Churchill biopic opens to glowing reviews

An older man: Oldman is younger (and slimmer) than Churchill. Hats off to the prosthetics team.

Are we too obsessed with the second world war? The Darkest Hour narrates Winston Churchill’s struggle against the Nazis. The film has been well received, but the tale has been told before…

“Without victory, there is no survival.”

When Winston Churchill proclaimed these words to Parliament in 1940, MPs were electrified. When Gary Oldman, playing Churchill, speaks them in The Darkest Hour, they have a similar effect on movie audiences.

Opening today in the UK, the film depicts Churchill’s first weeks as prime minister. The plot centres on his determination to face down appeasers in Britain and fight Nazi Germany. But the script does not shy away from his intense doubts and anxieties.

The film is a hit. It has already made back its $30 milion budget in the USA, where Churchill is revered. Reviews are glowing. Oldman threw himself into the performance, wearing a fat suit and tons of prosthetics, and even getting nicotine poisoning from Churchill’s famed cigars. He was rewarded with a Golden Globe award.

The Darkest Hour is not the first Churchill biopic — it isn’t even the only one in the last 12 months. In fact, the story of the second world war is never far from our screens: Dunkirk and Hacksaw Ridge are only two recent examples. Wikipedia catalogues over 1,300 films on the topic. Its list of first world war films is only one tenth as long.

This focus on the war can be found across society. Everybody studies it at school; far fewer learn about, say, Germany’s subsequent recovery. England football fans often chant about the war when facing Germany.

Politicians keep referencing it — in the run-up to the Brexit vote, Boris Johnson compared the EU to “a Nazi superstate” and quoted Churchill in his manifesto for Leave. Germans in the UK have lamented that Britons still associate their country with Nazism.

Britain’s darkest hour is also seen as its finest: the moment when it stood alone against fascism, eventually helping to defeat it. In the UK – and its ally the USA – the second world war is generally portrayed as a struggle between good and evil. The simplicity of this story may explain its ongoing fascination for people.

Do we talk about the war too much?

Don’t mention the war

Nonsense, say some. The second world war was an epic, hugely dramatic conflict. It shaped our world, and Churchill shaped it. There are endless stories to tell here. What’s more, like all historical events, the war has become a lens through which to understand our present. This means that it is always a fresh subject.

Perhaps, reply others, but we end up telling the same story each time: we were the goodies, the enemy was evil, good defeated evil. The second world war has become a national myth, which makes us feel patriotic but distorts history. If we paid more attention to other subjects, like the British Empire, we might better understand how the world works today.

You Decide

  1. Do you want to see The Darkest Hour?
  2. Are films a good way to learn about history?

Activities

  1. You have been given $30 million to make a biopic of an under-appreciated historical figure. Choose your subject and write a one-page summary of the film’s plot.
  2. Hold a class debate: “This house believes that the war would have been lost without Churchill.”

Some People Say...

“If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Winston Churchill

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Churchill holds a special place in British (and world) history. In 2002, the public voted him the greatest ever Briton in a BBC poll. On his death in 1965 he was given a state funeral, an honour normally reserved for monarchs. He is best known for his leadership during the war; his second term as prime minister, 1951-55, was less distinguished.
What do we not know?
Whether the war would have been won without Churchill. Some historians put victory down to his rousing speeches and refusal to surrender. Others argue that the war was guided by forces far greater than any individual. To some extent, your answer comes down to whether you believe in the “great man theory”: the idea that history is shaped by a handful of very smart or powerful individuals.

Word Watch

Proclaimed
This quote is taken from the famous “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech — the first Churchill gave to the House of Commons as prime minister.
Gary Oldman
The highly acclaimed British actor is known for his range. He has played everyone from Count Dracula to JFK’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Appeasers
Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain favoured appeasement: striking deals with Hitler in order to keep the peace. Contrary to what The Darkest Hour suggests, the British public supported this at the war’s beginning.
Revered
There is a bust of Churchill in the president’s Oval Office.
Prosthetics
Artificial material used to change an actor’s appearance.
The only one
The film Churchill, starring Brian Cox, came out last summer. It focuses on the build-up to D-Day in 1944.
Boris Johnson
In 2014, Johnson published a biography of Churchill. Many saw the book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, as Johnson’s attempt to draw parallels between himself and the legendary leader.
Lamented
See The Telegraph’s article in Become An Expert for some examples.

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