‘Darkest Hour’ Fact Check: Did Winston Churchill Really Sneak Off to the London Underground?

A key scene in the drama featuring Gary Oldman as Churchill might be stretching the truth a bit — but the filmmakers have done their research

Last Updated: December 29, 2017 @ 12:42 PM

Director Joe Wright’s historical drama “Darkest Hour” is set in the early days of World War II, as newly installed Prime Minster Winston Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, finds himself torn between standing up to Adolf Hitler in the face of huge odds and sitting down at the bargaining table with the Nazis before England faces occupation or destruction.

Most of his colleagues in government are urging a peace treaty — but in one key scene, Churchill ducks out of his office to ask ordinary Londoners what they think.

He goes down to the London Underground (called the Tube in England) and hops  onto a train car, where the initially reticent commoners eventually tell him everything he needs to know about the will of the people.

But did it really happen? Did Winston Churchill, in the early days of the war, really ride the subway to find out what the people thought?

TheWrap put the question to “Darkest Hour” screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who not only wrote the screenplay but has published a companion history book about the events of May, 1940 — and in the book, he does not describe the scene in the Underground.

And McCarten admitted that no, it probably did not happen. But something like it might well have. “This is the kind of thing he did right through the war,” said McCarten of Churchill. “He would go AWOL, disappear and pop up somewhere in London with ordinary people, to find out what they were thinking. So that scene was drawn from deep research, but we have no record that it happened.

“It’s a perfect example of how you’re trying to dramatize verifiable events that might have happened outside the time frame of your movie, but which are very, very valuable for the dramatist in showing critical aspects of your story.”

Of course, there’s another question about the scene, too. In the film, Churchill asks directions, so we know he’s traveling on the District Line east to the Westminster station, and he only has to go one stop. But he’s in the train talking to passengers for a full five minutes — could that particular stretch, St. James’ Park to Westminster, really take that long?

For the record: Current London Underground timetables say the trip takes two minutes. But maybe the trains were moving more slowly in 1940?

McCarten laughed when we brought that up. “Yeah, there’ a little bit of elasticity of time in that scene,” he admitted. “Hopefully your entire focus is not on that.”