In Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) struggles to steer a nation in the face of incredible adversity. With Nazi Germany taking over Europe and threatening to invade England, British politicians scrambled to find a solution to this dire crisis. Some argued for appeasement; others, like Churchill, pushed for Britain to stand up to aggression. In the end, what united England was Churchill’s leadership, his ability to “get people behind him, even opposing party members,” explains producer Lisa Bruce. “He got everyone in line with the idea to stand and fight Hitler, understanding the threat and the bigger – much bigger – picture.” To understand who was who in the complex political constellation, we’ve spotlighted some of crucial players of this history-making political drama.
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King George VI | Ben Mendelsohn
King George VI, whose life has been captured in such films as The King’s Speech and Hyde Park on Hudson, was from the start a reluctant monarch, not the least because of his infamous stammer. Thrust onto the throne in 1936 when his older brother Edward abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, George VI was faced with a nation in turmoil and Europe on the brink of war. To unite Britain, George VI initially stood solidly behind Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement. When Chamberlain resigned in 1940, the King had hoped the respectable Lord Halifax would succeed him rather than the unpredictable Churchill. Despite their uncomfortable start, King George VI came both to respect and depend on Churchill. As Ben Mendelsohn, the actor tasked with playing the King, explains, “It was a time of enormous pressure on both of them, and there was such a narrow path that they had to navigate together.”
Neville Chamberlain | Ronald Pickup
Despite many years of political success, Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup) is now forever remembered for his failed policy of appeasement. Appointed Prime Minister in 1937, Chamberlain viewed the growing turmoil in Europe through the prism of World War I, wanting more than anything to avoid another global crisis. In September 1938, Chamberlain flew to Munich to meet with Hitler, promising not to declare war over Germany’s occupation of the disputed area called Sudetenland. Most of England greeted his “Peace With Honor” with acclaim and relief, but this diplomatic dream was short lived as Hitler began invading countries across Europe. After a disastrous attempt to keep Norway from falling to the Nazis in 1940, Chamberlain resigned. After Churchill became Prime Minister, he asked Chamberlain to remain as a member of his inner War Cabinet. Unfortunately Chamberlain was diagnosed with cancer a few months later and died on November 9, 1940. “Many have the idea that Churchill and Chamberlain were rivals,” notes producer Douglas Urbanski. “What most people don’t know is that Churchill gave a beautiful eulogy following Chamberlain’s death before the House of Commons.”
Viscount Halifax | Stephen Dillane
In 1940, with Neville Chamberlain stepping down, many felt the obvious man to replace him was Viscount Halifax. A respected and influential figure in the Conservative party, Halifax was tapped by Chamberlain to serve as Foreign Secretary in 1938. While he initially signed on to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and backed the Munich Agreement, he grew increasingly skeptical of Germany’s sincerity, ultimately conceding that appeasement was only the lesser of two evils. When promoted to replace Chamberlain as Prime Minister, Halifax deferred to Churchill’s leadership and energy. But Halifax never fully trusted Churchill. When the British Army was pinned down at Dunkirk and Germany was within striking distance of invading England, Halifax lobbied hard for a negotiated peace with Hitler, a point that Churchill refused to concede. In Darkest Hour, Wright wanted the audience to take Halifax and his opinions seriously, casting Stephen Dillane as a man who “conveys moral gravitas, and I do think that he will persuade filmgoers that Halifax might have a point. His was a valid argument.”
Sir Anthony Eden | Samuel West
Sir Anthony Eden (played by Samuel West), who had witnessed the horrors of World War I firsthand, wanted peace above all. He endorsed the efforts of the League of Nations and initially agreed with Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. But in 1938, just three years after being appointed Foreign Secretary, Eden resigned in protest over Chamberlain’s refusal to stand up to Mussolini. In the next few years, Eden joined Churchill and others in standing firm against appeasement. After Churchill became Prime Minister, Eden became his Foreign Secretary, as well as one of his most trusted advisors. In 1955, Eden succeeded Churchill in becoming Britain’s Prime Minister.
Sir John Simon | Nicholas Jones
A self-made man who gained the distinction of being appointed to at least four senior cabinet positions, Sir John Simon (played by Nicholas Jones) now is best remembered as one of the masterminds of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In 1937, after a disastrous run as the Foreign Secretary, Simon was picked by Chamberlain to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer. There he rubberstamped many of Chamberlain’s policies, most notably his attempt to carve out peace with Hitler. After Chamberlain resigned, Simon was offered a position as Lord Chancellor, but his seat in the War Cabinet was withdrawn.