Filmmakers make bad historians. While it is well understood that historically-based movies should not be taken for fact, film continues to play a major role in forming public perceptions of the past. Historians, realizing this phenomenon, often get caught up in the details of where film goes wrong, without fully understanding why these flaws matter. The mistakes made in movies are especially significant in films about politicians, like 2017’s Darkest Hour and Churchill, because they suggest that “Big Men” make history while the rest of the world watches and supports them. This fictional structure influences dangerously how we engage with today’s political leaders.
According to Winston Churchill’s critics, Britain’s 61st Prime Minister was “aristocratic, high-handed, self-centred, energetic, impatient, inconsistent, prone to rhetoric… [and] most stubborn.” Alternatively, Churchill’s champions have called him “a true case of genius” with “shattering” personality.  To this day, Winston Churchill remains one of the most written about historical figures of the twentieth century. In addition, the Prime Minister has appeared in over eighty films in the past eighty years. Two new films, Darkest Hour and Churchill, hit the big screen in 2017 and focused on Churchill’s actions during the Second World War. In the wake of a year that saw the rise of the far right in countries including France, Australia, and the United States, it is unsurprising that audiences would respond to films about one of history’s most famous antifascists. However, Churchill’s re-creation on film misrepresents his actions and popularity, and diminishes the public’s place in the narrative—putting power solely in the hands of an old, rich, white, stubborn man. Sound familiar?
While historically-based films set their scenes within the pages of history—dressing their characters in historic fashions, maintaining the pomp and decor of past eras—they often create or reinterpret the intentions or values of their historical characters so that they align with those of a modern viewership. Both Churchill and Darkest Hour fail to represent Churchill as a man of his time. Rather, they seek to recast the Prime Minister as a man of our time. For example, Churchill emphasizes the famous Prime Minister’s struggle with depression, or “the black dog,” as he called it. Churchill’s mental health, while not absent from the historical record, would not have carried the same meaning in the mid 20th-century as it does for a modern audience.
In contrast, Darkest Hour casts Churchill as a lofty, spontaneous politician who must overcome his own unpopularity to secure Britain’s sovereignty. The most problematic scene in Darkest Hour follows Churchill’s escape to the London Underground where he consults Tube patrons on the matter of making peace with Germany in 1940. This fictitious event creates the impression that Winston Churchill was a man of the people, or at least shared our modern understanding of democracy, without placing any real importance on what “the public” thought of Churchill. It might shock Darkest Hour’s viewers, after this scene of public regard for the leader, to learn that Churchill went on to lose the first election he called as Prime Minister in July 1945.
The danger of films like Darkest Hour and Churchill is that they encourage complacency and hero-worship in their audiences and fail to acknowledge the importance of political participation. They are uncritical of Churchill’s actions and do not regard the weight of public opinion. These films choose to narrowly examine aspects of Churchill’s political career in order to present the Prime Minister in one light—as a hero in Darkest Hour or as a man past his prime in Churchill. Neither film encourages its audience to think critically about Churchill’s actions nor attempt to describe how Churchill was perceived in his own time.
When historical films are done well, they remind us that history is not destiny. By placing modern audiences in the heart of the drama at the British House of Commons, films can demonstrate that things may have occurred much differently had the cards not fallen into place just so. This is an important message at a time when the far right is on the rise across the western world. However, celebratory films about past politicians create the impression that the “average man” has no place in these historical decisions. Rather, the public must trust their elected officials to enact the change they want to see in the world. This is inherently problematic if the elected officials do not represent the interests of the “average person.”
Films that present Churchill as relatable, a great leader, and appeal to a modern audience’s values do history a disservice. Churchill, by all means, was an extraordinary orator whose leadership helped turn the tide of the Second World War in Britain, but this was not the whole story. Churchill had complicated views on democracy, wavering support for female suffrage, remained committed to retaining the British Empire by force during the 1940s and 1950s, and strongly opposed socialism. Films that present historical actors uncritically fail their audiences. They create the impression that the public’s most valuable purpose is to encourage our leaders on in their valiant pursuits, rather than place any real importance on the public’s role in shaping history. The film industry needs to find more balance by celebrating past politicians’ successes while also critically engaging with their flaws as leaders. The next film about Churchill should contrast his success as Prime Minister during the war with the British public’s decision to vote Labour in the summer of 1945, just weeks after the triumph over Nazi Germany.
Erin Isaac is a recent graduate from the University of Saskatchewan and will be pursuing an MA in History at the University of New Brunswick in September.
 Nigel Knight, Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked (Cincinnati: David and Charles Books, 2009), 6.
 Phyllis Moir, I Was Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary (New York: Wilfred Funk, Inc., 1941): 5.
Thanks for the review. I’d like to republish in our teacher’s journal if possible. Is Active History Open Data Creative Commons? Will attribute-of course!