer terms to France unless Britain was also involved. Would we still insist on “fighting to the finish”? Churchill’s reply: “if told what the terms were, I would be prepared to consider them”.      

By May 28, with a message from the Italian embassy that it was still waiting for Britain to indicate whether it sought mediation, the argument over a draft letter to Bastianini (seemingly prepared by Chamberlain) reached its climax. Greenwood dismissed Reynaud as “too much inclined to hawk around appeals – this was another attempt to run out”. Churchill wanted to avoid “the slippery slope”. After Mussolini had “taken his whack out of us”, Hitler’s terms “would put us completely at his mercy”: and if we started a negotiation, and then walked out, “all the forces of resolution which were now at our disposal would have vanished”.

Halifax said “he still did not see what there was in the French suggestion of trying out the possibilities of mediation which the Prime Minister felt so wrong”. Notably, Chamberlain – far from being part of a plot to oust Churchill – disagreed with Halifax: “it was right to remember that the alternative to fighting on nevertheless involved a considerable gamble”. Halifax persisted: “nothing in his suggestion could even remotely be described as ultimate capitulation” – to which Churchill riposted that “the chances of decent terms being offered to us at the present time were a thousand to one against.”

It was at this point that the War Cabinet adjourned so that Churchill could meet the outer cabinet. An hour later, at its third meeting of the day, Churchill reported to the War Cabinet that the outer cabinet “had expressed the greatest satisfaction when he had told them that there was no chance of giving up the struggle” – and they had done so “emphatically”.

One of the ministers, Labour’s Hugh Dalton, described Churchill that day in his diary as “quite magnificent” – “the man, the only man we have, for this hour – no-one expressed even the faintest flicker of dissent”. He recorded Churchill’s hope that 50,000 – perhaps even 100,000 – troops might be evacuated from Dunkirk. According to Leo Amery’s diary, the meeting “left all of us tremendously heartened by Winston’s resolution and grip of things – he is a real war leader”.  


Churchill portrait during World War II. Wikicommons/ British Government. Some rights reserved.The script’s notion that the War Cabinet had lost faith in Churchill is nonsense. The Liberal leader, Sinclair, an old friend of Churchill’s, had now joined the War Cabinet, bringing the numbers up to six: he, Greenwood and Attlee clearly sided with Churchill, while Chamberlain evidently had doubts about the viability of Halifax’s position. Even Halifax’s top civil servant, Sir Alexander Cadogan, wrote in his diary that “Mussolini is not going to, and in fact dare not, make any separate agreement with the Allies, even if he wanted to...I hope we shan’t delude ourselves into thinking we shall do ourselves any good by making more ‘offers’ or ‘approaches’”. The argument was over.

Three hours later, Churchill telephoned Reynaud to say that the capitulation of the Belgian army that morning (which had barely been discussed by the War Cabinet) “makes it impossible at such a moment for Germany to put forward any terms likely to be acceptable”; that the prospect of an early German victory makes it “impossible for Signor Mussolini to put forward proposals for a conference with any success”; that the reply to Roosevelt’s message to Italy (as urged by France and Britain) had been “wholly negative”; and that the Italian ambassador had not responded meaningfully to Halifax’s approach three days earlier. “We cannot feel that this would be the right moment...for an approach to Signor Mussolini.”

Halifax must have approved the sending of this message on behalf of the War Cabinet. Any thoughts he might have had of resigning would have been dispelled by strong urgings from Cadogan and by the good news from Dunkirk.

The next morning, May 29, Churchill told the War Cabinet that 40,000 soldiers had been rescued. By the end of the next day, the total was over 120,000; and by the end of the following day, 258,000. At the conclusion of the operation Churchill could tell the Commons that 338,000 British, French and Allied troops had been brought to England. That is what he did in his speech of June 4 – but all reference to Dunkirk has been removed from the speech in the film. Instead, it is preceded by the meeting with the ministerial group (which actually happened a week before) and the invented tube journey. 

With such basic distortions of the facts at the heart of the project, it is hard to feel too critical of relatively harmless fabrications, such as locating the May 16 meeting between Churchill and the French leadership at an airfield, rather than in the Foreign Ministry in Paris; let alone having Churchill observe lines of refugees from his airplane (even if he could have seen such detail, there would have been no fleeing columns to notice at this point, flying as he was from London to Paris: the few Parisians abandoning the capital would have been heading south, not north).

Unfortunately, director Wright is trapped by writer McCarten’s inanity: his script says “Winston sees long meandering lines of desperate humanity...a vast tragedy...amongst struggling vagabonds and columns of refugees, abandoned tanks and artillery stand in flames” – all complete fabrication.

We could equally ask why the First Lord of the Admiralty, on May 10, would have been dictating telegrams to the French ambassador or General Ismay, or taking calls from that ambassador. We might even ask why Churchill is so “afraid it is too late” when the call from the Palace finally comes: after all, Norway was a setback, but not a disaster, and the implications of the German attack on Belgium and Holland were not apparent on the first day of that invasion.

We also lose entirely in the film the lengths to which Churchill (who spoke reasonable French, contrary to the script) went to salvage the alliance with France, flying there six times, offering joint citizenship (an offer rejected by the French cabinet for fear that it might lead to Britain seizing all France’s colonies) and even (until the War Cabinet over-ruled him) agreeing to send six more fighter squadrons to join the failing defence against the German assault.

Dunkirk as it never happened

But perhaps the sleight of writer’s hand that is of most concern is the treatment of Dunkirk itself. Churchill is shown as being the author of the evacuation and of ordering Admiral Bertie Ramsay to recruit all the small craft he could find to assist the Navy with the Dunkirk rescue. But Churchill himself would have known, as a member of Lloyd George’s cabinet, that more than 30 years earlier the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War had had contingency plans to evacuate from Dunkirk.

Churchill discussed possible evacuation with his senior colleagues whilst flying back from Paris on May 16. The commander of the 1940 version of the BEF, Lord Gort, was looking for an evacuation from Dunkirk as early as May 18. Ramsay had been appointed to his post at Dover in 1939 by Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty: he would surely not have needed Churchill to tell him on May 25 to prepare such an operation, or even to recruit small craft to assist. Nor could the evacuation have commenced on May 28 if May 25 had been Ramsay’s first notice (as the film tells us).

Oddly enough, the only glimpse we are offered of the Dunkirk operation is a 10-second shot of a flotilla of “little ships”: not a glimpse of the beaches. Perhaps the film-makers were conscious of the parallel production of Dunkirk (and Wright had devoted much screen-time to the evacuation in his film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in 2007).

As mentioned earlier, all reference to Dunkirk is omitted in McCarten’s version of the June 4 speech that concludes the film: even though Churchill’s description of the evacuation as a “miracle of deliverance” but also as a “colossal military disaster” actually constituted a substantial part of that speech, and formed the platform for his closing “never surrender” rhetoric.

Instead, much is made of Churchill’s decision to allow the Calais garrison to fight to the bitter end, to the apparent shock and disapproval of the War Cabinet, without mention of his previous decision to evacuate 4,000 soldiers from Boulogne – a decision he regretted, in allowing the Germans to tighten the noose around Dunkirk itself.

Unsurprisingly, the entire debate over Hitler’s “halt” order to the Panzer divisions that could have crushed resistance, which provided three days of relief (as did the Calais order), goes unmentioned. The “miracle” is largely attributed to Churchill himself.

Misleadingly, the final caption of the movie says: “almost all of the 300,000 troops at Dunkirk were carried home by Winston’s civilian fleet”. In truth, 95% of the troops (over 338,000, to be more accurate) rescued from the beaches were carried to safety by the naval vessels of various nations, primarily British, primarily destroyers. Where the small craft were most helpful was in ferrying soldiers from the sand to the waiting larger ships that could not reach that close to the shore. But only 200 of the 900 boats involved could be termed “little ships”. And they played almost no part in the evacuation of nearly 200,000 Allied troops from ports west of Dunkirk later in June. (Did you even know there was such an evacuation?)

Yet McCarten’s dotty script has a scene at Dover with Admiral Ramsay on the phone to Churchill on May 28 apparently observing “over 800 small boats, the little ships, arriving or moored: a rag-tag armada”. It never happened. “The biggest civilian fleet ever assembled,” Ramsay informs Churchill, according to the script. No he didn’t.

Just as bizarrely, the famous quote from US commentator Ed Murrow – that Churchill had “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” – is ascribed to Halifax (!) as he watches the Commons cheering the June 4 speech. Only slightly less odd is being shown the King, and Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, listening to the speech on the radio (there was no parliamentary broadcasting until 1975).

In historical terms, the arc of the movie should have taken us to June 14, with the third of Churchill’s famous speeches of 1940 (the first, offering “blood, toil, tears and sweat” was made on May 13, the fourth came in August, paying tribute to “the few” fighter pilots who were fighting off the Luftwaffe). The June 14 speech conceded – more than a week before the actual armistice – the inevitable French surrender, leaving Britain and its empire alone in confronting Hitler. As Churchill said then, the battle of France was over, and the battle of Britain was about to begin – so let this be “their finest hour”. It was his country’s survival, rather than his own, which mattered most.

Instead, the film chooses to concoct a narrative based on the issue of peace talks (which were never going to happen), the threat from Halifax and Chamberlain (which was actually a veiled threat, from Halifax alone), and Churchill’s own supposed (but actually minimal) doubts about the correct course of action. In the process, it greatly exaggerates the role of both Churchill and the “little ships” in the Dunkirk rescue. And it is hard to believe that any modern historian would give Chamberlain’s handkerchief a starring role in portraying those stirring days.

Yet for those who neither know nor care about the real events, the production is highly effective. Joe Wright’s great skill is in bringing out nuanced performances and fine set pieces from his excellent cast – not just Gary Oldman, but Stephen Dillane as Halifax, Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain, Ben Mendelsohn as the King, Kristin Scott Thomas as Clemmie and Lily James as Miss Layton. And McCarten, too, at least deserves some credit for writing such persuasive dialogue for them.

I cannot imagine sitting through Dunkirk again: but I thoroughly enjoyed watching Darkest Hour a second time, despite all my reservations about its misguided attempts to re-write history.


British war cabinet 1939-40. Churchill standing. Front row: Halifax and Chamberlain. Wikicommons/Walter Bellamy. Some rights reserved.

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