I’d been looking forward to the movie Darkest Hour for some time. Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, and Churchill scholar and author of Churchill’s Trail: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government, talked about it on radio with Hugh Hewitt a time or two.
image from Wikipedia
I also went through the online Hillsdale course about Churchill a year or so ago. And in December, the Imprimis newsletter was by Larry Arnn about Churchill. So, in addition to doing a bit of a movie review, I’ll also quote Dr. Arnn here and there. The movie is a portrayal of history, so I hope you don’t consider this piece as spoilers, but if you’re worried about that, see the movie first.
The movie was about the time in Britain when the mollifying foreign policy of Neville Chamberlain was seen for what it was, and a vote of no confidence removed him as Prime Minister of England, opening up the position for an unpopular but determined Winston Churchill.
Almost immediately after his acceptance, Churchill finds the country in the unacceptable position of having nearly its entire army—about 300,000 soldiers—stranded on the northern French beach of Dunkirk following Hitler’s swift sweep across France. If you saw the recent movie Dunkirk, things will start to fit into place. It was about to be an unmitigated disaster. Churchill was the one who ordered the civilian boats to be recruited to cross the channel to rescue the soldiers. The heroic “win” at Dunkirk was the rescue, against great odds, that allowed Britain to fight another day.
Churchill was under tremendous pressure, including from his own party. Chamberlain and his ally, Lord Halifax, maneuver against Churchill; they seem to think diplomacy at all costs is the answer, and if they can prove Churchill isn’t open to that option, they can step down from the war council Churchill has appointed them to, leading to a no confidence vote again—possibly opening the position for Halifax.
King George VI—the father of Queen Elizabeth, who was portrayed in the movie The King’s Speech—had been a longtime friend of Chamberlain and Halifax. It was distasteful to him to be forced to work with Churchill. But there’s a turning point. And it comes on a very good question.
The King is wondering whether he will need to flee, with his family, to Canada, and live out his reign in exile, because it is assumed by so many that, if the Germans invade the Isle of Britain, they could conquer. Halifax and Chamberlain are saying, wouldn’t it be better to get the best terms possible, by negotiating through Mussolini, than risk a bloody war they might lose?
But Churchill, feeling the heavy weight of his people on his shoulders, can’t imagine any terms with Hitler that would mean anything but complete subjugation to that monster.
It is a discussion with the King, and then a discussion with some everyday common folk that, according to the movie, lead to Churchill’s decisive speech—which in the process gains full support of Parliament and the British people, and outmaneuvers Halifax and Chamberlain. I’ll leave out the details because, though I really don’t like political maneuvering in literature (or in real life), it’s the crux of the story here. It's hard to imagine a movie about leading up to a speech being all that interesting, but it is.
Here are a couple of memorable passages from that speech, often called “We shall fight on the beaches”:
I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." …
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be….
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. 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, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
That kind of frank determination against tyranny will always be needed.
|bust of Churchill|
in the US Capitol building
If there’s something I didn’t like in the movie, it is how much drinking Churchill does—and possibly more importantly, how often they point it out. He probably did drink quite a lot, but there was never any evidence it was affecting his mind—which was determined and sharp up to age 90 when he died. He was both quick and sharp witted.
One of my favorite Churchill quotes, from the English major world, has to do with grammar. A woman commented to him that he had incorrectly ended a sentence with a proposition. He retorted, “Madam, that is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” It makes me laugh; maybe you have to be a word person.
Churchill was a word person. He wrote some 50 books in his lifetime, about battles in war—colorfully told. About political philosophy, history. and more. He had a prodigious mind, and a flair for being able to say what was on it.
There’s talk of Gary Oldman getting an Oscar for his performance; I’d be agreeable to that. He captured the swiftness, the push forward nature, the energy. And also made the force of nature that was Churchill seem human.
Also good in the movie was Lily James (who played Cinderella beautifully a couple of years ago), portraying his personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton. Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, was also good for humanizing him—she corrects him for scaring off the secretary in her first hour (she returns), and tells him to better behave himself, so that people can think well of him, as she does.
Getting back to Larry Arnn’s Imprimis speech, he lists three lessons we learn from Churchill:
|Dr. Larry Arnn|
image from Imprimis
1. It is not trends but choices that matter most at the key moments of history…. [Of that important speech] No one else on that day was either inclined to make or capable of making that speech, and Churchill had only become prime minister by a series of narrow chances. No story better illustrates one of Churchill’s favorite lessons—a lesson valuable for us to keep in mind: both chance and choice play a large part in human affairs.
2. The second lesson concerns the limits of war, of politics, indeed of all human action. Churchill helped to save his country by his willingness to fight to the death and to inspire others to joining him. He also saved it by his reluctance to do that.
3. Strategy must be rooted in the purposes of the nation: it aims to preserve the nation in pursuit of those purposes. This means that strategy is not confined, when it is pursued by the statesman, to war alone. Churchill wrote: “The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one.”
Dr. Arnn goes on to say (and note that “liberal society” means classical liberalism, or free society, not a democrat party that is exactly opposite to that),
Churchill lived, loved, and fought for the liberal society. Liberal societies protect the rights of their peoples; their right to make their livings, to raise their children, to speak their minds. These are the elements of a fully human life. Under a free and limited government, the right of all to pursue this life is recognized and defended. The justice of this kind of government is the reason that Churchill, the grandson of a duke, was not an aristocrat but a defender of democracy.
That’s a pretty good description of what we’re talking about in the northern hemisphere of the Spherical Model, up out of tyranny and into the freedom zone.