by Nate Rosenberger
In this lovely period of film releases known as “Oscar bait season” audiences have a variety of films, that usually results in this year’s award winners, to choose to view. One intriguing film this year is director Joe Wright’s (Atonement, The Soloist, and Hanna) newest biopic on Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour. Starring Gary Oldman as Churchill the film is impressively shot and acted with critics coming out immediately raving over the film. Robert Ebert has given it the illustrious 4/4, Rotten Tomatoes has certified it as fresh, and if you check the usual outlets for entertainment reviews you will be hard pressed to find a bad one. It’s Academy Award nominations are six in total with Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Cinematographer among them.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with Darkest Hour. The problem lies with the accuracy of this film’s depiction of Churchill. Now obviously films are not intended to be perfect recreations of historical events, their goal is entertainment and profit. However, for the great majority of viewers this will be their first exposure to Churchill since World History in High School. While it would be nice to trust our education system to have accurately impressed the population with what this major historical figure was like, no one can seriously put stock in that.
In fact, historian Glen Jeansonne and film critic David Luhrssen have found that historical films shape public perception of our pasts figures far greater than any other forms of media people are likely to encounter. This makes the content of historical films all the more important.
Churchill did accomplish some great things during his time as prime minister and he should be honored for his contributions during World War II. He was an enigmatic leader that even the most skeptical historians agree was what Britain needed for the war. His gamble on the United States involvement paid off and Britain became the launching point for the invasion of Hitler’s Europe.
What he was not was a good man.
Churchill was a known racist, sexist, and bigot. He vehemently opposed women’s suffrage, was a strong advocate for harsher imperialist policies, and his exploits in WWII should be overshadowed by his repeated human rights violations. Neither were his odious opinions ones that he kept to himself. He boldly made statements throughout his career that were controversial even for the early 21st century in a society that was built by exploiting those they considered lesser.
In 1901, as a newly elected member of parliament he was asked what the Empire’s policy in China should be and he responded with the statement that, “I think we shall have to take the Chinese in hand and regulate them. Aryan stock is bound to triumph.”
This was not simply an isolated statement from an overzealous young politician. In 1943, four years into WWII, under his leadership the British Imperial government mismanaged a famine in Bengal that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3 million Indians. Perhaps attempts could be made to say that the concerns of the war were more pressing on his mind yet even that feeble argument cannot account for his statement that the famine was caused by the Indian Colony because of them, “Breeding like rabbits.”
The list of horrific deeds he committed could go on, entire books are written on them if you so desire, the point is that this is the more complete look of a man that is now glorified in Darkest Hour.
Horrific, yes, but let us have reasonable expectations. A film from a major Hollywood studio dedicated to exposing the racism of a renowned historical figure who was voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 is not going to happen anytime soon. Purely from a profit standpoint it would be better for the film’s success to avoid these darker issues of his legacy.
However, Darkest Hour does not just remove these features of his character but goes as far as to distort the truth and leave the exact opposite impression. After viewing this film an uninformed audience member would believe that Churchill was not a racist angry man but perhaps advanced for his time in his treatment of women and minorities.
The film includes a scene where Churchill takes his secretary inside of the War Room, breaking the rule that no women were allowed inside. The idea of the man who vehemently opposed women’s suffrage breaking this rule should be laughable yet the film depicts this with Churchill showing not an ounce of care for the rule.
Worse yet is a scene that takes place later in the film. While Good-Guy-Winston-Churchill rides the underground for the first time he not only allows a Caribbean man of African descent to interrupt him; the film has gone as far as showing him humored by it.
These small, short scenes, are the films attempts to leave an uninformed audience with a distinctive perception of Winston Churchill which is drastically far from the truth. Attempting to redeem the character of their film as a likeable A-hole rather than representing the true character of this historical figure.
Unfortunately, the blame for this does not solely lie with the producers of films. Their decisions are profit driven thus reflecting what Western audiences want to see. Our society prefers our historical heroes to be blameless images of perfection, only remembering their great deeds and simply pushing aside the uglier aspects of their lives. Why? It is easier. Easier to leave the face of a mass murderer on our twenty-dollar bill rather than replace it. Easier to ignore our founding father’s’ racism in favor of their more “heroic “deeds. Easier to ignore the reality of Churchill’s bigoted past and instead solely focus on his deeds for which we usually remember him.
Darkest Hour is no better or worse than many Hollywood films. Until society can learn to accept more than just one-dimensional representations of our past we will continue to see films like this. Films that seek to glorify and repair the character of those figures who should be remembered with a far more balanced look at history. The Churchill who greatly influenced the outcome of WWII and led Britain through one of its darkest times in history can still be the Churchill who exuded hate and acted upon that. An acceptance of the one side does not require a denial of the other and both should be remembered before any celebration of their “great” deeds. Without this change we will continue to ignore the history of oppressed people just for the convenience of having a national hero.
Nate Rosenberger is a member of the DSA and a History major focusing on imperial and colonial studies.