Director Joe Wright, International Churchill Society Executive Director Michael F. Bishop, Actor Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman, who plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and Joe Wright, the film’s director, visited the National Churchill Library and Center on November 4. They were in Washington for a private screening for Members of Congress and others the night before. The visit was arranged by Focus Features, the distributor of the film.
During their hour-long visit, Mr. Oldman and Mr. Wright received a private tour from NCLC Director Michael F. Bishop. They were particularly interested in the calendar engagement cards on which the prime minister’s wartime schedule was recorded and admired the other original artifacts and documents on display, including the wedding gifts that Clementine gave her husband.
In brief remarks, Mr. Bishop commended Mr. Oldman for his performance and Mr. Wright for conjuring a gripping thriller out of the intense Cabinet debates of May 1940, and thanked them for inspiring a new generation to learn more about Churchill’s extraordinary historical importance. Darkest Hour was released in theaters November 22, 2017.
For the last fifteen years of his life, Winston Churchill was protected by his bodyguard Sergeant Edmund Murray. One of Murray’s responsibilities was to serve as custodian of Churchill’s painting equipment and to set up these materials wherever they might be travelling. Yet Chartwell always remained Churchill’s favorite place to be and to paint. On the grounds, Churchill had no more preferred place to meditate than his beloved goldfish pool. One of his most famous paintings The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell was done at some point in the 1930s and became a treasured possession of his daughter Mary.
Fittingly, Churchill’s final painting is also an image of the goldfish pool. Less well known than the first, since it has never before been exhibited or reproduced, this second goldfish painting was done in 1962 when Churchill was eighty-seven. In his catalogue of Churchill paintings, David Coombs assigns it the number C 544.
Unlike many of Churchill’s landscapes at Chartwell, this painting is unusual in zooming right into the water, taking in the luscious foliage along the waterside. It is an exemplary essay in tonality and near-abstraction, combining multiple hues of greens and browns to striking effect with the Golden Orfe brought to life through vivid flashes of orange impasto.
Murray was a painter himself, and for the Churchills’ fiftieth wedding anniversary he made a painting of the Rialto Bridge and Grand Canal in Venice, one of the cities that Winston and Clementine visited on their honeymoon in 1908. Churchill enjoyed it so much that he had the painting displayed at his Chartwell studio. It was the only canvas on display there not done by himself. In turn Churchill gave his own final painting to Murray. It will go up for auction this November at Sotheby’s in London.
Queen Anne by Helen Edmundson played at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London in summer 2017
Anne Sebba’s most recent book is Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s (Orion £9.99 and St Martin’s Press $17.99). Her previous books include Jenny Churchill: Winston’s American Mother (2008).
The bravest soul. The keenest mind. The greatest woman of her time. Is that how Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, is remembered by posterity?
These powerful words are Sarah Churchill’s cri de coeur as she exits the stage of Queen Anne, a gripping new play about the twelve-year reign (1702–14) of the last Stuart Queen of England and her friendship with the wife of the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill. But Sarah is by this time a desperate figure who fears that the power and influence she craves, and has previously enjoyed, is slipping from her grasp. When the play opens, the nervous and sickly Princess Anne hangs on her friend’s every word. But the former Sarah Jennings pushes too hard, manipulating, scheming, and determined to wield power over the Queen, her intimate and vulnerable confidante since childhood.
Eventually Anne stands up to Sarah and rebukes her for telling her how she should think, insisting she is quite capable of thinking on her own. She resents the implication that she is devoid of understanding. She refuses to engage with her erstwhile bosom friend and imperiously sweeps out, telling her, repeatedly, that anything she wants to say can be put in writing. It is a glorious theatrical moment.
Megan Rix, Winston and the Marmalade Cat, Puffin, 2017, 192 pages, £5.99. ISBN 978–0141385693
Larry Kryske is a retired US Navy commander. He now runs Your Finest Hour Leadership Programs, which develop victorious leaders who have vision, courage, and determination.
This tale is mostly about nineyear-old Harry, who helps at the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA). He rescues a marmalade kitten, which he names Little Houdini. Meanwhile, John Colville, private secretary to Winston Churchill, is looking for a “marmie” kitten at the RSCPA for his master’s eighty-eighth birthday. Harry wants to keep Houdini but is persuaded to give him up for the Great Man. When, however, Harry shows up at Chartwell to give up the kitten, he learns that Churchill is at his London residence in Hyde Park Gate and that Colville has found another marmie for Churchill, which has been named Jock—Colville’s nickname. Eventually, Harry regularly brings Little Houdini around to play with Jock while Churchill smiles.
There are some absurd characters in this story like Old Ned, who is supposed to be Churchill’s childhood friend from a year of age but now lives near Chartwell. Churchill himself only makes brief appearances. There are flashback chapters about him and some of his former pets: Rufus the poodle, Nelson the cat, and Mr. Buttons—another poodle, which Churchill gave to his wife’s secretary Grace Hamblin. An absurd chapter has Harry and his classmates in school trying to identify the location where many of Churchill’s famous speeches were made—not a plausible activity for children.
Jonathan Dudley, Winston, Churchill, & Me: A Memoir of Childhood 1940–1950, Skyscraper Publications, 2017, 89 pages, £7.99/$7.61. ISBN 978-1911072195
Fred Glueckstein is a regular contributor to Finest Hour and the author of Churchill and Colonist II (2014).
Jonathan Dudley was eight years old in the spring of 1949 attending a pre-prep school in London. One day young Dudley, who shared a desk with a boy named Winston Churchill, was told by his schoolmate that his grandmother wanted him to bring a “little friend” with him for his summer stay in Kent. Winston asked Jonathan if he would be that friend. Jonathan said he would. Afterwards, he learned from his family that Winston’s namesake grandfather was the famous statesman and war leader.
Dudley recalls that during his first visit to Chartwell in August 1949, his main impressions were of Mrs. Churchill. He remembered her as a lady of “grace and composure,” cheerful and caring to young Winston and himself.
Andrew Holt and Warren Dockter, eds., Private Secretaries to the Prime Minister: Foreign Affairs from Churchill to Thatcher, Routledge, 2017, 213 pages. ISBN 978–1409441809
John Campbell’s books include major biographies of Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and Roy Jenkins.
Compared to the White House or most other national centres of government, Number Ten Downing Street has always been an almost laughably small operation. Until quite recently the British Prime Minister was served by the Cabinet Secretary and a principal private secretary, plus just four or five subordinate private secretaries—youngish (that is, in their early forties) high-fliers destined to go on to senior positions within the civil service. The most senior, usually seconded from the Foreign Office, normally for no more than three years, dealt specifically with foreign affairs. Holders of this sensitive job were required to tread a fine line between loyalty to the Prime Minister on the one hand and civil service neutrality on the other. Some held strong views of their own which they pressed upon the Prime Minister, and sometimes acted independently on his behalf; others saw their role simply as smoothing the conduct of business between Downing Street and the Foreign Office. This arrangement survived, with varying degrees of intimacy and influence, from Churchill’s day to the early years of Mrs Thatcher, until she tested the system to destruction by allowing her third foreign affairs secretary, Charles Powell, to outgrow his role, refusing to let him move on as convention required, so that by the time of her fall he was virtually acting as deputy Prime Minister.
Unfortunately Powell does not feature in this book, which ends with his appointment in 1984, though he does contribute a typically elegant introduction describing some of his own experiences. Instead it comprises eight case studies by mainly British academics examining the relationship between successive Prime Ministers and the thirteen foreign affairs secretaries who temporarily served them. A concluding overview by Anthony Read More >
Edward E. Gordon and David Ramsay, Divided on D-Day: How Conflicts and Rivalries Jeopardized the Allied Victory at Normandy, Prometheus Books, 2017, 461 pages, $26. ISBN: 978–1633883192
Richard A. McConnell is a retired US Army officer and Associate Professor in the Department of Army Tactics at the US Army Command and General Staff College.
“Unresolved crises in command were among the factors that prolonged the war in Europe for another nine months and produced an estimated 500,000 additional casualties. The Allied leaders could and should have done better.”
Thus Edward E. Gordon and David Ramsay state the thesis of their new book Divided on D-Day. Some might view this assertion with skepticism. This thought-provoking narrative, however, describing the numerous challenges faced by the leaders of Operation Overlord provides a significant amount of evidence to support the authors’ argument.
Damien Lewis, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: How Churchill’s Secret Warriors Set Europe Ablaze and Gave Birth to Modern Black Ops, Quercus, 2015, 402 pages, $24.99. ISBN 978–1623659172
Leon J. Waszak teaches at Cerritos College and is author of Agreement in Principle: The Wartime Partnership of Wladyslaw Sikorski and Winston Churchill (1996).
Winston Churchill’s embrace of irregular warfare in the Second World War is the focus of this fast-paced adventure drama animated by a carefully selected but motley team of secret warriors who could easily find themselves in one of Alistair MacLean’s novels: think The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare. The difference here is that this version is anything but fiction.
We learn, for instance, of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants team leader named Anders Lassen, who organized havoc behind enemy lines, breaking all the rules of engagement, and seemingly in possession of a “license to kill.” Daring seaborne raids, sabotage, assassinations, blackmail, bribing, bank robbery, and subterfuge are part of the repertoire of activities designed to break the progress of enemy operations in remote regions of the Mediterranean and Aegean. What is all the more remarkable is that this extensive damage to the enemy and their collaborators is the work of a core element consisting of no more than six cunning individuals (although sometimes taking on others when the need arose). Some of the team spoke fluent German and donned German uniforms to get into enemy strongholds, nimbly moving about on a commandeered yacht throughout the region (referred to, somewhat erroneously by the author, as a Q-Ship).
Brian Lavery, Churchill Warrior: How a Military Life Guided Winston’s Finest Hours, Casemate, 2017, 448 pages, $32.95. ISBN 978–1910860229
Raymond Callahan is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Delaware.
Central to Winston Churchill’s story is the moment in May 1940 when, amidst disaster, he became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. “I thought I knew a great deal about it all,” he later wrote about that moment, and, indeed, he had a very impressive resume for the task he was about to undertake. He had, in addition to a brief, adventurous subaltern career at the end of Victoria’s reign and a short spell as a battalion commander on the Western Front in 1917, been the ministerial head of each of the fighting services, Minister of Munitions, and, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, had made decisions that helped shape the armed forces that, as Minister of Defence, he would now direct. Furthermore, no one in British public life had a longer perspective on the strategic problems of a global empire whose commitments had not been matched by comparable resources since 1918 (if not 1900).
How the knowledge that Churchill had accumulated shaped his perceptions and actions during the Second World War is a subject very much worth examining. Brian Lavery’s subtitle “How a Military Life Guided Winston’s Finest Hour” seems to promise just such an exploration. His book, however, does not really deliver one. It has certain strengths, perhaps the most important being that it is clearly and energetically written—Lavery is an experienced writer with a number of other books to his credit. He is an emeritus curator at Britain’s National Maritime Museum, and his previously published work has been in naval and maritime history.
Richard M. Langworth, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality, What He Actually Did and Said, McFarland, 2017, 256 pages, $49.95. ISBN 978–1476665832
Manfred Weidhorn is Emeritus Guterman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and author of four books about Churchill.
There is something about greatness that brings out the worst in some observers, be it out of envy, spitefulness, or invincible ignorance. Thus by common consent the three greatest American presidents are Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roose- velt, yet each was subject to a barrage of opprobrium and invective. The same holds true for Winston Churchill, probably the savior of Western civilization in Europe in 1940 and the Man of the Century. Because of his colorful, risk-taking personality and his active imagination, Churchill attracted the criticisms of more conventional, conformist political colleagues and of the chattering class—not always, be it noted, unfairly.
For many years Richard M. Langworth waged a campaign in the pages of Finest Hour to clear the record of many of the false accusations hurled at Churchill. Here he has finally collected these corrections, fleshed them out with documentation and logic, and put the results within the covers of a book. This is as close to rendering a definitive verdict on the topic as anyone has come.
In following a chronological order, Langworth inevitably mingles important matters with lesser ones. Thus such lesser issues as what killed Lord Randolph, the Battle of Sidney Street, Churchill’s consumption of alcohol, and the extent of his “Common Touch” must take a back seat to serious charges: that Churchill opposed women’s suffrage, sent troops to crush Welsh strikers, was eager for the First World War to begin, Read More >
Christopher M. Bell, Churchill and the Dardanelles, Oxford University Press, 2017, 464 pages, $34.95. ISBN 978–0198702542
Warren Dockter is Lecturer in International Politics at Aberystwyth University and author of Churchill and the Islamic World (2015).
The ill-fated attempt during the First World War to force the Dardanelles Straits by naval vessels alone began on 18 March 1915. By April, it had become painfully obvious to the War Council in London that the operation could not succeed. Exasperated, First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher wrote to Churchill at the Admiralty on the 5th to voice his concerns directly, exclaiming, “You are just simply eaten up with the Dardanelles and can’t think of anything else! Damn the Dardanelles! They will be our grave!”
This portentous warning has served as evidence for numerous narratives concerning the failure of the naval operations and indeed the entire Gallipoli campaign that followed. It has been used to paint Churchill as an enthusiastic but reckless amateur strategist who neglected the advice of his professional advisers. Alternatively, it has provided evidence for a narrative in which Churchill is seen as the visionary architect of a brilliant strategy to knock out the Ottoman Empire, aid Russia, and rally the Balkans to the Allied cause. It would have succeeded, the argument runs, if Churchill had not been undermined by the erratic Fisher and the tepidity of his admirals. These competing narratives have long obscured how historians examine the Dardanelles. Additionally, many of the precise details are difficult to follow, often confusing, and even contradictory.
Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink, Harper Collins, 2017, 336 pages, $16.99. ISBN 978–0062749529
Michael McMenamin writes the “Action This Day” column. He is co-author of Becoming Winston Churchill, the Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor (2007).
Anthony McCarten, the screenwriter of the film Darkest Hour, has written a book about the time when Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940 through the miracle of Dunkirk on 4 June. There is a special focus on War Cabinet meetings in late May, when a politically weak Churchill outmaneuvered his own Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (known as the “Holy Fox”), who wanted to have Mussolini ascertain Hitler’s peace terms.
McCarten wrote the book after writing the screenplay because, according to his publicist, “he had more to say about the subject than the film allowed.” The book tells a gripping, albeit oft-told story. But the “more to say” that is accurate is not new, and what is new is not accurate.
McCarten writes that “Many readers will be astonished to learn that the great Winston Churchill… told…the War Cabinet that he would not object in principle to peace talks with Germany ‘if Herr Hitler was prepared to make peace on the terms of the restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe.’” Read More >
Darkest Hour released by Focus Features, directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. Written by Anthony McCarten
Michael F. Bishop is the Executive Director of the International Churchill Society.
There is a lazy journalistic trope that suggests that films about Winston Churchill are a common occurrence, but Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright and starring Gary Oldman as Churchill, is the first major cinematic release about the great man since 1972’s Young Winston (with the regrettable exception of the dreadful Churchill, which defaced a tiny number of screens earlier this year before disappearing without a trace).
Most portrayals of Churchill have been in television dramas, and oddly, most of those have avoided the most dramatic chapter of his remarkable life: his earliest days as prime minister. They have instead depicted him in the political wilderness (Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Albert Finney), in old age (John Lithgow), or in infirmity (Michael Gambon). Recently only Brendan Gleeson has portrayed Churchill the warlord—but in a rushed storyline that condensed long years of war into less than two hours.
Darkest Hour devotes two full hours just to Churchill’s first month as prime minister, a wise dramatic choice that heightens the excitement of the film. It opens with the fall of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and accurately depicts the resistance on the part of many Tories to the elevation of Churchill. The coincidental and fateful invasion of Western Europe by Hitler’s forces on the very day of Churchill’s appointment sets up the dilemma that dominates the rest of the film—whether to resist the Nazi tide or to negotiate with “that man.”
125 Years ago
Autumn 1892 • Age 18
“If He Fails Again…”
Winston’s brother Jack joined him at Harrow in the fall and the two boys shared a room. On 24 September, their mother wrote to Winston: “I hope you & Jack are settled and comfortable. Do write & tell me all about it, & what you find your room wants.” In fact, their room did not want for much as he advised her in a letter on one occasion: “The room is very beautiful. We purchased in London sufficiency of ornaments to make it look simply magnificent.” He later wrote that “The room is now very nice, in fact it is universally spoken of as the best room in the House.”
On 25 October, Lord Randolph advised his sons that their mother was “extremely ill yesterday and we were rather alarmed.” In fact, Lady Randolph was diagnosed on 12 October as having an enlarged ovary that was causing her a great deal of pain for which the treating physician had advised her to “rest and do nothing to bring on pain.” By 22 October, her condition had not improved and she was given morphine as “the absolute necessity of controlling the pain.” The problem did not clear up until early in December.
Ronald I. Cohen MBE is author of A Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (2006).
I was recently asked when Churchill’s only fulllength work of fiction was written, relative to its publication date. After all, most of the time (but not always), he chose his book subject and drove it forward to conclusion. That said, in later years, financial demands became a primary motivation, and the order of writing books occasionally changed as a function of publishers’ advances against royalties.
In the earliest days of his writing career, when his military histories and then his political perspectives and positions were paramount, Churchill wrote and published in order, except in the case of his only novel Savrola, about which he “misled” us in My Early Life regarding two not insignificant matters: his own attitude toward the book and the history of its creation.
In 1930, Churchill advised readers of My Early Life that, over the years he “consistently urged [his] friends to abstain from reading it [Savrola].” Although he stated that his attitude toward the work had not significantly mollified over the half-century between the publication of its first and second American editions, our acceptance today of this amusingly self-deprecating sentiment does not actually gibe with his expressed feelings at the time of writing and publication of the first edition. By way of comparison, consider the cautious restraint of his new foreword to the Random House republication in 1956, referring to the preface more than a half-century before: “The preface to the first edition in 1900 submitted the book ‘with considerable trepidation to the judgement or clemency of the public.’ The intervening fifty-five years have somewhat dulled though certainly not changed my sentiments on this point.”
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.