(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Okay, depending on where you live, maybe maybe maybe it’s not too late for you to head out and see Darkest Hour on the big screen. As the surprise standout in Oscar nominations, the movie may find itself on a few extra screens. (Theaters screening Mary and the Witch’s Flower get a dispensation, all others are on notice.)
This is a visually stunning movie and it well deserves a big-screen screening. I especially appreciate the filmmakers’ having lavished so much effort on the cinematography of a movie that isn’t about superheroes or spaceships, and for that matter doesn’t even have that much to work with in terms of war machines.
Yes, part of it is the effort put into the bombing scenes. But it’s also recreating the cramped quarters of the underground bunker, the vast chamber of Parliament, and the dingy makeshift bedroom in which the king made his decision to back the war.
Oh, and whoever it is playing Churchill does a pretty okay job, too.
(I’m proceeding with full spoilers because, duh, history.)
This movie begins as a character study of Churchill. But any character study of Churchill must ask the question: What is it that makes a man refuse to agree to surrender his nation (for that is what “negotiations” with Hitler would have meant) even in the face of certain destruction? And that is not really a question about the man. It is a question about the nation. For, as it is the burden of this movie to show, Churchill could not have stood firm if the nation had not been willing to stand firm.
Yes, part of the story is that Churchill’s leadership brought the nation to choose resistance unto death. But leaders must have something to work with. The nation itself has to have moral resources for making right but hard choices.
This is why I cannot join those who are upset that this movie emphasizes Churchill’s temporary willingness to broach negotiations. It looks to me like the movie did not deviate from the historical record as far as some suggest. Perhaps it would have been better to show a little more of the cunning that lay behind Churchill’s decision to speak to the outer cabinet; Churchill did manufacture their pressure upon him to change course and forbid negotiations. But the point of this movie is that Churchill was almost boxed in. The professional political class did not provide the moral resources needed to sustain a stand against Hitler. Churchill had to go find them elsewhere.
So this movie transitions from a character study of Churchill to a character study of Great Britain. It asks: What are the moral resources of a nation?
The answer is words – but not words.
Words cannot produce the needed force by themselves, because the needed force is moral, and it transcends mere words. That is the abracadabra fallacy. But words rightly used are needed to transform moral truth into moral action.
Persuasion is not an autonomous power. Persuasion exists to connect people to truth.
The first big turning point of the movie is when Churchill lies to the nation about the severity of the situation in France. As he says to his wife, for years he has been the only person with the guts to tell the people the truth. But now he believes he has to lie to them.
This, the movie makes clear, was a wrong move – the abracadabra fallacy.
Halifax, demanding Churchill negotiate, tells him that with the British army facing certain destruction, he has nothing to fight Hitler with but “words, words, words!”
Yet that same Halifax, at the end of the movie, declares that Churchill has won with words. “What just happened?” someone asks Halifax after Churchill wins over Chamberlain’s faction to support the war effort.
“He mobilized the English language and sent it into war,” replies Halifax.
And what is the bridge between words and moral reality? History.
History brings us into contact with two things that give words moral reality: kings and books.
Our nations and their institutions and traditions are a mess. They really are. They’ve done much wrong and are shaped by many irrational forces. And they are not an absolute authority, for there are authorities in whose light they too can be judged (we will come back to that in a moment).
But they embody moral truths, because human beings are moral creatures and we cannot organize our lives in any kind of sustainable way except around moral truth. And so the institution of the monarchy may be irrational, but it exists to embody something. When the monarch chooses to carry out this function rather than neglect it, he has extraordinary power. The same can be said to some extent of all political institutions and traditions (including those in republics).
The makers of this movie thought a lot about how to portray George VI. It is clearly in dialogue with another outstanding movie that reflects on the tensions between aristocracy and democracy in light of World War II, The King’s Speech. For one thing, Darkest Hour really wants to make sure you know that Churchill stupidly opposed Edward’s abdication and George’s ascension, despite what you may have seen in that other movie.
It falls to George, who hates Churchill and has every good reason to do so, to make the decision to back Churchill at the crucial moment. When the short-sighted political class all go one way, the king goes the other – because that is his job.
And it is through words, used rightly, that George helps Churchill understand the moral ground he has been lacking. Go to the people, he says, draw from their moral strength and give them “the truth unvarnished.”
Yet this call to go to the people suggests that kings (and by extension political institutions and traditions generally) are not the highest authority.
We find the highest authority in another part of history, in the world of ideas – literature, religion, philosophy – that comes to us from the great minds, through their books.
Yes, the subway scene is odd, and ahistorial, and if the filmmakers had asked me I probably would have told them to find another way to accomplish what they’re doing here. But what they’re doing here is the right thing.
Some have interpreted the scene as an attempt to tear down quasi-aristocratic leaders like Churchill, establishing that they’re not allowed to lead us but we must lead them. That’s not how I read it, and I think Steven Hayward has made that case well, so I don’t have to.
Churchill is going to the nation to find out what they’re made of, how far they’re willing to go. It is right for political leaders to lead with full awareness of how much they can ask of their people.
And what does Churchill find among the people? The words of Cicero – the same words he found earlier in his library:
Then out spake brave Horatius, captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods?”
And so we are led back to political institutions and traditions (the ashes of his fathers), but now in light of what is higher (the temples of his gods) and also what is lower (Londoners on the tube).
For the words of great books are democratizing; they make the lowest highest. They arm ordinary people – even a black man in 1940 Britain – with the moral strength to stand in judgment of a Chamberlain, a Churchill or a George.
And so, in the end, having drawn strength from the words of his national traditions (by way of the king) and the words of the greatest of the wise (by way of the people), Churchill uses his enormous gift with words to rally the nation, giving form and force to their moral resources and saving the world.
His gifts really were extraordinary, but the point of this movie is that his skill with words was less important than his willingness to deploy them for moral truth.
As Chamberlain said: “He was right about Hitler.”