So said the British people in a BBC poll in 2002. So says Gary Oldman, who recently played the Prime Minister in, as they say, a major motion picture. Martin Gilbert’s biography of Winston Spencer Churchill, while not a hagiography by any means, certainly makes the reader consider him at least in the running for Greatest Briton of All Time. I don’t know what to do but list some of the moments in the book that astonished me the most.
• Churchill’s father told him he would never amount to anything.
• He went to South Africa as a reporter, helped when a supply engine came off the tracks in a battle, was captured, escaped, and then wrote the camp commander to say his escape was not the fault of the guards.
• Elected to Parliament for the first time, he soon broke from the Conservatives because – and this is the interesting part considering more recent politics – he believed in Free Trade.
• The disaster at Gallipoli occurred because the Cabinet wavered and didn’t support the invasion with the proper troops. Many blamed Churchill for most of his life, but Prime Minister Asquith, chief supporter of the invasion, suppressed the documents proving the truth.
• Churchill coined the terms “seaplane” and “tank.”
• He believed that capitalism was good only for the rich and that the government should get every family up to a line that made housing, food, and health care secure.
• Over and over during World War II, he took the flight just before or after a flight that was shot down.
• And the most astonishing: In June of 1940, he held papers that would make one country of the U.K. and France, papers which French Prime Minister Reynaud and General de Gaulle supported. Two further French signatures were needed, however, and the unification, obviously, didn’t happen.
While I’m on the subject, let me grind my ax about Darkest Hour. Apparently many people disapproved of the scene on the Underground because Churchill never actually took such a ride to read the temperature of the public. But, while I certainly wondered throughout the scene whether such a thing could possibly be factual, I also couldn’t get Shakespeare’s Henry V out of my head. Did the great king (OK, he’s never going to win any poll, but shouldn’t Henry V always be a part of any Greatest Briton discussion?) actually go out in disguise the night before Agincourt to see what his troops really thought? I don’t know, and I don’t care any more than I really care about the historicity of the Underground scene. Churchill did know the general sentiment of the British populace, and possessed of that knowledge announced that Britain would never surrender. Darkest Hour tells a truth in a nonliteral way that fits right in with the very best tradition of British historical drama.