How does one count the ways the film the Darkest Hour about Churchill in May 1940 get so many facts utterly wrong? Here are a first dozen.
- Clement Attlee never told the House of Commons Labour would refuse to serve under Chamberlain. It was the annual Labour Party conference in session in Bournemouth that decided Labour could enter a coalition led by Churchill.
- The depiction of Attlee, a mild-mannered, courteous, soft-spoken product of Haileybury public school, as a ranting, Despatch Box thumping demagogue is utterly wrong.
- Far from trying to bring down Churchill It was Chamberlain who recommended to King George VI that Churchill be made prime minister.
- There is no evidence that Churchill took the Tube in his life. The chances of him meeting a black British citizen on the Underground from St James to Westminster and exchanging verses from Tennyson with him are far-fetched.
- The idea that the Foreign Secretary and arch-appeaser, Viscount Halifax, played by the excellent Stephen Dillane, who looks like Nigel Farage, initiated the approach to Italy is wrong. On May 16th 1940 Churchill said that Britain was “not an enemy of Italy or of Mussolini“. Churchill had enthused about Mussolini as a wonderful leader of Italy in several newspaper columns in the 1930s.
- It was the two Labour members of the war cabinet, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, who strongly opposed any dealing with Italian fascism. Labour and the trade unions had a much sharper appreciation of what European fascism entailed than did non-Churchillian Tories who had gone along with isolationist appeasement of rightist authoritarianism in Spain, the Rhineland, Hitler’s partial takeover of Czechoslovakia and his Anschluss with Austria.
- Churchill’s first telephone conversation with Roosevelt over a secure line from the Cabinet War Rooms took place in 1943 not 1940 as shown in the film.
- All prime minster and ministers approach their front bench seat from behind the Speaker’s Chair not striding dramatically the length of the chamber.
- The words in the Commons are often dramatic and of great historic weight but they are delivered in a conversational tone in what is a small intimate setting. MPs, especially Churchill and Attlee, do not shout, or wave their hands in the air, or bang the despatch box like some continental political populist demagogue.
- The bulk of the 300,000 soldiers, British and French, rescued at Dunkirk, were taken of piers by Royal Navy warships not pleasure craft as depicted in the film.
- Churchill never made the remark about “dealing with one shit at a time” as he was sitting on the loo and was told Chamberlain wanted to talk to him. That was Hugh Dalton, a much constipated Labour wartime minister, talking about his Permanent Secretary.
- Nor did Churchill ever refer to Attlee as a ‘sheep in sheep’s clothing.’ In opposition after 1945, Churchill rounded on anyone who criticised Attlee in his presence. He understood the contribution patriotic Labour made to defeating Hitlerism.
None of the above is to criticise a bavaura performance by Gary Oldman who has brought Churchill to the screen in the best imitation performance of the wartime leader since Albert Finney in the “Gathering Storm” made in 2002. But it seems a shame that young British film-goers will get so much bad history in such a well-made and expensively produced film.
Churchill’s set piece speeches are imperishable and worth the film just to be reminded of their power and glory. But they are set in endless historical nonsenses which do no service to one of the most terrifying yet splendid moments in British history.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe. In January 2015 he published Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe (IB Tauris). He is a senior advisor at Avisa Partners, Brussels.