‘V’ for Victory: Latest Churchill Film Soars

Culture Watch
tags: WWII, Churchill

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu. 

“We shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and in the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender…”  –  Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940

     Hop on a plane, jump on a bus, scramble down the stairs to a subway, slam your foot down on your car’s gas pedal and go see Darkest Hour, the new movie about Winston Churchill in the early days of World War II. It is one of the best history movie of the decade, and the last decade, too.

    The film, that opened nationwide Friday, begins as the British Parliament, staggering from Hitler’s early victories in Europe in 1939 and 1940, forces Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain out of office. Most of the high-ranking parliament leaders want Viscount Halifax, a close friend of King George VI, to succeed him, but he does not have enough support. They turn, reluctantly, to Winston Churchill, 66, longtime, blustery member of parliament, who has a lot of enemies and is a curmudgeon who is hard to love, as admitted even by his American wife.

    Churchill plunges into the leadership of his country in the spring of 1940, a year before the U.S. enters the war, and as he sits down that first day the British army of nearly 400,000 men is stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France, with no visible means of escape and Belgium and France are about to be overrun. The political and military situation is as bleak as it could be.

      What do we find Churchill doing? He drinks (he DOES drink), he tries to woo his cat from beneath his bed, he squabbles with his new secretary, argues with his wife and puffs away on a thousand cigars.

    The strength of Darkest Hour, a monumental history movie, produced by Perfect World and Working Title Co., up there with Spielberg’s Lincoln in the historical biography field, is a deep and gorgeous portrait of Churchill, the man who single handedly saved Britain. He started his tenure as Prime Minister up against seemingly insurmountable odds  everywhere he turned and then things got worse. He tells Parliament, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil tears and sweat.”

      The power of the movie, beautifully written by Andrew McCarten, is not just its depiction of Churchill as a leader besieged on every front, but its detailed personal portrait of him and the titanic performance of actor Gary Oldman, a surefire Oscar nominee, as the Prime Minister, a performance just as good as that delivered last year by John Lithgow in the Emmy award winning Netflix series The Crown.

     Oldman is on screen nearly all of the two hours of the film and director Joe Wright does a superb job of showing him as the Prime Minister at his best and at his worst (those moments when he nearly decides to capitulate to Hitler and sign a peace accord with Germany as France is being overrun). There are hundreds of close up shots of Oldman as Churchill. The actor has all of Churchill’s mannerisms down perfectly, right to the famous “V” fingers sign (yes, it means something besides victory). We see the tensions in Churchill’s face, the wrinkling of his skin, the faraway look in his eyes. But we see his iron-willed determination and the way that, like the roaring lion, he bellows at everybody. At one tension filled cabinet meeting he yells at Viscount Halifax at the top of his lungs, “don’t interrupt me while I am interrupting you.” At another meeting he bellows “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in his mouth.”

    Oldman as Churchill soars in the closeups in which his temper is flaring and eyes bulging. In one, pretty angry, he stares at a newspaper photo of Hitler. Unable to find words deplorable enough to describe the German Chancellor, he finally spits out “house painter!” It is perfect.

      Churchill is the center of a story in which the British, badly outnumbered by the Nazis in every category, are terrified that the Luftwaffe will start to bomb English cities (they do, later). There are reports that Hitler is amassing an armada to carry his troops and Gestapo agents across the English Channel to the UK within weeks. The cameras show the strains on the faces of the people as they rush through a rainstorm or in and out of the underground subway.

       King George VI is worried, too, and, disappointed that his friend Halifax did not get the job, has little faith in Churchill at the beginning of the film.

    There is little faith in the new Prime Minister in the cabinet, either, where members plot to depose Churchill and some not only want to get rid of him, but get on their knees and bow down to Herr Hitler, too. How bad could Hitler be, they ask. Churchill glowers back at them.

    There is no hope from anywhere. Even the United States, in the spring of 1940 at least, does not come to Great Britain’s aid (here, in phone calls, you see the start of what will become a warm relationship between Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt; they will send each other 1,700 telegrams during the conflict).

    Churchill never changed. He was “unkind to people,” as his wife said, and often downright ornery.  His secretary was ready to quit the first time she met him because of his disorganized behavior and hot temper. Parliamentary leaders flung their hands in the air at his demeanor. The King was frustrated by him just about every Monday, when they meet to discuss policy and the war.

    The main theme of the film is that it was not Churchill’s skills as an administrator (although the Dunkirk rescue was sheer brilliance), but his overpowering personality and his ability to get the people to believe in him and his cause. That ability, mainly through his stunning speeches during the war, made him a great man.

     There is a wonderful scene at the end of the film that shows that connection to the people. Churchill takes a subway to work in order to meet ordinary people (he says he had never taken the subway in his life). There he cheered on by the ordinary peoples’ resolve to fight and defeat the Nazis, just like him. The scene invented by the screenwriter, but it is a good one and forces you to take out the handkerchief for a few real sniffles for an unreal moment.

        The power of the film is in the personality of Churchill (Oldman), but there are majestic supporting performances, too. Lily James is marvelous as Churchill’s young secretary Elizabeth Layton, so afraid of him at first and so admiring of him at the end, when she cheers him on during his famous “we shall fight them on the beaches…” speech.  Kristin Scott Thomas is good as his wife Clemmie, who is both angry and loving with him at the same time. Splendid performances are turned in by the men playing British leaders, Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax, Samuel West as Anthony Eden and David Schofield as Clement Atlee. Ben Mendelsohn plays King George VI with reserved dignity throughout most of the film but in the end turns cheerleader, lovingly so. Oh, and big thumbs up to all the men and women, and the little girl, too, in the invented subway car scene. They are the most wonderful group of real actors playing invented people you ever saw.

     This is the latest in a string of movies about Churchill over the last ten years, including the award-winning Netflix series, in which he played a major role. Why the rush to applaud the British leader? Someone once said that we need to look to the past to find great men and women to assure ourselves that we can be great men and women today, too. Who better to reach back into the past to grab and bring into the present than Winston Churchill, who would come back with a lighted cigar in the corner of his mouth and a drink in his hand.