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Churchill on the Underground

Did Winston Churchill in 1940, soon after being installed as Britain’s wartime prime minister, ever travel on the London Underground?

The Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright’s feature film about the response of a belligerent Churchill, an appeasement-minded Conservative Party, and an heroic Britain to the peril of invasion by Hitler’s apparently unstoppable military machine, wants us to believe that he did.  More than that, we are also required to believe that a conversation with his fellow-passengers on the train, on which he travelled just one stop (which, as I can testify, would have been a journey of no more than two minutes) may have been what finally convinced him to resist any pressure to negotiate a peace deal with Hitler.

Wright’s script, written by Anthony McCarten, thus follows a hallowed tradition: when it comes to a defining moment in history, alter the facts to please the audience.    

Does it matter?  I suppose not.  And it would be too bad if it did. 

But such blatant ‘alternative facts’ – and The Darkest Hour is riddled with them – leave me with the uncomfortable feeling that the film-makers are, as usual, treating me like an idiot. 

The film is always engrossing, and Gary Oldman’s performance, as Churchill – which had to survive a daily two-hour application of prosthetics – is riveting.  It also feels authentic – which is more than can be said for a storyline that stays as close to recorded facts as one of Mel Gibson’s cinematic forays into history.        

The fabricated and utterly improbable Underground scene is further diminished by its rank sentimentality.  When Churchill asks the passengers – inserted to represent the heavily mythologized ‘Spirit of Britain’, I am guessing – whether he should ‘give in’ to the appeasers in the government, they send him on his way with a rousing chorus of “Never!”  This supposedly inspires his “We shall never surrender” speech to parliament. 

Worse, in a patronising display of tokenism, the most articulate among the Underground travellers is a black man who completes Churchill’s obscure quote from the classics.  It could be argued that he was there to represent the British Empire, but it reeks of needless tokenism.

The real villains of the piece, in McCarten’s retelling, are not so much Hitler and Mussolini as Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor in Downing Street, and Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary.  They spend the entire film dastardly plotting Churchill’s downfall, with the tacit approval of King George VI.  Here McCarten is factually on slightly firmer ground, but the truth is more complex. Chamberlain, though no admirer of Churchill, stayed loyal to him until his own death six months later, and even Halifax very soon came to toe the new party line. 

I have one last complaint. 

In the final line of the film, Halifax, watching from the public gallery in the House of Commons the rapturous reception to Churchill’s stirring words, is asked by a companion, “What just happened?”  Halifax turns to him and says, with a sigh, “He just mobilised the English language and marched it into battle.”

That phrase was not coined by Halifax; it was famously uttered by Edward R. Murrow, a London-based American correspondent with the CBS radio network.

It is a small irritation, but we have suffered another insult, one that might have been phrased as, “Those idiots out there in popcorn land won’t know who said it, and it’s a great line, so put it in”.

To end on a positive note, by all means go to see the film.  It may have its faults, but it is also greatly entertaining.

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