By Dean Goldberg.
Like many a baby-boomer it was television that brought the movies into my life and introduced me to the world of visual storytelling. If I had to pick a film that set the spark that became a full-fledged fire as I got older, it would have to be The Magnificent Seven (1961), directed by John Sturges. Many, many years later, I still hold my breath during the opening minutes of the film, when a perplexed mortician is confronted by two traveling salesmen and a dead American Indian lies in the dirt. The mortician explains that “old Sam” can’t be buried on Boot Hill because he was half Indian, so a cool cowboy (Yul Brenner), dressed in black, volunteers to drive the hearse up to boot hill. A second cool cowboy (Steve McQueen), volunteers to ride shotgun. The ride up is filled with tension, gunplay and some great, “get to know you” dialogue between the two brave strangers. They not only get the hearse all the way to Boot Hill but when confronted by the leader of the group of racist townspeople, Brenner deftly shoots the gun from his hand while the intolerant posse flees. Suddenly, some of the braver good people of the town are on hand to help take the casket to the graveyard. The great musical score by Elmer Bernstein swells, the town cheers and thus the story begins.
What are the elements that made this scene great? Excellent casting for one, great dialogue for another, professional camerawork, and elegant editing. Add a universal trope (the cowardly town unwilling to risk their lives for a cause) that can evoke an emotional and intellectual response and you’ve got the magic recipe that separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to moviemaking. Those same elements are precisely what makes Darkest Hour (2017), directed by Joe Wright, a first-rate film.
The film begins on the eve of the German invasion of Belgium in May 1941. Afflicted by a growing cancer that is consuming his body as well and beaten by vote of no confidence in Parliament, Neville Chamberlin (Ronald Pickup) must now step down from his position as Prime Minister of England. When his likely successor in the conservative party, Lord Halifax (Steven Dillane), demurs at the request that he stand for the party, citing the pushback from labor, Winston Churchill becomes the man of the hour. Within days Churchill, brilliantly played by Gary Oldman, is confronted with mounting human losses on the French coast opposite England while being pressured by his cabinet to negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany. While the Nazi forces push their way across Western Europe, Churchill keeps the public unapprised, fences with a politically unfriendly king (Ben Mendelson), and fends off many in his own party plotting against him. Fortunately, he is surrounded by his understanding wife, Clementine, who is inhabited with grace and beauty by Kristen Scott Thomas; his scared-stiff but cheeky young secretary, Lilly James, played by a wide eyed Elizabeth Layton; and Samuel West, who does a great yet subtle turn as Anthony Eden, Churchill’s conscience, of a sort. At stake is nothing less than the fate of Europe. At war are the ideals of liberty and freedom of mankind.
A few days ago, after reading what I felt was a misguided review of Darkest Hour, I emailed Matthew Sorrento, the Co-Editor of Film International, to ask if I could write my own review of the film. I was particularly put off by that reviewer’s intimation that the film had a “reactionary” sensibility as he alluded to Churchill’s penchant for war. While I admit to the wide cultural and political chasm that exists between the conventional wisdom of European society in the early to mid-nineteenth century and the considerations of war, nationalism, and personal choice that we understand today, the elements of what constitute good and evil are not up for debate. For that reason, my reaction to Churchill’s rather romantic notion of a soldier’s life becomes less a lesson in the power of ordinance and more a reflection of the struggle against real malevolency. A.O Scott, the reviewer that incited this piece, disagrees. In his November 21 review for the New York Times, writes:
Wright’s Film…falls back on an idealized notion of the English character that feels, in present circumstances, less nostalgic than downright reactionary, and as empty as those ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” internet memes. Rather than invite the audience to think about the difficulties of democratic governance at a time of peril, the filmmakers promote passivity and hero-worship, offering not so much a Great Man Theory as a great man fetish.
What nonsense! The cinema has been memorizing and entertaining audiences ever since Thomas Edison’s employee, Fred Ott, sneezed on camera in 1894. Movies have helped spread fear and hatred (Birth of a Nation, 1913) as well as enlighten and educate (Spotlight, 2015). They’ve kept us Singing in the Rain and had us Dancing while Dirty. While admittedly the “cinema” grew out of Hollywood’s matriculation in the graduate school of European auteurs, from Dryer to Godard et al, the Movies remain a uniquely American product that has expanded around the globe; the craftspeople that work in the industry, in whatever country they hail from, are held to standards that go back more than a century. The bar, for those who care about craft and professionalism, is high.
Given that, and to get down to basics, what are the elements that make a great film? We can begin by creating a Mise en Scene that is interesting, engaging, exciting, and just a bit fantastic. Certainly, director Joe Wright along with his brilliant director of photography Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Sara Greenwood have done that. Great writing is also a prerequisite. While McCarten’s screenplay might be described in industry parlance as crackerjack, I would easily expand that opinion to encompass the term brilliant. Every aspiring writer learns that the key to a great script is to make real the obstacles that the hero must overcome as well as raise the emotional stakes in each important scene. McCarten does that and more.
Of course, great films need great performances and while this supporting cast does very, very well, Oldman’s Churchill stands among the best, capturing the physicality of Churchill at an advanced age, while managing to bring his own passion and humor to his performance. Scott too, despite his cynicism at the autocratic leader of the British Empire (at least in the political sense), finds himself smitten with Oldman’s “blistery blubbery charm.”
Perhaps the element that I most disagree with is his tone-deaf appraisal of the fictional scene that takes place between Churchill and a group of English citizens in the London Underground; he absolutely hates it: “(The filmmakers’) sham populism is most evident in a ridiculous scene in which Churchill rides the London Underground and meets The People, a motley mass of stiff upper lips and brimming eyes.” I’m not embarrassed to confess that my eyes were brimming as well. As, I expect, were many in the audience. When the mostly middle aged, “Blue State” patrons filed out of the suburban theater that my wife and I had gone to, it didn’t take a marketing expert to catch the excitement in their voices. Perhaps I’m being naive, but rather than taking offence at the imperialistic hubris that inebriated the British for far too long, they might instead have been thinking, like I was, about the strength and power of the human spirit and about the need to stand up against real evil, whatever the cost. Besides, it’s that kind of response that creates the spark that lights the way for the next generation to fall in love with the movies and reminds those of us who have loved and learned from them of just how powerful they can be. Well done, Wright and company.
Dean Goldberg is an associate professor of communication arts and film studies at Mount Saint Mary College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. He spent more than half of his adult life as a film editor, writer and director and has, for the last fifteen years, been a full-time teacher. He teaches both production and film studies. His article “More Than a Touch of Madness” on Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) appeared in issue 15.3 of Film International.