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This year’s best movie about a spirited band of resisters fighting an empire of evil isn’t the latest entry in the “Star Wars” franchise, but “Darkest Hour,” an extraordinarily deft and moving depiction of the outset of Winston Churchill’s prime ministership during World War II.

Rich Lowry mug

Rich Lowry

Cabinet meetings and political intrigue aren’t the most natural cinematic material, although the underlying event in “Darkest Hour” is one of the most dramatic in modern history: One man standing defiant before the onslaught of an enemy army, rallying his nation with his willpower and words.

Discounting for Hollywood embellishments, the movie is worthy of this story, which is high praise indeed. In particular, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is so compelling that the Academy Award for best actor should be signed, sealed and delivered to him right now.

Upon taking power, Churchill faced disaster on every front in the war, yet bucked internal political pressure to explore a deal with Adolf Hitler. In his marvelous history of this crucial interlude, “Five Days in London: May 1940,” the great historian John Lukacs writes, “Then and there he saved Britain and Europe, and Western civilization.”

By his account years later, Churchill felt a sense of relief at being put in charge: “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.” But his bodyguard reported that when he congratulated Churchill on his ascension and noted the enormous task ahead, the new prime minister replied, tears in his eyes: “God alone knows how great it is. I hope it is not too late.”

In 1937, Churchill’s reputation had been at a low ebb, but he recovered on the strength of his acuteness about Hitler. When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, Churchill gave a speech in the House of Commons declaring “we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.” Britain’s position slid downward from there.

The same day that Churchill became prime minister, Hitler’s army invaded Western Europe in earnest, sweeping all before it and eventually trapping the British at Dunkirk.

Given the circumstances, the desire of Viscount Halifax, Churchill’s inherited foreign secretary, to explore peace terms wasn’t unreasonable, just profoundly wrong. Lukacs writes that Halifax knew “how to adjust his mind to circumstances rather than attempt to adjust the circumstances to his ideas.” Churchill thought differently. A contest ensued between the two of them in the War Cabinet, where the new prime minister’s position wasn’t unassailable.

Churchill opposed any deal. He was convinced, Lukacs notes, “that such a settlement, under any conditions, could not be counter-balanced by a maintenance, let alone a guarantee, of British liberty and independence.” Churchill bent a little toward Halifax when he initially felt it politically necessary, but ground him down and ultimately outmaneuvered him.

In a key episode, Churchill went to the larger Cabinet and won overwhelming approval for his stalwartness. Here, he made his famous statement, “We shall go and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground.”

After the war, Churchill wrote of the reaction of his colleagues: “Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and came running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt had I at this juncture faltered at all in leading the nation, I should have been hurled out of office.”

He didn’t falter. Churchill tapped into and built up the resolve of the British people. “There was a white glow,” he wrote later, “overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.” Hitler wouldn’t neutralize the British, who escaped Dunkirk and kept up the fight.

The so-called Great Man theory of history might be overly simplistic, but history indisputably has its great men. “Darkest Hour” does justice to one of them.

Syndicated columnist Rich Lowry can be reached at comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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(3) comments

oldhomey

Churchill was a conservative, but he was one of the most superbly prepared men in history to ever be called upon in a world crisis. Perhaps the best prepared man in history. He had been a journalist with wide ranging experience and insight. He had been a military man who had seen action and acted heroically. He had been a prisoner of war, an experience that should confer the deepest reverence we can afford to military veterans other than those who gave their lives for their country. He had been a top level politician through much of his adult life. He was ready when Hitler threw down the gauntlet and smugly thought he already had Great Britain and the world's democracies defeated. We owe Churchill a deep, deep debt of gratitude. And Lowry, who gets excited by a movie about Churchill, defends and runs interference for Donald Trump, a man who could not be more opposite of Churchill. Spare me.

Buggs Raplin

Before we deify him, he was responsible for the disaster at Gallipoli. He had no compunction whatsoever on using poison gas. He was also aware the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, as was FDR. He was right on Hitler and Munich, but was nonetheless a supporter of Chamberlain prior to his ouster

oldhomey

I guess I stand corrected. That Churchill -- one of the biggest bums in history. Right there with George Washington, who lost most of the battles he led his men into in the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln, who was a closet racist, Teddy Roosevelt, who was a war-mongering environmentalist and his war-mongering cousin, Franklin. Thank God we have evolved to the point where clear-headed American voters can put visionary, scandal-free, man-of-the-people geniuses like Donald Trump into the presidency, a man who inherited the mess left by our flea-bitten forefathers and will now restore dignity and power to the nation, fulfilling his promise to Make America Great Again. How could I have been so gullible, Buggs? Thanks for setting me straight.

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