Despite the new World War II drama Darkest Hour now playing in theaters nationwide, “Who was Winston Churchill?” still sounds like a question you’re likely to find on one of those ‘the dumbing down of America has happened’ videos. While Churchill may not have been American, himself, his influence and importance in the events of the mid-20th Century cannot be overstated. Winston Churchill was elected Britain’s Prime Minister in 1940, a position he held throughout the remainder of World War II and again from 1951 to 1955. Before his career in politics he had worked as a writer and served as a member of the British Army. His election in 1940 came at a time when Britain’s, and indeed the future of the whole of Western Europe was uncertain. Hitler had been elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and, by the time of Churchill’s election, was already marching across France, pushing British forces to the shores of the English Channel, where the famous evacuation at Dunkirk took place (if you haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, I highly recommend it!).
With the United States still hesitant to enter the war effort in either Europe or the Pacific, the newly appointed Prime Minister was faced with the choice of either regrouping and rallying national support to continue the war effort against Nazi Germany, or agreeing to sign a peace accord with Hitler and the Axis Powers. As the United Kingdom stood at the brink of invasion, it was up to Churchill to persuade Parliament, King George VI, and the people of Britain that the war could be won and that it was worth fighting, an extremely difficult prospect considering the ever-growing influence of Nazi Germany and the reluctance of the United States to enter the war.
Darkest Hour was written by Oscar-nominated writer/producer Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero, The Theory of Everything). Director Joe Wright, known for period-pictures and dramas like Atonement, The Soloist, and Anna Karenina, was hired to helm the project, which also stars Lily James (Cinderella, Burnt), Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Only God Forgives), and Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, Star Wars: Rogue One). Oscar-nominated actor Gary Oldman (Leon: the Professional, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) stars in the role of Churchill, in what many are saying could earn the actor a long-overdue Oscar for Best Actor. Despite the all-star cast and promising direction, it will be interesting to see how American audiences react to the film. Churchill was, no doubt, a great leader, known for his heroism in leading Britain through the war and for establishing new and lasting domestic policies for the United Kingdom afterwards. He was also, however, a man with little patience or interest in other races and cultures, a quality we, as Americans, are seeing in our own leadership today. How Churchill’s individual personality will be portrayed in the film, and how audiences will react to it remains to be seen as we come into the New Year.