The movie "Darkest Hour" stops before America entered World War II — else it wouldn't be called "Darkest Hour" — and President Franklin D. Roosevelt appears only as a voice on the phone.
But the scene is a remarkable one. Britain stands alone as the Nazis advance through France in 1940, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill puts in a desperate plea for help. But the best FDR can do, because his hands are tried by the Neutrality Act, is to leave some planes close to the Canadian border so that horses can tow them across. That, it seems, actually happened.
The disembodied voice in the movie is a sympathetic one, as everyone in the theater would expect, knowing where FDR's sympathies lay long before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and dragged America into the war.
Gary Oldman was handed his Oscar just when the papers were full of stories about increasing White House turmoil, and Donald Trump was threatening global economic upheaval with his steel and aluminum tariffs. At Washington's Gridiron dinner, a night before the Oscars. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who was evidently quite the star turn, suggested Trump could reign as King Chaos at Mardi Gras.
It was impossible to come out of the theater and return to a world in which Theresa May is Prime Minister and Donald Trump is President without pondering how different the world would be if they had been running the show in World War II. Certainly, Trump would not need to create his own chaos back then. It was the calming influence that FDR had already demonstrated with his celebrated fireside chats that would be required when America joined the allies.
But that was a long way off when Britain was evacuating troops from Dunkirk and Churchill put in his phone call to FDR. Not only did Britain stand alone, but Churchill was short of support too, even in his own cabinet, with moves afoot to ask Mussolini to broker a peace agreement with Hitler. The movie shows Churchill triumphing over these various tribulations while smoking cigars and downing strong drink during breakfast in bed and throughout the rest of the day.
Evidently Churchill's constant glass of scotch was heavily diluted, and, though he was fond of Champagne and white wine at meals and was no stranger to gin or cognac, historians have maintained his reputation as a heavy drinker has been exaggerated, not least by himself. Still, a politician under stress who likes a tipple is bound to have a buzz on sometimes, and it is unlikely that the movie greatly traduces the great man.
He could presumably have out-drunk May, although she is no teetotaller. Trump is, of course, although that didn't stop her presenting him with a quaich — a traditional drinking cup from Scotland, home of his maternal ancestors — when she visited the White House early in his administration last year.
May is unlike Churchill in just about every other way. He always had a cigar going; she has no truck with tobacco. She led a nondescript early life as a mere vicar's daughter; he was born in Blenheim Palace, grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, and as a young man escaped from a prisoner of war camp during the Boer War. He was firmly in control; she is famously lacking in the leadership department,
The knock on May's predecessor as prime minister, David Cameron, was that he was too posh for today's voters, and a candidate with Churchill's lineage would meet similar objections today. The press would brand him a booze-soaked, nicotine-addicted son of privilege, and a second-rater with a healthier lifestyle would be installed at the head of the wartime coalition.
FDR may not have been cut out for 21st-century politics either, He belonged to the patrician class, liked martinis and cigarettes and managed to keep it from the public that he had been crippled by polio. The press of the day went along, but we'd have betrayed him in a jiffy.
Trump, on the other hand, is subject to relentless scrutiny, and lives an abstemious life. But you wouldn't want to depend on him and May in civilization's darkest hour.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.