Netflix's period drama The Crown presented a fascinating look at Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), and an even more fascinating look is now in theaters.Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, stars a prosthetics-laden Gary Oldman as the legendary British Prime Minister who remained at the forefront of politics for 50 years. John Hurt, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn and Kristin Scott Thomas also appear.
Indeed, Winston Churchill has always remained a fascinating figure to explore in British history, but this is the first time that a Hollywood blockbuster has focused fully on the Prime Minister's valiant battle against the enemy in wartime Britain. Darkest Hour sees Gary Oldman's Churchill faced with the threat of war in the early days of office, before following him in his determination to stand his ground against Nazi Germany.
Yet, how much do we actually know about this tense period in the Prime Minister's life? What is the real, true story behind Darkest Hour? Find out below:
The Dawn Of World War II
In truth, Winston Churchill had not yet been appointed Prime Minister when the threat of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany began to grow after his rise to power in 1933. In fact, Neville Chamberlain was in office at the time, exercising rather passive policies of appeasement towards the threat from Europe.
During this time however, Winston Churchill began to drastically stand out as the leading advocate for rearmament in Britain, becoming a member of the War Cabinet and later, the chairman of the Military Coordinating Committee in April 1940. During these months of uncertainty, faith in Chamberlain's began to waiver, especially following Germany's invasion of Norway. In May of that year, a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister led to King George VI in appointing Winston Churchill as the Minister of Defense and as Britain's wartime Prime Minister at 65-years-old.
Despite still being widely unpopular among Conservatives in the political establishment (apparently, the House of Lords fell completely silent when it learned of his appointment), the nervous population still looked to Churchill for strong leadership. An American visitor in 1940 reported that:
Everywhere I went in London people admired [Churchill's] energy, his courage, his singleness of purpose. People said they didn't know what Britain would do without him. He was obviously respected. But no one felt he would be Prime Minister after the war. He was simply the right man in the right job at the right time. The time being the time of a desperate war with Britain's enemies.
Needless to say, despite rife criticism, Winston Churchill's influence and effect on Parliament was electrifying. Offering his "blood, toil, tears and sweat" to the British cause, he went on to make the following speech in one the most rousing declarations of national solidarity in global history:
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.
Britain Stands Alone Against The German Invasion
As shown by the story in Darkest Hour, literally within hours of being appointed, Winston Churchill was notified that German forces had begun their aggressive offensive on Western Europe. Two days later, having taken Belgium and the Netherlands, they entered France as they etched their way closer and closer to Great Britain.
On June 18, 1940, Churchill addressed the House of Commons in London — supported by a coalition cabinet made up of Labor, Liberal and Conservative leaders — and warned that the true "Battle of Britain" was about to begin.
By refusing the armistice with Germany, Churchill went on to keep resistance alive in all corners of the British Empire and to cultivate a good relationship with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, something which would later aid him in the liberation of Western Europe.
During the war period, despite fragile physical health (he actually suffered a heart attack in December 1941 at the White House), it was also documented that Churchill travelled over 100,000 miles around the world to meet with national leaders to further the European cause.
An Allied War Strategy
Despite all of his health issues though, the war raged on and Churchill worked harder than ever to maintain good relationship with America, which went on to supply the Allies with tons and tons of vital food, oil and munitions via North Atlantic shipping roots. After the United States entered the war in 1941, despite severe casualties abroad and unfathomable destruction on British soil, the Prime Minister became increasingly hopeful that the Allies would win the war.
However, it was when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union — ignoring all political and economic pacts between the two nations — that Churchill issued the final push and offered British supplies and tanks to aid Joseph Stalin. At the time, he famously uttered the following words regarding his policy towards Communist Russia:
If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.
At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, attended by Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle (Stalin chose to stay in the Soviet Union as the bloody Battle of Stalingrad raged on), the Allies committed to continue the war through to the "unconditional surrender" of Germany and the Axis powers.
Come 1944 and Russian forces began to advance and push back in the Eastern European states and in June of the same year, the Allied forces invaded Normandy. By this point, Hitler's armies were being attacked on three fronts and just as Great Britain was falling on its knees, Germany officially surrendered. By this time, 60 million had been killed all over the world (3% of the world's population), including over 8 million in Germany, 5.7 million in Poland and 450,000 in the United Kingdom. The Soviet Union suffered total losses of 25,000 million people.
On May 7, 1945, Winston Churchill made this announcement to his people:
Two months after Germany surrendered, Churchill was ousted from office by British voters, exhausted by the war and looking for fresh leadership.
Darkest Hour is in theaters now.