It isn’t often that two of my heroes, living centuries apart, can collide magnificently in a darkened movie theater on a cold winter night.
But yesterday, they did.
It happened in The Darkest Hour, a film about England during World War II, just after the Nazi’s invaded France, at a time when Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign as Prime Minister, and King George VI was about to offer the job to Winston Churchill.
The story centers around two major events: First, whether Churchill will be able to overcome the opposition of a Parliament unready and unwilling to face the prospect of war. Second, if and how the entire British expeditionary force, stranded across the English Channel in Dunkirk, can be rescued without the help of battleships.
These dramatic conflicts are played out on a grand scale with stunning visuals of bombs dropping on helpless British troops; hostile sessions of Parliament; and bitter debates in the War Room when Neville Chamberlain attempts to manipulate his successor into negotiating with Hitler.
And it is here, early in the movie, that Gary Oldman becomes Winston Churchill, electrifying our spirits when he defiantly roars, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in his mouth!”
As the movie unfolds during England’s first days at war; we see Churchill commandeer private boats to rescue British troops on the coast of France; we see England’s 30th Infantry Brigade obliterated by the Germans as they draw fire away from Dunkirk; and we see a hostile Parliament transform from loathing to loving Churchill after he brilliantly proclaims, “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.”
Even though that speech made me want to wildly whoop with joy, it is the film’s intimate moments that are most compelling: Kristin Scott Thomas’s strong and poignant performance as Clementine, the Prime Minister’s wife, who tenderly urges him to “let them see your true qualities; your lack of vanity; your sense of humor;” and Ben Mendelsohn’s subtle and convincing performance as King George VI, who at first opposes Churchill, but slowly comes to agree that “without victory, there can be no survival.”
Other touching moments in this beautifully photographed movie include an evolving relationship between Churchill and his typist, who must overcome her terror of him; Churchill and his children, who realize that once again, pubic life has taken him away from them; and Churchill’s tender affection for working class citizens, whom he (and we) view from the window of his limousine.
But my favorite scene occurs after the Prime Minister has walked away from 10 Downing Street and wandered into the London underground.
He enters a car and is immediately recognized by the awe-struck occupants. As the tube jolts into motion, he sets them as ease by asking if anyone has a match to light his cigar. Soon, puffing away, he is talking to them about the war, listening to their thoughts about the Third Reich, and asking if he should negotiate with Hitler.
Unlike the tepid response that he received from Parliament, however, his spirited fellow-passengers inform him that fight they must fight, and fight they will. If needs be, to the death.
Finally, Churchill’s countrymen are saying what he has longed so fervently to hear.
The car grows silent. Wanting to embolden these brave Londoners for the fight ahead, he begins to recite a passage from “Horatius at the Bridge,” written over a century ago by Lord Macaulay. My father used to recite this poem to me when I was a child, and watching Churchill (one of my heroes) relate the tale of Horatius (another of my heroes) to a rapt audience is the fulfillment of a dream I did not even know I had:
“Then out spake brave Horatius,
The 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.”
In a world where we have come to expect equivocation and timidity from our political leaders instead of courage and strength, The Darkest Hour is a gift.
Horatius is a gift.
And Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is an International Treasure.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2018. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com