Recently, I had the privilege of seeing the film The Darkest Hour. My expectations were surpassed as Gary Oldman’s Churchill owned the screen and skillfully conveyed the tenacity of “The British Bulldog.” The Darkest Hour was, ironically, the second film of 2017 to feature Dunkirk, to end with Churchill’s famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech, and to be nominated for Best Picture. I found both features to be refreshing homages to moral courage in an era when moral certitude seems to be lacking in Hollywood both on and off of the screen.
I must immediately add a caveat: in no way do I believe these films to be especially virtuous because of their attention to Britain, Europe, or even the West. I give no praise to the false paradigm of eurocentrism that many have misguidedly embraced. I also acknowledge the many flaws of Churchill himself, including his promotion of imperialism and acceptance of racial prejudice. However, in Britain’s “Darkest Hour,” the courageous leadership of Churchill and the British military successfully countered the evil forces of Nazism that swept across Europe, and such courage should be praised. The “moral courage” displayed in Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour left a lasting impression on me in several significant ways.
First, moral courage is not easy. In fact, it is often preceded or even accompanied by a healthy fear. Towards the end of The Darkest Hour, King George VI, previously a skeptic of his new prime minister, pays Churchill a surprise visit in the early hours. Sitting with an exhausted Churchill, the King asks if he is afraid, and the prime minister replies, “Yes . . . terribly!” The idea of Churchill being scared might shock our 21st century minds, given the folklore we have devoured about his unwavering tenacity. But courage is not necessarily devoid of fear. It is very often, perhaps even most often that when we are about to engage in a great struggle against evil, we will experience the fear that comes before battle. With the lives of 330,000 soldiers on the line, as well as the welfare of an entire nation, it would only be natural for Britain’s leader to pause, even to tremble, before the battle should begin.
Second, moral courage comes at a high cost. One of the reasons Dunkirk made such a potent war film was its cinematic realism. With sparse dialogue, superb sound mixing, and frenetic cinematography, Christopher Nolan’s film felt part newsreel and part documentary for much of its run time. Nolan’s vision makes it impossible not to leave the theater without deep appreciation for the tremendous sacrifices at Dunkirk, even though the rescue operation is frequently glossed over as a “miracle” in history books without mention of its intricate complexities.
The Darkest Hour takes a slightly different approach to showing the horrors of war, doing so in a more artistic fashion that leaves human suffering more to the viewer’s imagination but leaves no less of an impression of war’s devastation. It would have been a mistake by director Joe Wright to leave out the tragic destruction of the British garrison at Calais; without that moment of searing, on-the-ground reality, The Darkest Hour might have been only a political drama about war without any actual glimpse of the war itself. The moral courage displayed by Churchill was, therefore, not simply a rousing speech in Parliament, but the spearhead behind legions of brave men pushing back a tide of totalitarianism, many of them giving their lives in the process.
Third, moral courage is found on the road less travelled. Robert Frost’s timeless poem from 1916, “The Road Less Traveled,” ends:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In both films, we are given heroes who have taken the road less traveled. In Dunkirk, “Tommy,” one of the soldiers “on land” whom we travel with for much of the movie, opposes his comrades’ desire to push a foreign soldier off of a boat which they are hiding for safety. Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton shirks the safety of a swift evacuation to stay behind for the French. And Mr. Dawson, the pilot of a civilian boat, tells a traumatized British soldier who pleads with him to go home, “Well, there won’t be any home if we allow a slaughter across the Channel.”
The Darkest Hour, on the other hand, shows the extent of opposition to Churchill’s hawkish, courageous leadership from within the British government, not only over his decision to order what was viewed as an outlandish rescue attempt at Dunkirk, but also against his decision to fight Hitler instead of surrender. Although Wright’s film takes liberties with the narrative of opposition to Churchill, he was very ill-favored in Parliament prior to his ascension to the role of Prime Minister. Morally courageous leaders will and must go against the grain in order to do the right thing. There can be as much sacrifice in the decision to stand alone before a skeptical crowd as in the decision to fight on a beach, and though temporarily safe from German bombs when he defied Hitler before Parliament, Churchill gave no less for the cause of freedom than any of Britain’s soldiers.
Our present era is one full of fearful, uncertain leaders. Whether they are bound to special interests, fearful of sacrifice, or hesitant to depart from the mainstream, those steering the ship of state are often devoid of Churchill’s kind of moral courage. Though the vow to “fight them on the beaches” and the tide of boats rushing to rescue soldiers from certain death are now distant memories, the moral courage of these men is not so distant. It can inspire us even now, and when we find ourselves afraid of loss, afraid of rejection, or even simply “afraid” in the purest sense of the word, we would do well to remember Churchill, Britain, and their fight to remain free.