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Film / Darkest Hour (2017)

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"When will the lesson be learned?! You cannot reason with a tiger WHEN YOUR HEAD IS IN ITS MOUTH!!"
Winston Churchill

Darkest Hour is a 2017 biopic directed by Joe Wright, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill.

The film follows the early days of Churchill’s premiership, in the last three weeks of May and the first days of June 1940. Churchill takes office on the exact same day that Nazi Germany attacks France and Belgium. Three days after that the Germans punch a hole through the middle of the French line and a week after that Adolf Hitler's Panzers reach the English Channel. A quarter-million soldiers, Britain's entire army, retreats to Dunkirk. Britain faces the possibility not just of defeat but of conquest, with the possible capture of the army at Dunkirk that surely would be followed by a German invasion.

Churchill's instinct is to keep fighting, but a peace faction led by Lord Halifax and previous prime minister Neville Chamberlain wants to ask Hitler for surrender terms before the Nazis land in Britain. Facing political opposition at home and the looming prospect of total defeat, Churchill is pushed to his mental limits during Britain's Darkest Hour.

The film also stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill's wife Clementine, Lily James as Churchill's new secretary Elizabeth Layton, Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, who has to be talked into picking Churchill as PM.

Darkest Hour provides examples of:

  • Accidental Innuendo: In-universe. Elizabeth points out the way Churchill made his "V for victory" gesture in the newspaper has the alternative meaning "up the bum." They are both equally amused by this.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: After Churchill has replaced Chamberlain as prime minister, Chamberlain still takes part in the private discussions between him and Halifax. In Halifax's case this makes sense as he's Foreign Secretary, but why is Chamberlain there? What the film doesn't have time to make clear is that in the British system of government the prime minister is conventionally the leader of the party with the most votes, and Chamberlain is still the leader of the party and has considerable support within it, whereas Churchill isn't, and doesn't. So Churchill has to keep Chamberlain on-side.
  • An Aesop: The movie has a lesson that you can't compromise with Fascists. They will keep coming, and they will not stop until they defeat you. Internalizing this is the key reason Churchill is portrayed as a superior leader to Neville Chamberlain, and why, despite his flaws (his critics aren't wrong about a lot of what they say) he was the man for the moment in 1940.
  • The Alcoholic: One of the strikes against Churchill in the eyes of his detractors is how he drinks literally all day long. He may have been what we now consider a Functional Addict.
    Clementine: How much have you had to drink this morning?
  • America Saves the Day: Invoked, but doesn't actually happen within the movie. Churchill calls President Roosevelt for support, but the Neutrality Act prohibits Roosevelt from selling any military hardware to the British. However, Churchill doesn't give up on the idea of America entering the war, declaring that the New World shall rescue the Old in his "We shall fight on the beaches" speech.
  • Anti-Hero: Churchill is crass, rude, and sarcastic, but he wants the best for his country and is determined to get it by any means necessary.
  • Anti-Villain: Halifax and Chamberlain want what is best for Britain as much as Churchill, but believe that they are risking the very existence of their nation on a war that seems hopeless.
  • Armchair Military: During his meeting with the French leadership, it's clear that Churchill is still thinking of warfare in terms of World War I. He dismisses news of a breakthrough by German tanks with the assumption that they need to wait for the infantry, not understanding that Panzer divisions can now function independently.
  • Artistic License – History: A ton.
    • Neville Chamberlain did not have the iron grip over his party by the events of the film as he's portrayed. His government's collapse was evident at the Norway Debate, which opens the film. Over 100 Tories broke ranks with him at its end.
    • The movie shows Churchill as conspicuously absent from the debate, and the dialogue implies that he may have orchestrated the Government downfall behind the doors. In Real Life, he attended the debate and tried to defend the Government.
    • The chaotic atmosphere in the House of Commons depicted at the opening of the film is completely imaginary. The House was more disturbed than normal, but in 1940 terms that translated into "people openly saying that the government wasn't very effective", not "the entire opposition screaming at the prime minister".
    • Clement Attlee is depicted as being generally whiny, hostile and non-constructive. In fact, Attlee and his Labour colleague Arthur Greenwood (who doesn't even appear in the film) were among Churchill's strongest supporters for prime minister, and Attlee in person was legendarily unemotional.
    • Chamberlain privately tells Halifax about his cancer diagnosis soon after Churchill becomes prime minister. However, he did not get diagnosed until two months later.
    • There is very little evidence, other than a few scattered remarks in the letters or diaries of people hostile to Halifax, that Halifax actually wanted to be prime minister at all.
    • The scene with Churchill in the London Underground is an invention.
    • Churchill wasn't advised by King George VI to consult the wisdom of the general public. In fact, it was Clement Attlee in the war cabinet who raised the issue of the negative effect on public opinion of seeking a negotiated peace.
    • Elizabeth Layton didn't work as Churchill's secretary at this time (she started in 1941 and was actually in Canada during the events of the film). Her KIA brother is also an invention.
    • Neville Chamberlain is consistently in favour of a negotiated peace, until Churchill basically announces to the war cabinet that there isn't going to be one. In reality, in the private discussions between Churchill, Halifax and Chamberlain wavered continually about this, which drove Halifax up the wall.
    • The film seems to imply that Churchill thought up the idea of sending civilian boats to Dunkirk in a moment of desperation. While it was a very desperate time and the use of civilian boats was a desperate measure, there was a plan in place already. Owners of civilian sailing craft had already been required to register their boats with the government in advance, in case of just such an emergency scenario.
    • The scene where Churchill gets the Outer Cabinet on his side is based largely on Churchill's recollection of events. Hugh Dalton, who was Minister of Economic Warfare, was also there, and remembered it rather differently: none of the Outer Cabinet disagreed with Churchill, but neither was there the vast upsurge of enthusiasm shown in the film.
    • The immortal "We shall fight on the beaches" speech was not broadcast on radio, but it was printed in the papers the next day, as can be seen in the other 2017 movie about these exact same events, Dunkirk
    • The film strongly implies that Brigadier Nicholson and his garrison were wiped out defending Calais. In reality, 3500 of the soldiers were captured by the Germans, and Nicholson died later as a POW.
    • Churchill didn't move in to 10 Downing Street until over a month after he was named PM, after the Dunkirk evacuation and the events depicted in this film.
  • As You Know: An early meeting of Conservative leadership helpfully points out that Halifax is Foreign Secretary. And refer to him in the third person. While he is present.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Gallipoli is one for Winston. He keeps a Stiff Upper Lip, but it's obvious that he's haunted by it.
    Halifax: I will not stand by and watch another generation of young men die at the bloody altar of your hubris!
    Churchill: No, you would have us die as lambs!
    Halifax: Was Gallipoli not enough for you?!
    Churchill: [outraged] HOW DARE YOU! Our troops were chewing barbed wire in Flanders and I saw it! Opening a second front, outflanking the Turks was a serious military idea and it could have damn well worked if the Admirals and the First Sea Lord hadn't dithered away the element of surprise!
    • On a more humorous note, single-spaced typing is one as well, as Elizabeth discovers in her first scene with Churchill.
  • Big Bad: In the scope of the film, that would be Halifax. While not a villain per se, he represents the biggest threat to Churchill's position as Prime Minister, and in effect, Britain's war effort against the Axis Powers.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Churchill, especially as the Battle of France turns against the Allies.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: The movie starts at the point when France is overrun and British forces are backed to the coastline. Churchill visits French authorities and asks them what their plan for counterattack was going to be, and their response was silence. Churchill rants about the absolute need to fight back, and when he leaves all the French leaders can say is he is delusional. The effect is downplayed however, as it is apparent in that moment that Winston IS being delusional, still thinking of war in terms of First World War-era tactics and that the French simply cannot launch a counterattack against the German blitzkrieg.
  • Cigar Chomper: Churchill smokes cigars like a chimney, which was very much Truth in Television.note 
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: The King complains to Chamberlain that Churchill has as many bad ideas as he has good ones, and one never knows which is going to come out of his mouth next. Chamberlain grudgingly admits that Churchill was right about Hitler when everybody else, including himself, was disastrously wrong.
  • Darkest Hour: By early June 1940, France is defeated, the British army suffered heavy losses of material, and Britain stands alone to face Germany, which now dominates Western Europe and might prepare landings. The real Darkest Hour of the film is Churchill allowing Halifax to make peace talks with Italy.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: When King George balks at appointing Churchill as the new Prime Minister, listing his previous failures, Chamberlain concedes Churchill was right about the necessity of opposing Hitler. The King quips in retort that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  • Day of the Jackboot: Churchill uses the mental image of swastikas hanging over Buckingham Palace, Windsor, and Parliament to rouse the Outer Cabinet into supporting him.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Churchill, per real life (the quote atop this page is a great example) though not all that deadpan.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The movie takes place in 1940, so this is inevitable.
    • People show much more awe and deference to Churchill than modern people would to the Prime Minister, going as far as bowing, curtsying, and standing whenever he's standing.
    • Churchill's secretary must tolerate his verbal abuse note , brazen nakedness and other strange conduct. While Churchill's behavior is presented as peculiar even for the time period, it also has a lot to do with the substantially lower level of power working women had in the 1940s compared to today.
    • In almost any other context, real or fictional, the person seeking a peaceful solution with less bloodshed would be viewed as the voice of reason, while the one refusing to even consider peace talks and urging to wage a war until the last man would be viewed as a delusional war-monger. However, because the opponents are the Nazis, the modern viewer—who knows what the Nazis will go on to do, later in the war—sees Churchill as the Only Sane Man, and those seeking peace talks as hopelessly naive and out of touch with reality.
  • Demoted to Extra: Leader Of The Opposition/Labour Party leader Clement Attlee makes only a few fleeting appearances throughout the film, despite also being a member of the war cabinet and Churchill's immediate successor as Prime Minister. (And it was Attlee and Labour who were responsible for Churchill getting the job in the first place, after they refused to back Chamberlain's government anymore.)
  • Elmuh Fudd Syndwome: King George VI has a very noticeable rhotic speech pattern, especially when he invites Churchill to become "Pwime Ministew." In real life, Lord Halifax also had a similar speech pattern, but this is not portrayed in the film.
  • Enemy Mine: The Conservatives and Labour form a wartime coalition government, with Churchill giving Clement Attlee a place in the war cabinet. Churchill actually faces much more opposition from within his own party.
  • Flipping the Bird: Churchill has to be informed that when he makes the "V" gesture with the palm facing inward, he is basically doing this. He takes it well.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since it is based on a true story, everyone already knows that Churchill remained in post until 1945, didn't make early peace negotiations with the Axis, and that the Dunkirk evacuation saved most of the British troops.
  • Foreshadowing: Churchill's (fictional) visit to the London Underground is foreshadowed by a comment he makes early in the film, about how he tried to ride the Underground once, got lost, and came right back up.
  • Glad He's On Our Side: The King confides to Churchill that as much as he scares the British government, they need him because he is the only man who scares Hitler.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Churchill is rude, cantankerous, short-tempered, stubborn, and absolutely determined to not give an inch to the Nazis.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Adolf Hitler is never seen outside of stock footage and a few children's masks, but it's he and Nazi Germany's war against Europe that drives the conflict of the film.
  • Headbutt of Love: Winston and Clementine do this after a scene in which she tells him that, in addition to all the great problems of state Winston is facing at the moment, the Churchills are, personally, flat broke.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Downplayed. The film makes it clear that Chamberlain is a good man and quite competent when it comes to domestic matters, but wholly unprepared to be a wartime prime minister.
    • Also Churchill himself, to a lesser extent, as he initially refuses to believe that the Germans could successfully invade France without infantry support for their tanks.
  • Hero of Another Story: The "Little Ships" on their way to Dunkirk, explored in depth in Dunkirk and the subject of the Film Within a Film in Their Finest.
  • Historical Domain Character: Winston Churchill, Clementine Churchill, Elizabeth Layton, Neville Chamberlain, George VI, Halifax, Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee... Much more minor characters include Churchill's children, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Paul Reynaud, and Adolf Hitler (only appears in archive films).
  • Horrible Judge of Character: It's not referenced in the film, but screenwriter Anthony McCarten published a companion book expanding on the history behind the events depicted, including a letter home by Lord Halifax after his first face-to-face meeting with Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938; Halifax recorded that:
    • He found Hitler a slightly outrageous, but overall clownish and likeable fellow;
    • He was surprised to learn that Hitler's racism and aggressive pro-German nationalism were honestly-held "beliefs" instead of political poses that he put on for the benefit of his audience, but admitted there was something compelling about the depth of Hitler's convictions; and
    • He believed that Hitler's racism and nationalism, if properly encouraged and redirected, would make Germany Britain's most stalwart ally in the global struggle against world communism.
  • Hypocritical Humor: When Halifax says they need to consider peace talks with Hitler, he and Churchill engage in a verbal duel. Churchill ends it with the following:
    ”Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you?!”
  • Just Plane Wrong: Churchill flies to meet with the French leadership in a Douglas C-47, which did not enter service in the RAF for two years.
  • Keeping the Enemy Close: Churchill fills his war cabinet with his political enemies, particularly Chamberlain and Halifax. One of his aides even namesdrops the trope.
  • Large Ham: Churchill, naturally.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Churchill tells an admiral to come up with a name for the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. The name he picks? Dynamo, based on the brand of fan in the admiral's headquarters.
  • Loophole Abuse: Discussed. Churchill pleads with President Roosevelt for assistance, but since the United States is neutral, he cannot directly assist them. Not even to deliver aircraft that Britain bought from them. Roosevelt suggests that he could have these aircraft moved to the Canadian border and place them on wheels and Churchill could then have them pulled by horses (nothing motorized) into Canada thus not breaking their neutrality agreement.
  • Match Cut: From an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Layton's eye closing to the bomb bay doors of a German plane opening as it drops a bomb on Calais.
  • My Greatest Failure: Twenty-four years have passed, and Churchill's critics still hang the disastrous failure of the Gallipoli Campaign around his neck.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Churchill spends a lot of time dictating a speech to Parliament to his secretary, not even pausing while he's taking a bath. He stops only to warn her that he's about to come out "in a state of nature". The flustered woman flees the scene just before the bathroom door opens. This is also Truth in Television; Churchill was very casual about nudity.
  • The Needs of the Many: Discussed Trope when Churchill orders the Calais garrison to attack in order to slow down the Germans. The Calais garrison, some 5,000 strong, will likely be annihilated, but they have to die so that the 300,000 Britons that constitute the rest of the BEF have time to get to Dunkirk and evacuate.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Viscount Halifax, which is Truth in Television.
  • Ominous Fog: The air field where Churchill meets with the French is shrouded in fog in the early morning. It sets the mood as the French attempt to explain to Churchill just how badly things have gone.
  • Orbital Shot: Around Churchill as he enters 10 Downing Street for the first time.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Evoked by King George VI near the end. He says that he is afraid of Churchill, but more importantly Churchill is the only person Hitler would fear, and as such gives Churchill his full support.
    King George VI: I confess I had some reservations about you at first, but while some in this country dreaded your appointment, none dreaded it like Adolf Hitler. Whoever can strike fear into that brute's heart is worthy of all our trust.
  • Politically Correct History: The scene in the underground shows Churchill particularly impressed with a young black man. Churchill was very much a British imperialist who believed in domination over Local Natives and participated heavily in the Keep Britain white campaign of the 1950s. The scene is pure fiction.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Clement Attlee delivers a scathing one to Neville Chamberlain in the opening.
    Owing to his years of inactivity and incompetence, we find him personally responsible... (MPs clamor) personally responsible for leaving this nation ruinously unprepared to face the present Nazi peril! We are at war, Mr. Speaker... at war... and leaving aside whether he is fit to be a leader in peacetime, he has proved himself incapable of leading us in wartime!
    • Justified in that Attlee and the Labour Party had been warning for some years that Chamberlain was too fond of appeasing Hitler, but Chamberlain had ignored them. Attlee in real life wasn't anything like as shouty and bad-tempered as his character is in the film, though.
  • Resign in Protest: Halifax threatens to do this if Churchill refuses to even consider entering negotiations with the Nazis. Ultimately, nothing comes of the threat when Churchill wins the overwhelming support of the Commons, with Halifax being removed from the War Cabinet and quietly reassigned to a diplomatic posting in Washington D.C.
  • Rousing Speech: Churchill's famous "We shall fight them on the beaches!" speech to the House of Commons. It's so effective that it secures him the backing of the Cabinet, and the film closes on him leaving the chamber with every member of Parliament fervently agreeing with him.
  • Sadistic Choice: Upon hearing that the entire British army has been routed and is completely surrounded at Dunkirk, Churchill is given the choice of either surrendering or letting the army be wiped out. He chooses instead to order a small garrison force stationed nearby at Calais to attack the Germans, buying time for the Dunkirk forces to be evacuated. However, he knows full well that it's a Suicide Mission for the Calais garrison.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To Downfall (2004), another film about a WWII leader in times of crisis, with significant portions of the film taking place underground and partially through the eyes of the main character's secretary. The two films are set at the opposite points of WWII, and on two different sides. Whereas Downfall perpetuates a feel of hopelessness from start to finish, ending with surrender and Hitler's death, Darkest Hour eventually puts hope back into the film, ending with Churchill's speech reinvigorating the nation and a successful military operation. The production designer even said that she contrasted the War Rooms with Hitler's Bunker in Downfall.
  • Technologically Blind Elders: Churchill has a hard time accepting fast-moving armoured vehicles being the new way of warfare, insisting they are harmless without supporting infantry. He apparently thinks WW2 will be exactly like WW1.
  • The Voice: President Franklin D. Roosevelt plays a small part in the film when Churchill calls him on the phone in a desperate bid to secure American assistance.
  • Worthy Opponent: By the end of the film, Chamberlain feels this way about Churchill.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Churchill, responding to Franklin Roosevelt's proposal that the British drag airplanes across the Canadian border with horses so as not to violate the neutrality agreement which prohibits any motorized form of transport.
    Churchill: I'm sorry, did you say... horses?
    Roosevelt: Well, they do have wheels, you know.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: During his ride on the Underground, Churchill recalls Horatius's famous oration, and is tremendously impressed when a young black man on the same train finishes it for him. The sentiment is incorporated into his speech before Parliament, when he decrees that if France falls, Britain will continue to fight, "on the beaches... on the landing grounds... in the fields and in the streets... in the hills; we shall never surrender."
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Chamberlain finds out he has cancer, and that he likely has only a few months left to live. Indeed, he dies six months after the film's conclusion.

Alternative Title(s): Darkest Hour