Leaning on history at the movies
We saw the film Darkest Hour this afternoon. For an actor, I assume that occupying the life of an idiosyncratic and mythologized historical figure is no easy feat. Gary Oldman’s transformation into Winston Churchill is remarkable. There is a valid critique against leaning too heavily on history, especially our standard version of it. In a time bereft of political leadership, such as we find ourselves today, the story of Britain in the spring of 1940, when well told, is as harrowing as it is inspiring.
Britain’s Darkest Hour
Just days after Churchill became Prime Minister, nearly the entire British military force suddenly faced total annihilation in France. Germany’s Blitzkrieg had torn through the Ardennes and was pushing Britain’s army into the sea. An invasion was imminent.
Neville Chamberlain was done as Prime Minister, but Churchill was not the ruling conservative party’s first choice. Most had little faith in this bumptious, hard-drinking orator. Assuming power in full crisis mode, Churchill faced off not only Hitler but a skeptical king and opposition from his party.
Nonetheless, Churchill remained convinced that suing for peace with Germany was no option, even if it meant certain defeat.
Had Churchill not stood his ground for those few days in May and June 1940, you and I would not recognize the world in which we now live. If Hitler had overrun England as he had France and Belgium, the United States would have stood alone in Hitler’s westward advance, fending off both Germany and Japan without its greatest ally.
History turned on the resolve and oratorical vision of one man.
The man becomes the myth
He was not alone, of course. Churchill didn’t win the war all by himself, but he could have very well lost the war all by himself; before it had even really begun.
From the messy reality of history arises a mythical character, grounded as much in a common narrative – a human instinct -as it is on the person who existed in time. In this context, a myth is not a falsehood. Indeed, myth points to truth otherwise unseen.
Gazing through the lens of Oldman’s portrayal glamourizes a grim story. A madman’s army was seemingly unstoppable and out for revenge against the rest of the world. Even if we take the tone and inevitable historical license of the film at face value, the story, as told by this storyteller, is a tonic for today’s cynicism and apparent race-to-the-bottom narrative.
When language is sent to battle
It was Churchill who inspired the vast armada of civilian boats to cross the channel and ferry two-thirds of the British army off the beaches of Dunkirk.
Defeated in battle, Britain survived to fight another day. And win.
It was he, and his king, who steeled a nation for the terror to come. Winston Churchill reflected his countryman’s latent courage. He understood his task was to inspire an entire nation, in its darkest hour, to not capitulate; to never surrender. If the country were lost, it would be lost fighting.
His only weapon was oratory.
Churchill gave his “We Shall Fight” speech to Parliament on June 4, 1940.
“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.”
The film concludes with a backlit Churchill striding resolutely out of Parliament, leaving behind a rapturous House of Commons ready to fight Nazi Germany. A colleague of Lord Halifax, Churchill’s chief political rival, asks Halifax, “what just happened?”
“I’m afraid the English language has just been sent to battle.”
Be afraid, be very afraid
That is our lesson for today: power alone is not leadership. We must always question when those in power use fear as a weapon against its own people. One can rule by intimidation, but to lead demands wisdom, courage, and perception rarely, if ever, found in brute force.
Great leaders understand the times they are in. They raise up, not tear down, inspiring the best of those led. A leader must unite, even in the face of utter destruction. When fear is most warranted, as for Great Britain in 1940, true leaders walk straight into the fear, showing the rest of us a path forward.
Beware those who claim the mantle of leadership only to sow discord and chaos, stoking fear where it need not exist; pitting one against another, consolidating power by casting doubt on the foundation of shared experience and unity. These are not leaders, but tyrants, despots, and charlatans.
If Churchill had succumbed to fear, Great Britain might very well have collapsed under the Nazi onslaught, the people withered by their terror, with no unifying narrative to hold an empire together.
We need a leader to inspire the best in us, even in the most trying times.
We are a storytelling species. Our myths make us human. Great leaders inspire our greatest myth – that of our inherent goodness, our enduring resilience, and our moral clarity.
Once we stop believing that myth, we’re doomed.
We need a Winston Churchill. If not the man, then the myth.