"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."
May 1940 did indeed seem like the darkest hour for good old Blighty. Hitler's divisions were smashing their way though Europe. The British Expeditionary Force had been pushed back to the sea. The USA was in 'America First' isolationist mood. Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was in a weak position, having failed to garner the the support that was needed from all sides of the House of Commons. There was one thing for it. Britain's political leaders were edging towards negotiating peace terms with the Führer.
The only man Clement Attlee's Labour Party would unite behind in that time of crisis was Winston Churchill. He was disliked and distrusted by his fellow Tories. His record as a war time politician was chequered to say the least. His brainchild, the Dardanelles campaign was one of the great British military disasters of WWI.
But he was the man for the Darkest Hour. Churchill's first speech to the Commons set the tone. There would be no more talk of appeasement,
You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
The Tory grandees were appalled. But Churchill was right. Appeasement would mean surrender and surrender would mean submitting Great Britain and her Empire to Nazi tyranny.
The film is a study in leadership though speech. By his words Churchill intended to rouse the British people to show a courage that that did not yet know they possessed.
The episode showing Churchill on the District Line chatting to commuters was fictional, but it stood for the way in which the war leader was inspired by the indomitably of his fellow Brits, just as much has he inspired them to fight to the end.
A prosthetically enhanced Gary Oldman brilliantly captures the many facets of Churchill's personality. He could charm, he could bully, he was a great wit, he was dogged by depression. Oldman's Churchill adopts the tone of a suppliant when begging Rooesvelt for American military aid. In the Commons he was master of all he surveyed.
Lilly James plays Elizabeth Layton, the Prime Minister's long-suffering secretary. He reduces the poor woman to tears on their first encounter, earning Winston a rebuke from his formidable wife, Clementine, a fine turn by Kistin Scott Thomas. The focus on Layton's work with Churchill shows the tremendous effort he put into his speeches. Clemmie was ever a source of strength for her husband and a provided him with a refuge from the tensions of leading the country in the desperate days of spring 1940.
The film may use a little bit of dramatic licence here and there. It is a drama after all and not a documentary. Churchill by Roy Jenkins is a good place to start for a more factually accurate account.
Come early summer, Churchill's political position was still uncertain. Tory grandees such as Lord Halifax and others wanted rid of him. They were still bent on pursuing a policy of appeasement. Churchill's speech on 4 June 1940 put paid to that,
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and 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, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
In the film the Commons erupts in cheers and the vigorous waving of order papers from MPs on the Opposition benches. Chamberlain signals his support and the Conservatives join in the applause. A friend of Halifax asks what had just happened, to which the Foreign Secretary replies, "He has mobilised the English language and sent it into battle."
Darkest Hour is a powerful testimony to the lost art of political oratory. World War II was won by words as well as deeds. Churchill did not tell people what focus groups had informed him they wanted to hear. He led the nation by his speeches and led them to victory. Very moving.
We're not exactly living through Britain's Brightest Hour right now, but our contemporary political leaders struggle to find the words needed to lead the nation to a better future. Lame 'strong and stable' soundbites from the Tories and the tired slogans of the old Left on Labour's part don't quite cut it.
The power of words to change history should not be lost on preachers, whose task it is to proclaim God's Word, testifying to God's Son in the power of God's Spirit. Through Jesus' sacrifice alone will humanity find victory over the dark powers of death and destruction.