Churchill’s Darkest Hour

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Gary Oldman as Churchill

On this day in 1965, Winston Churchill died, age 90.  So perhaps it is only fitting that yesterday the 90th Oscar nominations were announced, and among the leading contenders was “Darkest Hour,” a film that could easily have been titled “Churchill’s Darkest Hour.”  The film received a total of six nominations, ranging from obscure categories like Best Picture and Best Actor, to some highly contested categories (the ones you have to stay up till 11:55 pm to find out the winner), such as Best Makeup and Hairstyling.  I guess making Gary Oldman look convincingly as bald as Churchill is quite a skill. I enjoyed watching the movie thoroughly and highly recommend it.

Winston Spencer Churchill was a very complex man, one whose life spanned the reign of Queen Victoria to the space age, and included important roles in both World War I and World War II.  As with any complex, larger-than-life personality, he has, and will continue to have, his share of supporters and detractors.  But it is hard to conceive that anyone else could have carried Great Britain through when, alone, the country faced the Nazi juggernaut.  Churchill assumed the prime ministership on May 10, 1940.  By then Germany had crushed Poland in thirty days, occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia and Denmark, and overwhelmed Belgium in eighteen days.  France, which had fought for over four years during WWI, and helped defeat Germany, was invaded the same day and capitulated a mere forty-six days later.  (The country which held out the longest was Norway, a nation of less than four million, which took over two months to subdue.)

Churchill and England fought on, alone, with the United States officially neutral and its Congress still deeply isolationist, and with the Soviet Union bound by a nonaggression treaty with Germany itself.  It was not until Hitler committed the twin disasters, within a six-month period, of invading Russia and declaring war on the U.S., that the tide unexpectedly began to turn.

When Churchill assumed this arduous task, one that he would shoulder until the very closing days of the war, he was 65 years old, the age when most of us want nothing more than to retire.  I am 63 and am content to walk my dogs, write a few blogs (like this), make an occasional presentation about Odd Nansen’s fabulous diary, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps, and tend my garden, and I consider that a pretty full life.  Whatever the source of Churchill’s energy was, it sustained him through many a dark hour, day, week, month and year before the outcome of World War II was assured.

In sustaining England, Churchill also sustained those who were prisoners of the Nazis.  Odd Nansen mentions Churchill in no less than eight of his diary entries, the first six weeks after his arrest.  By then Churchill had been Prime Minister for almost two years.  Here’s what Nansen writes on Friday, February 20, 1942:

“Churchill made his speech a week ago, explaining the why and how [of the fall of Singapore].  It was plain that all who had heard him were eminently optimistic, though we haven’t got hold of what he actually said.  In all probability he didn’t gild the situation, but no doubt gave expression as usual to his unshaken faith in the future and the final victory.  The certainty he gives our whole world!  The victory of which our whole world is as sure as he is!”

I certainly am going to watch the Oscars this year, and will even stay up to 11:55 pm if I have to.  And in a small way, I hope that the man who said “Never, never, never give up!” will get his due.

PS: The movie “Dunkirk” (which I’ve written about here) received eight Oscar nominations.  Yet another reason to watch the proceedings!

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