Friday, January 19, 2018

Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?

Guitar greats Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, and Eric Clapton at the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival.  The song is from Derek & The Dominoes 1970 album Layla on which Clapton and Duane Allman shared lead guitar.  This version features the final incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band.  That's Greg Allman, Duane's brother, on keyboards and Derek is the nephew Butch Trucks, of one of the band's drummers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dolores O'Riordan

Dolores O'Riordan, lead singer of The Cranberries, died three days ago at the age of 46.  You could immediately identify a Cranberries song because of her lovely and very distinctive voice.  The band had several hits in the 1990s of which the most popular was Linger, but their most powerful song was Zombies, written by O'Riordan, a mother of three, in the wake of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing on March 20, 1993 in Warrington, England in which two children died.  Despite the horror of the incident, the Irish band (O'Riordan was from Limerick) came under criticism from some IRA supporters.  Below are both electric and acoustic versions:

Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence, caused such silence
Who are we mistaken?
But you see, it's not me
It's not my family
In your head, in your head, they are fighting
With their tanks, and their bombs
And their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head they are crying
In your head, in your head
Another mother's breaking
Heart is taking over
When the violence causes silence
We must be mistaken
It's the same old theme
Since nineteen-sixteen [a reference to the IRA's Easter Uprising in Dublin]
In your head, in your head, they're still fighting
With their tanks, and their bombs
And their bombs, and their guns
In your head, in your head, they are dying

Some other good Cranberries tunes; Dreams, Ode To My Family, The Icicle Melts.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Immaculate Reception

We now are guaranteed a Superbowl in which one of the teams will feature a backup quarterback - the winner of the matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles - and it is possible, though admittedly not likely, that the other team will feature Blake Bortles(!?!) at quarterback.  I'm now a Jacksonville Jaguars fan!

Anyway, Mrs THC and I were watching the Vikings-Saints game on Sunday which had one of the most stunning endings of any contest in NFL playoff history, an ending so bizarre it took us a few seconds to react as we couldn't quite believe what we were seeing:

It started me thinking of other stunning NFL plays and what came to mind was The Immaculate Reception in the Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers game in 1972  I came across the best video I've ever seen of the play.  Most versions are closeups of the deflection and of Franco Harris without the larger field context.

The Raiders were leading 7-6 in the AFL Divisional Playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.  The Steelers, down to their last play on 4th and 10 on their own 40 yard line with just 22 seconds left to play, called a pass play for receiver Barry Pearson.  The play broke down, forcing Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw* to scramble until he spotted halfback John "Frenchy" Fuqua and lofted a pass.

The pass, Fuqua, and Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided at the same time with the ball ricocheting back upfield where it was snatched just before hitting the ground by Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris, who after completing his blocking assignment sprinted downfield in case Bradshaw needed another receiver.  Harris ran it into the end zone, completing a 60 yard play and giving the long-downtrodden Steelers a 13-7 victory.

There was immediate controversy about the play which caused officials to huddle before declaring it a touchdown.  Under the NFL rules of the time if the pass hit Fuqua and was then caught by Harris it would be rule incomplete.  It would only be a completion if it hit Tatum first, or Tatum and Fuqua simultaneously (the rule was changed in 1978).  From the video it looks like it bounces off Tatum's chest and the officials agreed.  And now, here's the call by Curt Gowdy, who was as surprised as everyone else.

* After retiring as a player Terry Bradshaw brilliantly parleyed his reputation as a dumbass into four decades as a football commentator, actor, and reality show star. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

"The Most Important Event . . . Since The Nation Came Into Life"

After his November 1868 election as President, one of U.S. Grant's top priorities was Congressional passage and state ratification of the 15th Amendment, giving the vote to all adult males regardless of race.  Even before his inauguration on March 4, 1869 he urged the new Congress to act, and the House passed the amendment on February 25 by a vote of 144 to 44, with the Senate acting on the following day by a vote of 39 to 13.

Seventeen states ratified within Grant's first four months in office but then the pace slowed.  The President actively lobbied the states to take action, successfully pushing the governor of Nebraska to call a special session of the legislature, writing:
"the earnest desire I have to see a question of such great national importance brought to an early settlement . . ."
Ironically, the state pushing the amendment over the top was the former slave state of Texas, which ratified it in order to be readmitted to the Union as a state.  On March 30, 1870, Congress acted to formally readmit the state and Grant announced ratification.

The President decided that rather than just sending the customary proclamation announcing ratification he would send a special message celebrating its importance, which he did on the same day.

In his message, which reveals the intensity of the President's feelings, Grant refers to the 15th Amendment as "of grander importance than any other one act" since the foundation of the United States.  He also takes a very pointed shot at the Dred Scott decision.  Finally, he stresses the importance of public education in fulfilling the goals of the amendment and he urges white to "withhold no legal privilege of advancement to the new citizen".

Unfortunately, Grant's full aspirations for the amendment were not to be satisfied for a century.  Reconstruction ended with his administration in March 1877, and a resurgent white South imposed Jim Crow thwarting the electoral franchise for black citizens, as well his desires for their education.

It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by proclamation of the Secretary of State, of the ratification of a constitutional amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that "at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect"), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.

Institutions like ours, in which all power is derived directly from the people, must depend mainly upon their intelligence, patriotism, and industry. I call the attention, therefore, of the newly enfranchised race to the importance of their striving in every honorable manner to make themselves worthy of their new privilege. To the race more favored heretofore by our laws I would say, Withhold no legal privilege of advancement to the new citizen.

The framers of our Constitution firmly believed that a republican government could not endure without intelligence and education generally diffused among the people. The Father of his Country, in his Farewell Address, uses this language:

Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

. . . 

I repeat that the adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life. The change will be beneficial in proportion to the heed that is given to the urgent recommendations of Washington. If these recommendations were important then, with a population of but a few millions, how much more important now, with a population of 40,000,000, and increasing in a rapid ratio. I would therefore call upon Congress to take all the means within their constitutional powers to promote and encourage popular education throughout the country, and upon the people everywhere to see to it that all who possess and exercise political rights shall have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge which will make their share in the Government a blessing and not a danger. By such means only can the benefits contemplated by this amendment to the Constitution be secured.
According to Charles W Calhoun's new book on the Grant presidency, at a White House reception that evening the president told the audience:
There has been no event since the close of the war in which I have felt so deep an interest as that of the ratification of the fifteenth amendment . . . It looked to me as the realization of the Declaration of Independence.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Painted From Memory

Elvis Costello is the only person Paul McCartney has co-written songs with other than John Lennon.  And Elvis is the only person to partner with both McCartney and Burt Bacharach.  Only 1998's Painted From Memory, Elvis and Burt collaborated on twelve songs of love and heartbreak.  Elvis wrote the lyrics while the two of them worked together on the music, which incorporates Burt's trademark time signature changes, Christopher Walken phrasing, and distinctive horn arrangements.

Here are some favorites:

This House Is Empty Now posing the memorable lyrical question, "does the extinguished candle care about the darkness?"

You hear her voice
"How could you do that?"

Painted From Memory

Those eyes
I try to capture
They are lost to me now forever
They smile for someone else

Such Unlikely Lovers

I'm not saying that there will be violins
But don't be surprised if they appear
Playing in some doorway
Still I can't believe that this is happening

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Pasadena Bomber

Stealth Bomber flying over Rose Bowl during Oklahoma-Georgia game on January 7. Read how photo was taken in The Atlantic.
A stealth bomber flies over the Rose Bowl during the Georgia-Oklahoma game January 1, 2018

Saturday, January 6, 2018


According to Wikipedia there are more than 33,000 covers of Summertime.  Any version by Ella Fitzgerald is the finest.  This one, from German TV in 1968, is my favorite.  Though the sound quality of the minimal instrumentation is poor, her voice is magical and haunting, almost as though she is reciting a prayer.  Her ability to control tone throughout her register is remarkable.

The music for the song was composed by George Gershwin (who also co-wrote, with brother Ira, several of the songs introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).  The lyrics are by Dubose Heyward.  Heyward, born in 1885 in Charleston SC, descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and of the state's planter elite, became interested in the low country black community and wrote the novel and play Porgy in the 1920s.  He then teamed with Gershwin to create the opera Porgy and Bess which premiered in 1935.

Below is another of the 33,000, a casual soundcheck before a 1990 concert in Osaka, Japan by Prince and his band.

Friday, January 5, 2018

This Is What A 1,900 Year Old Concrete Dome Looks Like

The ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome.  Built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), after nearly 2,000 years it remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.  The best preserved of the buildings of ancient Rome due to its conversion into a church in 609, the external facade has suffered damage including stripping of bronze roof tiles by the Byzantine Emperor Constans II in 663, and removal of marble cladding at various points over the centuries.  The photo is remarkable, seeing it in person even more so.

Image may contain: indoor

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Writing On History

There's no doubt I like writing about history as the past 5+ years of this blog demonstrate.  I strive to tell stories in an interesting way with a fresh perspective, hopefully spurring some reader thoughts while providing a few nuggets of new information.

It's also provided me with some unexpected pleasures.

Discovering fascinating "small"stories that have taken me down alleyways I'd not explored previously.  One of my favorites was the story of Henry Lafayette Dodge, who I came across as a one-paragraph walk-on in Hampton Sides' saga of Kit Carson and the American move into the Southwest.  When Sides wrote that American-Navajo relations were strained except for the time when Dodge was the Indian agent, it spurred me to find out more about the man.  I'm currently working on a piece about a lawsuit that might have been a second Dred Scott case; litigation I only became aware in a brief mention in a book I'm currently reading.  It's taught me to always keep an eye out on those brief references in text and footnotes that might prove to be stories that can stand on their own, so make sure you read about the Republic of Texas Archive War when that post comes out!

It turns out stories were everywhere once I started looking; even in Elbert Hubbard's Scrap Book, the 1939 New York Giants scorecard my Dad gave me many years ago, and in common expressions we use, but don't think much about, like The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread.  It has also helped fulfill one of the aspirations of Things Have Changed; demonstrating The Value of Useless Knowledge.

The act of writing about historical events also made me understand better than simply reading or watching.  I retain more and for longer because of the exercise of writing.  I think the act of writing forces you to organize your thoughts in order to tell a compelling and coherent story.  In turn, that mental organizing effort leads to a deeper understanding of events, people, and themes than casual reading or watching.  Or else my memory is getting better as I get older!

Understanding events better through writing has had another unexpected benefit - I inquire more deeply, undertaking more extensive research than I initially imagined I would.  In trying to tell a story logically and coherently I often find myself questioning as I write.  Perhaps its a quote or a paragraph just composed and I find myself wondering, "is that really correct?" or "doesn't that contradict something else I've already written?" or "the chronology the author sets out really doesn't make sense because I can't seem to write about it in a way that makes sense, what's going on?", or even "that is just too perfect, did it really happen that way?" If I can't answer those questions, I usually stay away from using the material, though I must remind readers that when faced with certain choices this remains the official policy of this blog.

In my recent post on Darkest Hour, the movie about Winston Churchill in May 1940, I used John Lukacs book 5 Days in London, May 1940 as a major source.  While I quoted liberally from it there were some things I chose not to use because they just didn't make sense to me or they seemed questionable and I could not verify them anywhere else.  Interestingly, I was initially going to use a quote Lukacs had in a footnote from Churchill's The Second World War but when checking the footnote against my first edition of the six volume set I realized the Lukacs footnote was not accurate, though the mistakes were not material its meaning.  It happens more frequently than you would think.

I also get a charge when I make connections between historical events during the writing process.  In Darkest Hour, I found a quote from a English citizen to the effect that Mr Chamberlain was a nice man to live with, but in the event of a shipwreck Mr Churchill was preferable to have on hand.  As I wrote it, I remembered a similar sentiment about the Ernest Shackleton, the English Antarctic explorer about whom I'd written, so added that quote to the piece, which was appropriate since it was Winston Churchill as Lord of the Admiralty who'd given Shackleton permission to proceed with his most famous voyage in 1914.  The more I write, the more often that happens.

Another example is when writing on HR McMasters' book Dereliction of Duty, on how we became enmeshed in Vietnam from 1963 through 1965.  In that instance I was able to use research I'd done previously about FDR's wartime leadership to contrast President Johnson and President Roosevelt in how they utilized the military chiefs of staff.  LBJ did not come off well in the comparison.  Before beginning to write this blog I would not have been able to make the connection.

It's also prompted further readings on history.  I'm now fairly well read on the history of Southern Italy between the 8th and 11th centuries, a result of writing Part I of The Song of Jan Sobieski, speaking of useless knowledge.   And I'm reading in new areas in anticipation of future writing, including two books on the Taiping Rebellion in mid-19th century China, one of the most violent revolutions in world history, led by a figure who considered himself to be the brother of Jesus.

New material constantly comes to my attention that's relevant to posts I've written; either as additional information or sometimes indicating I made a mistake in the original post.  While I might write a new post, often I choose to simply go back and make the change in the original (if it corrects a mistake I will highlight the info as an update).  The result is that there are some older posts that are now considerably longer than when originally published.

The joy of learning never ends, and I've found the act of writing enhances that feeling.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Kind Of Guy

Via Althouse:

And may I also draw your attention to the two items directly above the highlighted segment.  Interesting neighborhood.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Papa Was A Rollin' Stone

What a song!  Memorable groove and arrangement with its precise use of horns, strings, wah-wah guitar, and even handclaps.  With a lyric as sadly relevant today as it was 45 years ago.  
Momma I'm depending on you to tell me the truth
Momma just hung her head and said,
"Son, Papa was a rolling stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone"

Hey Momma
Folks say Papa never was much on thinking
Spent most of his time chasing women and drinking
Momma I'm depending on you to tell me the truth   
Released in September 1972, Papa Was A Rollin' Stone was the 22nd top twenty single by The Temptations since 1964 and their fourth, and final, #1 hit (the others being My Girl, I Can't Get Next To You, and Just My Imagination).

Papa was written by one of Motown's top composer/producer teams, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.  Strong began his career with Motown as a singer and delivered its first hit single, Money (That's What I Want) in 1962, but quickly transferred into a songwriting partnership with Whitfield, writing tunes like War (for Edwin Starr), I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and a slew of Temptations hits ( such as Just My Imagination, Ain't Too Proud To Beg, Cloud Nine, Ball of Confusion).

The studio musicians were The Funk Brothers and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  I've been unable to find which specific Funk Brothers players were on the track except for Wah Wah Watson (Melvin Ragin) who is responsible for the wah-wah guitar.

Below is the 7 minute hit single (with its nearly two minute intro), edited down from the full 12 minute version.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Darkest Hour

"It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values."
- Winston Churchill, eulogy for Neville Chamberlain, November 12, 1940
"The actual day-to-day history of these two months, April and May 1940, is now known to everybody who can read . . . It makes a savage but coherent tale, one thing following ruthlessly and logically upon the next, but at the time . . .nothing seemed at all logical." *
- Margery Allingham, The Oaken Heart: The Story of an English Village at War (1941)
"Why should not Britain join the spectators who, in Japan and in the United States, in Sweden, and in Spain, might watch with detached interest, or even relish, a mutually destructive struggle between the Nazi and Communist Empires?  Future generations will find it hard to believe that the issues I have summarised here [negotiation of a separate peace with Germany] were never thought worth a place upon the Cabinet agenda, or even mentioned in our most private conclaves."
- Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour (1949)

Despite the former Prime Minister's confident and reassuring assertion, the issue of peace negotiations with Germany was discussed over several days in late May of 1940, discussions at the center of the fine new movie Darkest Hour, featuring Gary Oldman, an actor who bears no natural physical resemblance to Churchill, in one of the most marvelous portrayals of the great man on film, assisted by a prosthetic transformation and his formidable acting talents. as Churchill) as Churchill)

The film is tightly focused, beginning on May 9, 1940 with raucous Labour party and Conservative backbenchers calling for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's resignation.  On May 10 Churchill is summoned by King George, who reluctantly asks him to become Prime Minister; the same day Germany attacks Holland, Belgium, and France.  It ends on June 4 with Churchill's somber, yet stirring, speech to Parliament in the wake of the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk and France on the verge of collapse.

Contrary to what I and many others thought for years, Churchill did not have broad political support in his cabinet when he became Prime Minister (PM) on May 10 (that unity would only come later in the summer).  Part of this misconception can be attributed to Churchill himself who deployed it in the course of his six volume history, The Second World War, written shortly after the conflict ended.  One should keep in mind that The Second World War provides a distinctly Churchillian view of events and be careful in taking it at face value; as Winston himself warned us, "I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history".

It was only at the insistence of the Labour opposition who proposed a national unity government but would only accept Churchill as its leader that Winston ascended to the role he had yearned after for decades.  For many he remained a rogue; a man of uncertain judgment, of impetuous and unpredictable temperament, an egoist who confused eloquence and verbal bombast with wisdom and maturity.   Some, more distant from Westminster, saw it differently; Nella, a Mass-Observation reporter from Bolton, wrote on May 11, "If I had to spend my whole life with a man, I'd choose Chamberlain, but I think I would sooner have Mr Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked", a sentiment reminiscent of Apsley Cherry-Garrard's, in his book The Worst Journey In The World (1922), regarding the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton; "Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton" (it was Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, who gave Shackleton permission to proceed with his most famous voyage in August 1914 amidst the outbreak of the First World War).

Darkest Hour is at its most splendid in conveying the atmosphere of those days; the continuous onslaught of disastrous news, the crushing pressures that members of the British War Cabinet laboured under without respite, the sheer uncertainty of what the future held.  We know how it turned out but the participants didn't when having to make decisions with momentous consequences.  Even the indomitable Churchill is seen to waver at moments.  It truly was a desperate time.  On May 19, General Ironside, chief of the Imperial General Staff, told Anthony Eden, "This is the end of the British Empire" (the following week, Churchill dismissed Ironside from his position because of his defeatist attitude).  The same day, Chamberlain wrote in his diary, "The scene . . . darkens every hour".  Two days later, Churchill's secretary John Colville, "It is clear the full horror of the situation is dawning on people".  These quotes and some of those below are from Five Days in London, May 1940 by the historian John Lukacs.  Lukacs is a good guide to the long-unknown cabinet debates, though I should add the author has, over the years, been erratic in the quality of his output, in particular making some remarkably silly observations about America and the Cold War.

Three days after becoming Prime Minister, General Ismay (chief military assistant to the PM) later recalled:
“I walked with him from Downing Street to the Admiralty. A number of people waiting outside the private entrance greeted him with cries of ‘Good luck, Winnie. God bless you.’ He was visibly moved, and as soon as we were inside the building, he dissolved into tears. ‘Poor people,’ he said, ‘poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.’ ”
Churchill's distress is seen in the bluntness of his communications with President Roosevelt as he beseeched America for action.  On May 15 he messaged FDR:
"As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly.  If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that.  But I trust you realise, Mr President, that the voice and the force of a United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long.  You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear."
Roosevelt had his own doubts about Britain's survival, contacting Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King on May 24, to propose that Canada and the other Dominions press Churchill to send the British fleet across the Atlantic before any negotiations began with Hitler.  King refused, and Churchill thankfully never became aware of the suggestion.

Seen from the British perspective the bleakness of late May is overwhelming.  Austria and Czechoslovakia were under the Nazi thumb by the outbreak of the war, and Poland destroyed in its first month.  Italy was a Nazi ally.  So were many of the Balkan states, now ruled by Fascist parties; Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, and Spain was controlled by the fascists.  The Soviet Union was a de facto ally, a primary supplier of raw materials to Germany, and had instructed Communist Parties in France and Britain (and the U.S. for that matter) to undermine resistance to Hitler.  In April the Germans occupied Denmark and Norway.  Now Holland was conquered, Belgium almost gone, the French army shattered with breath taking quickness, and the British Expeditionary Force falling back on Dunkirk.   It reinforced a broader sense of a revolutionary wave smashing against the faltering world of Old Europe, perhaps a fear, to borrow a noxious 21st century trope, that democracies were on the wrong side of history.  In a secret memo to the War Cabinet in March 1940, Richard Boothbay, a Conservative MP and Churchill supporter observed:
" . . . the incredible conception of a movement - young, virile, dynamic, and violent - which is advancing irresistibly to overthrow a decaying old world, that we must continually bear in mind; for it is the main source of Nazi strength and power"
In one sense Darkest Hour can be seen as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan's masterpiece Dunkirk (for my reviews go here and here).  Where Dunkirk focuses solely on the combatants during the evacuation, ignores issues of strategy, and Churchill makes no appearance (even his June 4 speech is merely read by a soldier), Darkest Hour is about strategy, statecraft, and rightfully dominated by the Prime Minister.  There is one crucial difference.  Though both films end with the June 4 speech, the critical events in Darkest Hour take place in the days leading up to and during the War Cabinet discussions of May 26, 27 and 28 on whether to seek Italy's, meaning Mussolini's, help in seeking to mediate a peace between Britain and Germany.  When the decision was finally made on the 28th not to seek settlement, but rather to fight on, the expectation was only a small fraction of the troops trapped at Dunkirk would escape.  It was only on May 29 that large numbers of British troops were evacuated for the first time with 338,000 British and French soldiers eventually making it across the Channel.  The decision to fight on was made before the "miracle" of Dunkirk.

The movie also captures many aspects of Churchill's odd behavior, usually in very effective, though brief scenes.  We see his wife Clementine's ability to influence her husband where others failed as well as the strength of their relationship.  We see Winston's working pattern; up late and rising late, the strain he placed on his secretaries, his prodigious alcohol intake, the way his ornate and melodramatic speech could inspire, bore, or irritate depending on the circumstances in which he fired his verbal broadsides.  We see Churchill struggling at times with his elevation to the heights to which he always aspired but finally  attained only under the worst of circumstances.

There are also nice touches in small moments as when Winston charms Clemmie after an outburst and, most affectingly, a scene between Churchill and his secretary (played by Lily James) in which he learns about the fate of her brother, a soldier in France.  During the last part of the scene we keep waiting for one of them to speak but neither does, instead conveying all that is needed to be said through their expressions; abruptly halting Winston's normal torrent of words is a brilliant stroke of film making.

How historically accurate is the film?  The screenwriter and co-producer is Anthony McCarten, a New Zealand author, playwright and screenwriter, best known in film circles for his screenplay for A Theory of Everything, the recent film about Stephen Hawking.  McCarten, an admirer of Churchill, wanted to explore the "ability of words to change the world", which, as he makes clear in the film, many of Churchill's opponents characterized as his chronic confusion of fulsome rhetoric with coherent policy.  There's much for McCarten to work with; in the course of three months in 1940 Churchill made four of the greatest speeches in the history of the English language; "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" on May 13; the Dunkirk speech on June 4; "Their finest hour" on June 18; and "The Few" on August 20.

In a discussion with McCarten on making movies about historic events he remarks:
"There's a really fine line between artistic license and artistic licentiousness . . . History is a lousy filmmaker, it doesn't give you all the ingredients you need [for the medium of movies] . . . you are compelled to apply your imagination to a real-life story and if you don't it will be inert."
I think McCarten correct here.  As always, the question is where the line is drawn between what actually happened and what needs to be created or altered for purposes of making an effective motion picture.  For the most part, Darkest Hour gets it right, though there are certainly inaccuracies.  I didn't go to the film expecting a documentary; I went hoping it would, as Churchill said of Roosevelt's trusted confidante Harry Hopkins, "get to the root of the matter".  It did.  In this I dissent from the verdict of Kyle Smith, the fine film critic of National Review Online and the NY Post, who criticizes the movie for over emphasizing Churchill's wavering, "For the sake of a good yarn, it mistakes a lion for a jellyfish".  I might have changed a scene or two to lighten up on this theme, but I also know I'd make a really bad screenwriter or director.  Anyone watching Darkest Hour, without much prior knowledge of the man, will come away an admirer of Winston Churchill. And there's plenty of lion in the film.

Some inaccuracies are merely putting other's words into different mouths.  Towards the end of the film, Lord Halifax, Churchill's antagonist, says of the June 4 speech, "he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle", words actually used by the American broadcaster Edward R Murrow introducing a compilation of Churchill speeches a decade after the end of the war.  At another point during a heated War Cabinet discussion an exasperated Churchill says to Halifax, "stop interrupting me when I'm interrupting you!", words Churchill did say, but not to Halifax and not in 1940.

Of course this being Churchill the movie also shows him saying things that sound strange to our ears today, as though they were the invention of an overwrought screenwriter, but which the Prime Minister really did utter as with his May 28 declaration to a meeting of his Outer Cabinet (the thirty ministers not part of his War Cabinet):
"If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground."
There are more substantial inaccuracies including a preposterous invented scene in which the Prime Minister rides the Underground and seeks advice from passengers about what to do.  Churchill never rode the Underground, though he did visit houses struck by German bombers during the Blitz and was seen to get teary-eyed speaking with their occupants.  Oddly enough, I found the scene worked even as I thought "this is ridiculous".  I understood dramatically why it was done because it followed immediately a scene between Churchill and King George VI** in which the King gave the same advice as the subway riders, allowing the film to make the point that both royalty and the common people stood with Churchill.

The film also engages in a simplification of the politics.  It portrays Churchill as initially only supported by Labour and not by any Conservatives, with the exception of Anthony Eden.  The  Parliament of 1940 had been elected in November 1935 (and continued to sit until July 1945), and was overwhelmingly Conservative (386 seats) compared to 154 Labour and 33 Liberal.  But there was also a faction of Conservative backbenchers (not members of the party's leadership) who supported Churchill or, at least, opposed Chamberlain.  On May 8, with the vote on an Opposition motion for censure of the Chamberlain government, the nominal Conservative majority of 200 shrunk to 81, with more than thirty Conservative MPs supporting the motion and sixty more abstaining from supporting their party.  Though the movie portrays Labour leader Clement Atlee's attack on Chamberlain, many felt the most memorable moment of the debate came when Leo Amery, a Conservative backbencher, quoting Oliver Cromwell, said to Chamberlain, "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go."

Darkest Hour also simplifies the conflict between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill.  Churchill kept Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Halifax, in his War Cabinet, adding Atlee and another Labour leader.   In the film, Chamberlain and Halifax plot to get Churchill to accept mediation and, failing that, to maneuver him out of the Prime Ministership.  In reality, Chamberlain and Halifax were not aligned during this period (and the movie reveal, in which Chamberlain confesses to Halifax that he's been diagnosed with cancer, didn't happen as he was not diagnosed until a month later; he died in November).
1st Earl of Halifax 1947.jpg(Halifax)

Chamberlain and Halifax had been political allies for years.  Both opposed rearmament in the mid-1930s, and in February 1938 Chamberlain appointed Halifax as Foreign Secretary after dismissing Anthony Eden who disagreed with the Prime Minister's policy of appeasement.  Though for many years after WWII appeasement was regarded as a completely negative term Halifax biographer Andrew Roberts reminds us:
"Although today it is considered shameful and craven, the policy of appeasement once occupied almost the whole moral high ground.  The word was originally synonymous with idealism, magnanimity of the victor and the willingness to right wrongs."
Though both were ultimately to break with the policy of appeasement and change their attitudes about Hitler; Halifax in the fall of 1938 after Munich, and Chamberlain in March 1939, after Hitler betrayed  the Munich Agreement and occupied Czechoslovakia, both considered themselves realists and were horrified at the thought of another large-scale war in Europe and a repeat of the slaughter of 1914 to 1918.  It is why, even after Britain's declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 it refrained from vigorous prosecution of the war, as Chamberlain retained hope of some resolution short of another all-out struggle on the Western Front.

Nonetheless, by the time of the War Cabinet debates in late May, Chamberlain was mostly, though not entirely, in Churchill's corner, convinced that further approaches to Hitler would be fruitless, though at times expressing a willingness to at least hear what was on offer.  If Chamberlain had  allied with Halifax the outcome of the debate may have been different.  It was now Halifax alone who was Churchill's main opponent.  Lukacs describes Halifax as being as different a personality from Churchill as possible; "calm and cool, perhaps even cold; shy rather than sensitive; always in control of his emotions".

Halifax found Churchill incomprehensible, confiding to his diary in late May, "I am coming to the conclusion that his process of thought is one that had to operate through speech", an appalling thought for a man who carefully calculated everything before he spoke, and referring to those Churchill brought into the government as "gangsters".

For dramatic purposes Darkest Hour telescopes the discussions on mediation in the War Cabinet, combining events and altering their sequence.  There were nine cabinet meetings over four days in which mediation was discussed, in addition to which we know Churchill had separate one on one meetings with Halifax and Chamberlain of which no record or account has ever surfaced.  Indeed, for part of one cabinet meeting no record was kept.

The days were jammed.  On Sunday May 26, the War Cabinet met at 9am.  An hour later, Churchill was at Westminster Abbey briefly attending a National Day of Prayer service.  At noon, Halifax met the Italian Ambassador and then lunched with Chamberlain.  Meanwhile, Churchill lunched with French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud*** who had flown in that morning for consultations with the British government.  The War Cabinet met again at 2pm.  Churchill asked Halifax to meet with Reynaud.  Churchill and Chamberlain joined the two of them shortly thereafter.  The War Cabinet met again from 5 to 630pm.  Churchill dined with Chief of Staff Ismay and Eden.  The dinner was miserable with the Prime Minister eating and drinking little and sitting in silence, an unprecedented event.  At the end he stood up, told his colleagues he felt sick and left.  Events were weighing heavily. That night Chamberlain confided to his diary, "Blackest day of all."

Though Churchill approved Halifax's conversations with the Italian ambassador and though, as portrayed in the movie, he carefully avoided ever completely ruling out any negotiation (prior to the events of May 28), he had also carefully prepared the ground ahead of time.  Several days before the War Cabinet meetings on May 26 asking the military chiefs of staff to prepare a paper on the situation if France dropped out of the war.  He had the paper distributed to the War Cabinet at the Sunday morning meeting in the form of a document obliquely entitled, "British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality".  The paper presumed France out of the war, Italy in on the Axis side, Europe and French North Africa under German control and the loss of British troops in France.  The military concluded that Britain could survive if the Royal Air Force and Navy remained in control of the Channel and the skies, and if the United States would increasingly support Britain and eventually enter the war.  Still, by the end of the 26th, Churchill and the War Cabinet agreed that Halifax should prepare a draft of his "Suggested Approach to Italy".  But it was also the day that made clear that while Chamberlain might, at times, take a position between Halifax and Churchill, he would not join his former ally in opposing Winston.  One reason was Chamberlain's complete mistrust of Hitler by this point, and it is also possible that Churchill's magnanimous treatment of the former Prime Minister since May 10 may have had an impact.  Though Chamberlain had treated Churchill shabbily for years, Churchill did not respond in kind when the tables were turned, handling him with respect, seeking his advice, and letting he and his wife remain in 10 Downing for several weeks (and his eulogy for the man in November was a magnificent, and honest, tribute, a textbook example of graciousness; relevant to the War Cabinet discussions Churchill remarked, "The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won".)

The following day saw three more and more lengthy War Cabinet meetings, at the second of which, in late afternoon, the conflicting approaches of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary were laid out most clearly.  On its surface the discussion, and that of the following day, were about efforts to keep the French in the war and how to respond to an inquiry from Reynaud regarding their stance on negotiations, but the context was really whether Churchill would agree to negotiate under any circumstances. Every mention by Churchill to Reynaud or the French should be read as a reference to Halifax [the decision in Darkest Hour to leave out the Reynaud/France aspect of the debate is a good example of how to simplify a factual narrative to make the story telling more effective]. According to the minutes:
"The Prime Minister said that he was increasingly oppressed with the futility of the suggested approach to Signor Mussolini, which the latter would certainly regard with contempt . . . The whole of this manoeuvre was intended to get us so deeply involved in negotiation that we should be unable to turn back . . . The approach proposed was not only futile, but involved us in a deadly danger."

Paul Reynaud 1933.jpg (Reynaud)

Chamberlain suggested a middle position:
"While he agreed that the proposed approach would not serve any useful purpose, he thought that we ought to go a little further with it, in order to keep the French in good temper.  He thought our reply should not be a complete refusal".
But he suggested that the approach to Mussolini be made by Roosevelt, not by the British, which would buy them some needed time.

Halifax said that while he agreed with Chamberlain he was now "conscious of certain rather profound differences of point of view".  As the Foreign Secretary went on, it became clear that whereas Chamberlain saw holding out the prospect of talks as a tactic to help the French and give Britain time, Halifax saw talks having the possibility of holding some, however small, chance of resolving the conflict between Germany and Britain, a chance that he believed needed to be preserved.
". . . the Prime Minister seemed to suggest that under no conditions would we contemplate any course except fighting to the finish. . . If, however, it was possible to obtain a settlement which did not impair those conditions [fundamentally important to Britain], he, for his part, doubted if he would be able to accept the view now put forward by the Prime Minister . . . He was prepared to take that risk [of destruction] if our independence was at stake; but if it was not at stake he would think it right to accept an offer which would save the country from avoidable disaster."
He then went on to bluntly raise the key question:
"Suppose Herr Hitler, being anxious to end the war through knowledge of his own internal weakness, offered terms to France and England, would the Prime Minister be prepared to discuss them?"
Churchill responded:
"He would not join France in asking for terms; but if he were told what the terms offered were, he would be prepared to consider them."
The upshot of the meeting was that the Cabinet agreed that Prime Minister Reynaud should get a response along the lines suggested by Chamberlain but that if the Germans merely invited Britain to talks without terms being established beforehand the response should be no. 

As the meeting ended Halifax asked Churchill to join him in the garden for a talk.  Neither participant left a record of their private conversation.

The final War Cabinet meeting of the day, at the unusually late hour of 10pm, was dominated by more bad news.  Belgium was surrendering to the Nazis, its King would remain and not flee to Britain, and the Belgian army would lay down its arms creating a hole in the shrinking Allied lines falling back on Dunkirk.

May 28 began with yet another War Cabinet meeting focused on the Belgian surrender and the deteriorating situation at Dunkirk.  Churchill doubted more than 50,000 soldiers could be evacuated.  The Prime Minister then went to the House of Commons, from which he'd been absent for a week, to tell the MPs of the war situation and the Belgian surrender.  He ended his brief report with these words:
"Meanwhile the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings.  I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies."
At 4pm the War Cabinet met in a room at the House of Commons.  I'll quote at length from the minutes because they demonstrate how all the participants were agonizing over the right course of action:
The Prime Minister said that it was clear that the French purpose was to see Signor Mussolini acting as intermediary between ourselves and Herr Hitler.  He was determined not to get into this position.

The Foreign Secretary said that the proposal discussed with M Reynaud . . . had been as follows: that we should say that we were prepared to fight to the death for our independence, but that, provided this could be secured, there were certain concessions that we were prepared to make to Italy.

The Prime Minister thought that the French were trying to get us on to a slippery slope . .

The Foreign Secretary said that we must not ignore the fact that we might get better terms before France went out of the war . . . 

The Prime Minister then read out a draft which expressed his views . . . If we once got to the table, we should then find that the terms offered us touched on our independence and integrity.  When, at this point, we got up to leave the Conference-table, we should find that all the forces of resolution which were now at our disposal would have vanished.

The Foreign Secretary said that he still did not see what there was in the French suggestion of trying out the possibilities of mediation which the Prime Minister felt so wrong.

The Lord President [Chamberlain] said that . . . it was right to remember that the alternative to fighting on nevertheless involved a considerable gamble.  The War Cabinet agreed that this was a true statement of the case.

The Prime Minister said that nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.

The Minister without Portfolio [Greenwood of Labour] said that any course which we took was attended by great danger.  The line of resistance was certainly a gamble, but he did not feel that this was a time for ultimate capitulation.

The Foreign Secretary said that nothing in his suggestion could even remotely be described as ultimate capitulation.

The Prime Minister though that the chances of decent terms being offered to us at the present were a thousand to one against.
The meeting ended without resolution.  It was now 5pm and the Prime Minister moved to another room in the Commons to meet, for the first time, with his Outer Cabinet, a meeting portrayed rousingly, and accurately, in Darkest Hour.  It was at this session that Churchill made his "choking on his own blood" remark.  The Prime Minister laid out the dire circumstances facing the nation, reiterating he felt that no more than 50,000 could be evacuated from Dunkirk.  According to one of the attendees (we have no transcript of the meeting), the PM then went on to say:
"I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering negotiations with That Man."
He then went on to reject that notion, saying the Germans would demand the British fleet and install a puppet government; "We should become a slave state".  Better to use reserves and advantages and go on fighting.  And better to die than surrender. There was not "even the faintest flicker of dissent" and many went up to Churchill at the end, patting him on the back and giving encouragement.

A jubilant Prime Minister returned to the War Cabinet at 7pm to inform them of his meeting (which they had not known about) and its outcome:
"They had not expressed alarm at the position in France, but had expressed the greatest satisfaction when he had told them that there was no chance of our giving up the struggle.  He did not remember having ever before heard a gathering of persons occupying high places in political life express themselves so emphatically."
Halifax knew he was beaten.  The debate was over. Churchill sent Reynaud a cable that evening informing him the War Cabinet decided there was no reason to offer concessions to Mussolini, in order to induce him to mediate, at the present time.

Churchill's judgment was correct.  Under the circumstances, once mediation or negotiation were entered into it would be nearly impossible to rekindle the fire of resistance, and withdrawal, no matter how harsh the enemy's demands, difficult to accomplish.  And given the history of Hitler, both up to that point and in the future, it is difficult to see how in the long-term Britain could survive other than as subservient to the Nazis.  A decision to enter into negotiations takes us into a dark alternative world with unthinkable implications for Western Civilization.  We should also pause a moment and add thanks and praise for the Labour Party leadership which insisted it would only serve in a government led by Churchill and to those Conservative Party backbenchers who, at great political risk, broke with their own leadership.

Halifax's biographer provides a charitable summing up:
"Churchill's instincts proved correct.  Halifax had attempted to bring logic and reason to a problem long since devoid of either . . . "
While Lord Halifax's position is presented in Darkest Hour, the power of its substance is undercut by the screenplay presenting him as a personally unappealing man (played by Stephen Dillane), and emphasizing his Machiavellian plotting against Churchill.  I think Halifax wrong but his position had a certain logic under the circumstances and presenting it a bit differently could have heightened the conflict in the film.  The deficiencies of appeasement were irrelevant to the crisis at hand.  What, realistically, were the chances of Britain's survival if France fell?  It took a series of misjudgments by Hitler to assure the island's survival - slowing the Panzer advance on Dunkirk; switching from airfield and radar targeting during the Battle of Britain to area bombing of cities; the catastrophic decision to invade the Soviet Union under the delusion that Britain would only enter into peace talks if the communist state was eliminated as a potential English ally; and declaring war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an unforced error for which Germany had no treaty obligation.  Posing the issue that way would also have raised questions of war and peace, confrontation and negotiation, and the costs of each that would have resonated with discussions we've been having in the 21st century.

Neville Chamberlain went on to serve as loyal cabinet member and supporter of the war effort until his death in November.  Churchill finally got Lord Halifax out of the way by appointing him ambassador to the United States in December 1940, privately remarking that he "would never live down the reputation for appeasement which he and the F.O. had won themselves here. He had no future in this country.".  He proved effective in that role though he lacked the ability to build close personal relationships due to his reserved nature.  Halifax was still serving as ambassador when Churchill, now out of office, gave his famous speech in Fulton, Missouri in February 1946 warning that an Iron Curtain had descended across Europe.  Halifax thought the speech too confrontational and urged Churchill to be more conciliatory to the Soviet Union.  Some things never change.

Darkest Hour ends with a little timing illusion, making it seem that the Prime Minister's Dunkirk speech occurs rights after the resolution of the War Cabinet debate.  Instead, a week passed between May 28 and the speech on June 4.  Nonetheless it remains memorable and a fine way to close the picture.  Two passages from the speech not shown in the film are important because they show Churchill no longer concealing the magnitude of the disaster on the Continent:
We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.

Nevertheless, our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonizing week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. The French Army has been weakened, the Belgian Army has been lost, a large part of those fortified lines upon which so much faith had been reposed is gone, many valuable mining districts and factories have passed into the enemy’s possession, the whole of the Channel ports are in his hands, with all the tragic consequences that follow from that, and we must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately at us or at France.  
Finally, we come to the unforgettable closing of the speech.  Note the last phrase; Churchill, unlike most of the British establishment, had great faith in the capabilities of the United States.
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.

The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.****
*  Several decades later a similar observation was made by the philosopher Joseph Walsh:
"You know, there's a philosopher who says, 'As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it's overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on.  And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel.  But at the time, it don't."
 ** Nor have I found any evidence the scene between the PM and King occurred during this time period.

*** Prime Minister Reynaud resigned on June 16 rather than sign an armistice with Germany.  Imprisoned by the Vichy regime, he was turned over to the Germans in 1942 and initially imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp before being sent to Castle Ittr in Austria where he was held with other prominent French political prisoners.  On May 5, 1945 he was involved in one of the most bizarre battles of the war in which an improvised assemblage of American soldiers, French prisoners, and German army personnel successfully repulsed an attack by a Nazi SS detachment.  The German commander was killed while protecting Reynaud.  This was the only time during the war when American and German soldiers fought side by side.  Returning to France, Reynaud also returned to politics, serving in various positions until the early 1960s.  He died in 1966 at the age of 87.

**** Early in my career I had a job requiring a lot of writing and a boss who crusaded unrelentingly against run-on and compound sentences.  I taped the last sentence of Churchill's speech to his door one day.