The movie “Darkest Hour” is a dramatic re-creation of the real life story of Winston Churchill’s rescue of Western Civilization. If that seems too strong a sentiment, one might recall the state of world affairs as he was called to duty.
Beginning in the early 1930’s, Hitler had reconstituted German armies and reoccupied the Rhineland in violation of the peace treaty ending World War I. Germany then annexed a mostly-willing Austria and in 1938 did the same to an unwilling Czechoslovakia. Recalling the horrors of WW I, British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain agreed to expansions of German sovereignty in a policy of “appeasement” in return for a promise of “peace in our time.”
The futility of this moral capitulation was never more apparent, than when in September of 1939 German armies attacked and overran Poland. It was only at this point, that Britain and France finally declared war. Formal hostilities were, however, restrained until April of 1940 when Germany successfully invaded Denmark and Norway in a Blitzkrieg or “lightening war.”
This last in an unbroken chain of defeats was too much to bear and the movie opens in May of 1940 as Winston Churchill is asked to replace Chamberlain as Prime Minister. From there things go from bad to worse. Almost immediately Hitler unleashes a pre-planned attack on British and French armies across the European continent quickly conquering Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg.
Although the Allies have more and better tanks, German tactical doctrine is so much superior they will utterly defeat the British and French in a paltry six weeks. And this will be aided in no small part by the utter defeatism of the French General Staff who Churchill vainly tries to rally. The contrast in leadership was never more striking or on trial or consequential.
In short order, the entire British expeditionary force of hundreds of thousands of men are surrounded and in danger of being annihilated at Dunkirk. Nor are things easier on the home front as Chamberlain and his preferred successor, Lord Halifax, plot to effect a truce and to rally the British nation to a negotiated surrender. But Churchill is made of sterner stuff and is one of those rarest of world figures having the moral courage to realize that the easy way out would ultimately prove to be the most costly and painful path possible.
To some extent the movie falters as the vindication of decisions in hindsight blinds us to the desperate uncertainty of the moment. But what puts us back on the edge of our seats is the less well remembered choice to abandon thousands of men at Calais, who might have been evacuated or who might have saved their lives by surrendering. Ordering their sacrifice bought perhaps essential time for the Dunkirk evacuations and brought the fog of war back into perfect focus.
While the action scenes could have been better rendered or made more exciting, that would not have benefited the central theme, which is a case study in the leadership necessary to mobilize a war-weary nation to squander enormous treasures and to endure millions of deaths.
For those preferring lighter fare or not congenitally inclined to fret over great concerns, the plot may seem a little tiresome. Recognizing this difficulty, the screen writers ineffectually tried to lighten the mood with a vignette of Churchill asking average people to express their honest and heartfelt concerns.
Unfortunately, this self-serving cop-out only served to distract from the import of the issues. The movie had already presented ample evidence that people have a great capacity to recognize the truth and will plumb the depths of their souls for the courage to follow morally steadfast leaders.
The final scene, in which Churchill casually and conversationally commits the British nation to defend its values and to confront the barbarity of Nazi terror, because that is the lesser of two great evils, is breathtaking, and uplifting, and inspiring. As his opponents wryly noted, “Churchill alone in the moment of crisis was able to mobilize the English language and to pit it resolutely and unalterably against the foe.” Nothing could stand against that.