Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is another in a long line of historical films centred around World War II. What marks this film as different, however, is the amount of critical acclaim it has garnered, with Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill receiving both the Golden Globe Award and Academy Award for Best Actor.
Darkest Hour is a character study of Churchill and his actions as Prime Minister in the early years of World War II. According to the film, Churchill is the exemplary Englishman; the embodiment of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and a gruff, honorable old man who refuses to give in to the Germans. This is especially evident in a scene in the film which sees Churchill, at a loss, asking London Underground passengers their opinion on the war. Their rousing cry to continue the war cements Churchill as a man of the people. This is Joe Wright’s vision of Churchill.
Darkest Hour is part of a historical genre that combines fact and fiction. However, as it is often the case, films of this nature are viewed as entirely fact. Audiences will internalise this narrative and Wright’s vision of Churchill as the heroic man of the hour will be embedded into mainstream consciousness, authenticated by the awards it received.
It is therefore important to ensure that the historical and political reality of Churchill’s actions in government are not forgotten. Churchill was not as kind abroad as he was at home. He was a staunch imperialist, against the very possibility of Indian Home Rule. Mahatma Ghandi, who is now a revered figure worldwide, was hated by Churchill for his rhetoric against the British Empire.
While Churchill was heroically leading the charge against the Nazis, he was simultaneously allowing famine to take place. In 1943, the Bengal Famine, a famine Churchill played a large role in, claimed the lives of three million people. He refused to allow food to be exported to India, claiming there were not enough ships. In reality, ships containing wheat from Australia would sail past India in order to be stored for the consumption of Europeans. To Churchill, the lives of Indian people were worth less than those of their European counterparts – they were expendable.
The list of Churchill’s atrocities continues, each aided by his egotism. He advocated the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and Afghans, specifying “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”. He was also in favour of using Mustard gas against the Ottomans during World War I. These actions were informed by his negative views towards Muslims. In his book The River War he wrote that Islam led to an inferior society.
Winston Churchill was a hero to the West and simultaneously the cause of untold suffering to the East. His beliefs match those of White Supremacists: “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” He refused to feel remorse for colonial violence, justified by the belief of western superiority.
The immortalisation of a single view of historical figures through the medium of film is a common occurrence. The iconic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) has become embedded in cultural memory , and its portrayal of T.E Lawrence is so well known that it has eclipsed the real events surrounding Lawrence’s involvement in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The film encourages the view of Lawrence as a hero who united Arab tribes against the cruel Ottomans; without his leadership and expertise, they would not have achieved anything. The film leads the audience to think that Lawrence was motivated to help due to his noble character.
In reality, Lawrence was acting in the interests of the British Empire. He manipulated the Arabs in order to defeat a threat to Britain. Furthermore, he promised independence to them knowing that the Sykes-Picot agreement would be enacted once the Ottomans were defeated. This agreement divided Ottoman territory between France and Britain. The Arabs were led to believe they were fighting for their freedom when in reality they were swapping one rule for another. Lawrence of Arabia is filled with praise for Lawrence and his actions but fails to tell the Arabs’ side of the story. They are props in order for Lawrence to achieve greatness.
Films, especially historical ones, can be dangerous. They allow for a single view to be mass-consumed, subsuming the complexities of reality into an exciting storyline. Biopics specifically must be taken with a grain of salt as they seamlessly blend fiction and fact. As audiences, we must ensure that we can distinguish between the two and avoid passively consuming a single narrative.
Image: Cecil Beaton via Wikimedia