Darkest Hour is a favorite to bag the Academy Award for best picture but among scholars reception has been mixed. UC Berkeley professor Steven Hayward, author of Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity, at first found the film’s inaccuracies annoying but after reflection wrote, “Darkest Hour is a great movie, and a genuine achievement, particularly for non-specialists.”
In 2018, nearly 80 years after the events of May, 1940, just about everybody is a non-specialist on Winston Churchill. Darkest Hour would have been a better movie, particularly for the millennial set, if it had included the strategic back story.
In the early going viewers see footage of Nazis on the march, and there is no doubt World War II is in progress. Nazi forces are prevailing on the continent and they have surrounded Britain’s army. Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax want to negotiate a peace settlement. King George VI taps Churchill to lead a government, and he is not inclined to negotiate with Hitler even though his military record is a mixed bag. Darkest Hour mentions the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War I, and for a film treatment see the 1981 Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson.
In May of 1940 Churchill is not exactly in a position of strength. Darkest Hour shows him on the phone with President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Alas, FDR is not inclined to deliver the warplanes Britain needs, and Uncle Sam is not at war with the Axis powers. Viewers may wonder about Soviet boss Josef Stalin, hailed in government school textbooks as a great wartime leader. Actually, there’s a reason “Uncle Joe” didn’t call.
On August 23, 1939, just eight months before the events of Darkest Hour, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin signed a pact with Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler, but it was not, as often described, a “non-aggression pact.” The Hitler-Stalin Pact divided up Europe and gave the non-Russian Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to Stalin, along with part of Poland. In September 1939, the USSR and Nazi Germany both invaded Poland, effectively starting World War II.
In May of 1940, Stalin and Hitler were allies and deployed their intelligence services against Britain. Darkest Hour mentions Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, but not the British Communist Party, then headed by R. Palme Dutt. The Communists were working with the Fascists for a Nazi victory and denouncing Churchill as an imperialist warmonger.
In the USA, the Communist Party denounced President Roosevelt as a warmonger, opposed any aid to Britain, and the Communists did everything in their power to cripple the U.S. defense industry. So Britain stood alone and Churchill was more under fire than Darkest Hour demonstrates.
The Prime Minister is tempted to cave in and negotiate but decides to fight. He sends a fleet of private boats to rescue the encircled British army on the continent. The evacuation succeeds and in May of 1945 the Allies prove victorious. The film skips many details of the war, and some specialists may not like the portrayal of Winston Churchill. On the other hand, Darkest Hour leaves no doubt that the key to victory was Churchill’s determination to fight and never surrender. For alert viewers of any age, takeaways abound.
Churchill deployed private boats to rescue troops, confirming that civilians can perform as strategic combatants. Churchill said the British would fight on the beaches, the landing grounds, in the hills and in the streets. That is particularly relevant now because a massive Islamschluss, enabled by spineless collaborators, has made the nation and world much more dangerous.
The German National Socialists never recruited anybody to gun down innocent people at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, in the manner of Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. The Nazis did not infiltrate agents to rent a truck and run down innocent people in New York City, in the manner of jubilant jihadist Sayfullo Saipov. So like it or not, defenders of freedom find themselves fighting terrorists in the streets.
In August, 2015 Islamic terrorist Ayoub el Khazzani boarded a French train with an AK-47 and handgun intending to kill unarmed civilians. American passengers Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos did not attempt to negotiate with the terrorist and did not surrender to him. Though unarmed, they rushed the jihadist, grabbed his AK-47 and smashed him over the head with it. They also took away his handgun, and British passenger Chris Norman then helped tie up the terrorist.
This heroic action saved many lives, and Clint Eastwood has completed a movie, The 15:17 to Paris, starring the three Americans as themselves. Slated for release in February, it shapes up as the feel-good hit of the season.
In the meantime, everybody should see Darkest Hour, but first brush up on the back story. The Hitler-Stalin Pact is one of the best kept secrets on the left, along with the reality that the Nazis were National Socialists. And above all, remember what Churchill said: “we shall never surrender.”