Whenever real-life figures are portrayed in cinema, there is always speculation as to how true-to-life the said portrayal is. People are never perfectly good or bad. There are no Saurons or Voldemorts in our world. Good people always possess a trait that puts off people, and there is a redeeming quality even in the worst of human beings. A great wartime hero for some, a racist windbag (to borrow from one of his most eloquent critics, Shashi Tharoor) to others, Winston Churchill has an undeniably difficult legacy. He is widely posited as the champion of democracy – the man who stopped the advance of Hitler and the Nazis. Some, however, call him the man directly responsible for the Bengal Famine that took the lives of 3 to 4 million people.
Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman, is based on the titular ‘darkest hour’ for the British as the threat of Nazi invasion of England loomed near and shows how Churchill rallied the country against nigh-impossible odds. While the film itself is pretty dull, Gary Oldman, easily one of the finest actors of this generation, as Churchill saves the ship from sinking completely. I am here not to review the film, however. My job is to tell you whether Darkest Hour accurately portrays Churchill, warts and all.
The short answer is no; Winston Churchill is not accurately portrayed in Darkest Hour.
In the film, he is an inspiring, confident leader of a beleaguered country and humanity’s last hope against Hitler and the Nazis. The character is written as a cantankerous but lovable old man with a stubborn sort of courage and immense love for his nation. The film is successful in bringing out a flesh-and-blood man with eccentricities and foibles, and Oldman’s performance keeps you interested. Churchill in the film faces scorn from rivals and contemporaries but toils on resolutely and proves all of them wrong. Fine, Churchill may have been a great leader and perhaps he had a role in preventing England from becoming a Nazi territory, but he was certainly not the champion of democracy. The Battle of Stalingrad fought by the Soviet Union’s Red Army against the Germans was perhaps the most decisive battle of the World War II, resulting in the destruction of the Nazi regime. So it was a Communist nation that was the saviour of democracy. One cannot ignore American role either.
Also, there is a small matter of the death of a few million Bengalis. Even if a film on Churchill does not concern his India policies, this stain on Churchill’s legacy cannot be washed away. It should always be mentioned whenever there is a piece of work on Churchill. The Bengal famine of 1943 was the direct result of his policies. There is not even a hint of this in the film, as though it were something people do not want to see, and probably they (the Western audiences) do not. But as it is often said about art that it “should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”. If art were always sanitised, there will not be any progress in the society. Art is the vehicles that carries the civilisation forward.
That Hitler was a mass-murderer is a historical fact, and is portrayed as such in films made on him. The same is true for Stalin, Pol Pot, and other genocidal maniacs of the 20th century. What, then, explains this myopic view of Churchill? He did not actively engage in genocide, but he knew what was happening, and said that it was the fault of the Bengalis themselves for breeding like rabbits. “I hate Indians,” he added, “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Surely all this was important enough to warrant at least a cursory mention? All one got was a single allusion to how Churchill’s “India policy” was “controversial”. Whitewashing accomplished.
Churchill famously said: “History is written by the victors.” Indeed it is.