The Churchill surge: Darkest Hour author Anthony McCarten on why the British PM is resonating in pop culture
McCarten himself became fascinating with Churchill after compiling years of research
Since the 2016 election, legendary WWII British prime minister Winston Churchill has been a brash, bold presence in pop culture, striding through TV and movies with a cigar clenched in his teeth and a glass of whiskey in hand.
First PBS broadcast Churchill’s Secret, a film starring Michael Gambon. A couple of months later, Netflix launched The Crown, which featured a juicy Churchill subplot (a role for which John Lithgow won an Emmy). That was followed by this year’s biopic Churchill, starring Brian Cox. And now, months after it premiered to Oscar chatter at the Telluride Film Festival, Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring Gary Oldman, is set to open on Nov. 22. So why the sudden surge in fascination with the old lion?
Author Anthony McCarten (Spinners), who wrote both the Darkest Hour screenplay and his new book of the same title, suspects the modern public is drawn to Churchill now because of his unerring sense of honor and honesty. Churchill told the British public hard truths when needed, opinion polls be damned. “We’re in a time now where leaders say something very categoric, and then in the next breath, they walk that statement back,” McCarten says. “One of the great things about Churchill is that he had the guts to say the unpalatable, to level with the people, even if it cost him politically to tell them the truth.”
But McCarten wasn’t thinking about contemporary politics when he first started working on the Darkest Hour script back in 2013, nor when he was approached by Viking in the U.K. years later about writing a companion nonfiction book. He just wanted to explore the “ability [of words] to change the world,” to rouse people to action.
Darkest Hour covers four pivotal weeks in 1940, when Churchill assumed the position of prime minister as Britain reached a low point of morale during World War II. It culminates in the galvanizing June 4 speech that framed the Dunkirk military disaster as a small setback on the path to victory and changed the course of the war. “The movie is much more of a short, sharp shock — it’s a visceral experience,” McCarten says, while the book explores, in more depth, Churchill’s meticulous approach to writing his galvanizing speeches, which brought the British Empire back from the brink. “Churchill was self-taught and spent his life refining these skills,” he explains. “And they happened to be available when the world needed them most.”