Darkest Hour: Kiwi writer Anthony McCarten on Churchill's oratory power

by Anthony McCarten / 11 January, 2018
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Winston Churchill, who unexpectedly became Prime Minister in May 1940, sparking a “span of inspired grandiloquence”. Photo/Getty Images

In the companion book to his Winston Churchill movie Darkest Hour, New Zealand writer Anthony McCarten recounts how it was the statesman’s passion for words that inspired his new screen portrait.

Over the years, my bookshelves have always held a few volumes whose subject could broadly be called “Great Speeches That Changed the World”. The thesis of these books is that this questionable feat has been achieved multiple times, under the right conditions: timely words, alloyed to a timely idea, spoken by a timely, brilliant person.

In these anthologies, I could expect to find at least one speech by Winston Spencer Churchill. Often two or three. They sounded slightly old-fashioned, lofty, with wordsmithery elevated to near pomposity, yet always they contained a brace of exquisite phrases, superb sound bites that would have been just as memorable to an audience 1000 years in the past as 1000 years in the future.

As I became a minor student of the speeches of Nehru, Lenin, George Washington, Hitler, Martin Luther King and others, I fed my admiration for the art of oratory and these men’s rising arrow-showers of words. At their best they had the power to summon into being the unexpressed thoughts of a people, to galvanise disparate emotions into a shared passion capable of making the unthinkable a reality.

Anthony McCarten.

What struck me as remarkable about Churchill was that he wrote three of these speeches in a period of just four weeks. For him, May 1940 was a single span of inspired grandiloquence.

And he did so all by himself. What was it about that moment that spurred him to such heights? What political and personal pressures compelled him, three times in so few days, to turn coal into such diamonds?

The simple answer? Britain was at war. The horrors of Blitzkrieg saw one European democracy after another fall in rapid succession to the Nazi boot and shell.

Listen to Churchill's 'fight them on the beaches' speech:

Facing this horror, with pen in hand and typist-secretary at the ready, Britain’s new Prime Minister wondered what words could rouse the country to a heroic resistance when the invasion of the country by a terrible foe seemed mere hours away.

This book, and the screenplay for the film Darkest Hour, emerged from these questions and from this fascination.

The aim is to look at the working methods, leadership qualities, thinking and psychological states of one man in these critical days – a man who believed, in the core of his rather poetic soul, that words mattered, that they counted, and could intercede to change the world.

Winston Churchill speaking at the Royal Albert Hall in 1944. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Churchill speaking at the Royal Albert Hall in 1944. Photo/Getty Images

My initial research led me to focus on the period from Churchill’s unexpected promotion to the prime ministership on May 10, 1940, until the near-complete evacuation of the endangered British army from Dunkirk (which signalled the imminent fall of France) on June 4 – the date, by the way, on which he delivered the last speech in his rhetorical trilogy.

The National Archives provided a vital research tool: access to the actual minutes of the War Cabinet meetings that Churchill chaired during those dimming days. These shed light on a rare period of uncertainty in his career, a wobble in his otherwise steady leadership. Pedestals are for statues, not for people, and a close reading of the minutes reveals not only a leader in trouble, under attack from all sides and uncertain at times what direction to take, but also a story I had not heard: of a British War Cabinet that, had it made peace with the enemy, would have reshaped the world for ever.

Adolf Hitler. Photo/Getty Images

A near-run thing

How close did Churchill come to entering into a peace deal with Hitler? Dangerously so, I discovered. The question before that War Cabinet, gathering in 1940 initially at the Admiralty (a short walk up Whitehall from Downing Street) and thereafter in its bunker deep under the Treasury Building, was whether Britain was to fight on alone, perhaps to the destruction of its armed forces and even the nation itself, or play it safe by exploring a peace deal with Hitler.

The Italian Ambassador in London, in exchange for colonies in Africa and Malta and Gibraltar, had indicated he was prepared to ask the Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, to act as the go-between for Berlin and London in such a deal. With Churchill’s rival for the leadership, Lord Halifax, emphatic in his call for this option to be explored, at least until Hitler’s terms could be discerned, and with Churchill’s predecessor as PM, Neville Chamberlain, agreeing that this seemed the only sensible way to escape almost certain annihilation, Churchill faced some lonely hours in which he truly had only his own counsel to draw upon.

Gary Oldman (Churchill), left, and Ben Mendelsohn (King George VI), right, in Darkest Hour.

Gary Oldman (Churchill), left, and Ben Mendelsohn (King George VI), right, in Darkest Hour.

Many readers will be astonished to learn that the great Churchill, presented to history as a staunch and unyielding foe of Hitler, told his colleagues in the War Cabinet that he would not object in principle to peace talks with Germany “if Herr Hitler was prepared to make peace on terms of the restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe’’. At one point, on May 26, he went further, and was reported to have stated “that he would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties, provided we retained the essentials of our vital strength, even at the cost of some cession of territory”.

What territory? Not only European, but British territory. And there was more. Chamberlain’s diary for May 27 records that Churchill told the War Cabinet that “if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies, he [Churchill] would jump at it”.

Kristin Scott Thomas, bottom right, plays Churchill’s wife, Clementine.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Churchill’s wife, Clementine.

Was Churchill seriously considering entering into peace talks with a homicidal maniac whom he loathed beyond all others? It would seem so. Such were the pressures upon him that he not only entertained the idea, but also permitted Halifax to begin drafting a top-secret memorandum to the Italians, laying out Britain’s terms and taking the first step in a process to find out how severe Hitler’s would be.

For those who might find that any image of a Churchill willing to seriously consider such a deal belittles the great man, doing injury to his reputation, I would argue the opposite: that the public image of a pugnacious battler who never doubted himself does not do him justice; it makes him unreal, a cliché, less a three-dimensional human being than the product of a collective dream. Rather than diminish him, his indecision, his ability to put on a strong face in order to keep morale up while thinking of different solutions, recommends him.

Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour.

These, then, are the dark hours to which the title refers, but from them – and, moreover, because of them – Churchill emerged with two coups de théâtre, magnificent examples of peroration: the first delivered to a group of outer Cabinet members not privy to the War Cabinet talks, and the second to the full Parliament for all the world to hear.

Listen to Churchill's 'Finest hour' speech:

The first was a warm-up for the real thing, and no full record of it exists, but diary entries by two men who heard it suggest its broad outlines and many key phrases.

The second speech entered history the moment the words came out of Churchill’s mouth, as he listed beaches, landing grounds, fields, hills, seas and oceans and the air as the places where the British would fight the dreaded Hun.

Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour.

Pulled out all the stops

In both these speeches, and in an earlier one delivered a few weeks before – in which he promised the public his blood, toil, tears and sweat, whether they wanted them or not – he used every trick in the book. These were lessons he’d learnt from the Greeks and Romans generally, and Cicero specifically: first arousing sympathy for his country, himself, his clients, his case, and then building towards a direct emotional appeal – what the Roman orators called an epilogus – aimed at leaving not a heart unmoved or a dry eye in the house.

Models exist for the kind of fireworks he delivered three times in May and early June 1940 – notably the speech of Marcus Antonius in defence of Aquillius, during which Antonius tore open the tunic of Aquillius to reveal his battle scars – but the British House of Commons and the British public had heard nothing like it. With words, Churchill changed the political mood and shored up the nervous will of the people, compelling them down an uncertain road that – eventually, and against the odds, and with all the sacrifice Churchill predicted (and then some!) – ended in total victory.

It is some story. When Churchill died, it was said of him that in those dark days in 1940, when Britain stood alone before a monstrous enemy, he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle. This isn’t merely a pretty metaphor. Words were really all he had. But if you are to be left with only one thing to fight with, then the lesson must be: you could do a lot worse.

From Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought Us Back From The Brink (Viking, $28).

This article was first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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