Theme: Small Sacrifice for a Far Greater Good
It is intriguing that two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed Directors chose to revisit the Battle of Dunkirk in the same year. While coming from different perspectives, (Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk focuses on the battle, while Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour concentrates on the events preceding it) the pair of films together draw attention to one of the most climatic moments of the 20th century.
An excellent film, it would be easy to get caught up in the historical narrative of the Darkest Hour and miss the forest for the trees. Yes, it is about actual events which happened in time and space, specifically May 1940 Western Europe. These events, however, “harken back to” or are an “echo of” ancient events. The darkest hour always precedes a great exodus and requires a sacrifice. This is a salvation story of biblical proportions.
The movie opens with reel/real black and white films of Hitler’s Nazi Germany; this is the dark setting of the events which follow. The countries of Europe are being over run in rapid succession by the Nazi war machine. While the island nation Great Britain, having the English Channel for a moat has a momentary reprieve from the juggernaut facing the continent, her armed forces at Dunkirk on the coast of France do not.
Faced with capitulating countries and the foreseeable loss of their entire army, the opposition party in Parliament is forcing the ouster of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the man who got them into this predicament and left them unprepared and incapable of waging war.
There is only one choice for a replacement and he is a very unlikely candidate and leader. This cigar smoking, hard drinking, mumbling bulldog of a man has functioned like an Old Testament Prophet warning the nation for years about the Nazi peril. Never one to believe you could reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth, he must now assume the role of Prime Minister and Deliverer . . . leader of an exodus.
After his appointment, Sir Winston Churchill’s wife and children gather to celebrate with him. Making a toast, Mrs. Churchill recounts how she knew from the beginning public life would have priority over family. She and the children have made the “small sacrifice for a far greater good”. This is the theme which will be repeated over and over and over in the Darkest Hour.
To Wage War
On the 13th of May, Churchill makes his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister. He does not mince his words but tells them straight up they are in the greatest battle and facing a long ordeal. Their policy is to wage war and their aim is victory at all costs. It will take many small sacrifices to achieve the final greater good; for without victory, there is no survival. His speech is not met with thunderous applause but with deafening silence.
There are two wars being waged throughout the story: the one with the Nazi’s and the one within the War Cabinet. Churchill must be victor over this unseen enemy before he can defeat the Germans. A contrast is being carefully drawn between those who choose not to sacrifice and would rather ignore, appease, or accommodate the enemy; with those who will fight evil no matter what the cost, even to the laying down of their own lives.
Facing Fearful Odds
Like Moses with the Israelites up against the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army closing in, Churchill has to face the fearful odds he is up against. Three hundred thousand men are trapped at Dunkirk and another 4,000 at Calais with no means of rescuing them. Airplanes which have been purchased are still in theUnited States and there is no time or way to obtain them. The country is ill-prepared for a possible invasion and the King and Cabinet are at odds with their Prime Minister.
Churchill stands before a map in the war room with his secretary, knowing full well only a miracle will save any of them. Carefully he explains to her they need a cloud cover over Dunkirk to protect the men; a civilian navy fleet must be assembled and cross the channel to retrieve as many as possible, and the soldiers at Calais must be ordered to stand and draw fire away from Dunkirk as the small sacrifice for the far greater good.
The Darkest Hour
“The darkest hour is just before dawn” goes the old adage, and so it is for Winston. At 3 p.m. on May 27th,1940 he learns Belgium has fallen and he knows France will follow suit. The opposition in the War Cabinet has increased by capitulating to fear and fatigue and Churchill himself is on the verge of giving up and entering into negotiations for peace talks. At this last moment the small sacrifices of a few give him the courage to continue through the darkest hour.
He sees in his secretary, who lost her brother in the fallback to Dunkirk, nobility in sacrifice which would shame the nobles. The King lays aside custom and castle and comes to Winston’s home offering his full support and suggesting he ask the people, not the politicians, his most difficult question. Getting out of his private car, he loses himself in the Underground discovering there the true heart of the British people. This union of King, Prime Minister and People is a three cord strand which cannot be broken and in the end provides a miracle at Dunkirk and victory in war.
“Earthly events of liberation, rule, and community-foundation provide us with partial indications of what God is doing in human history; while, correspondingly, we must look to the horizon of God’s redemptive purposes if we are to grasp the full meaning of political events that pass before our eyes.”
Desire of the Nations by Oliver O’Donovan