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The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
© IWM

How the Darkest Hour Filmmakers Recreated Winston Churchill’s Secret Underground War Rooms

The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
© IWM

Darkest Hour, the new film starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, shows the iconic leader in some famous places familiar to plenty of Anglophiles and history buffs, locations like 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament. But a portion of the film also takes place in a lesser-seen though just as history-soaked site: a stuffy bunker, the secret underground location of Churchill’s World War II operations from 1940 to 1945.

Today, that bunker is a popular tourist site, Churchill War Rooms (called the Cabinet War Rooms during its use for World War II), part of England's Imperial War Museums.

The Cabinet War Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
The Cabinet War Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
© IWM

As war dawned and Churchill took the reins after the period of appeasement led by his predecessor Neville Chamberlain, the humble underground government storage space was hurriedly converted into a military information hub. Located underneath the Treasury building in Westminster, it covered about 3 acres and accommodated up to 528 Cabinet and supporting staff members.

The Darkest Hour crew spent three and a half weeks filming scenes that take place in the War Rooms, recreated by production designer Sarah Greenwood and her team at West London’s Ealing Studios.

Greenwood came to Darkest Hour as a longtime collaborator of director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). With the exception of 2015’s Pan, she has worked on every feature that Wright’s directed, plus two of his miniseries.

“We argue a lot," Greenwood tells Mental Floss, laughing, of their longtime collaboration. "We’re like siblings, actually. I’m like the older sister. We’ve been together too long.”

Oldman as Churchill, Lily James as Elizabeth Layton (Churchill's secretary) in the Map Room
Gary Oldman and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's secretary, in the recreated Map Room in Darkest Hour (2017).
Focus Features

Wright has spoken about how Greenwood often helpfully challenges his choices, but her plans for the War Rooms were an unusual instance of immediate agreement between the two filmmakers.

“I designed [the War Rooms set], drew up the rough plans and everything over a weekend, and when I showed it to Joe, he was just like—and this is very rare—he was like, ‘Yep, that’s great.’ There were very few changes that we made to that,” Greenwood says. “And I think that came from knowing what it was going to be like. Because we’d been to the real War Rooms, we knew what we were trying to capture.”

Greenwood, along with other members of the art department, visited the Churchill War Rooms about half a dozen times. She remembers being most struck by how apparent it was that this all-important nerve center of war operations was “cobbled together at the 11th hour, [with] furniture brought in from home. There’s this forest of beams from when they brought in a Naval architect to shore the whole thing up when they realized that it was not bombproof.”

The recreated typists' bay of Churchill's War Rooms
The recreated typists' bay, on the set of Darkest Hour at Ealing Studios.
Sarah Greenwood

Greenwood noted the War Rooms’ contrast to the Nazi sites for World War II operations depicted in the 2008 film Valkyrie: “It’s very sharp and organized and clear and cold colors,” she says.

“One of the most important things to understand about the Cabinet War Rooms is they’re an extremely improvised space," Ian Kikuchi, senior curator, Second World War at Imperial War Museums, tells Mental Floss. "The war is not necessarily a surprise, but the War Rooms are not a lavishly purpose-built facility. You can see its kind of lack of bombproof-ness everywhere you go, especially when you look up into the ceiling and you can see the gigantic layer of concrete that they had to add to the ceiling in order to try to improve the protection.”

The closest the War Rooms came to being directly hit was in September 1940, when a bomb fell on Clive Steps, leaving a small crater near what is now the visitor entrance to the site.

The Map Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
The Map Room as it’s seen today within Churchill War Rooms.
© IWM

“It was a stroke of luck, really, that the War Rooms were never hit,” Kikuchi says. 

The film brought to bustling life a space that Kikuchi and his colleagues are accustomed to seeing frozen in time. 

“It was a real thrill actually," he says. "These corridors that I’m so familiar with—to suddenly see them on the big screen—I was really struck at just how right it all felt.” 

However, Kikuchi did, of course, recognize any deviations from reality that Darkest Hour made with its set, the most noticeable being a rearrangement of the rooms. For example, in the film, the BBC equipment room is right next door to Churchill’s underground bedroom, where he delivered four wartime speeches. At the real site, the equipment that transmitted these speeches is further down the hallway. 

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in 'Darkest Hour'
Gary Oldman, as Winston Churchill, delivering a speech at the desk in his bedroom in the Cabinet War Rooms.
Focus Features

Greenwood intentionally took some artistic license with the layout of the War Rooms, creating a more labyrinthine feel, unlike the real-life stretch of rooms along a long corridor. 

Within each room, though, the art department meticulously recreated the environs of that wartime bunker. 

Darkest Hour's Map Room and "Beauty Chorus"
Darkest Hour's Map Room and "beauty chorus."
Sarah Greenwood

Though items from the 1940s tend to be readily available to filmmakers, Darkest Hour’s art department custom-made several props, since the technology and furniture in the War Rooms is so distinctive (and recognizable to the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the site each year). The telephones in the Map Room weren’t a simple, standard black; the so-called “beauty chorus” were bright reds and greens, color-coded and connected to a specific military department or intelligence service. Graphic designer Georgina Millett recreated whole wall-spanning maps specific to the era after several research trips to the British Library. 

The props team also built a replica of the wooden chair that Churchill sat in during tense meetings in the Cabinet Room. On a visit to the War Rooms with fellow cast members, Oldman had the rare privilege of sitting in the very chair from which the iconic leader conducted these meetings. “That’s something that you normally have to be a president or prime minister to get to do,” Kikuchi says. 

The Cabinet Room, at Ealing Studios.
The Cabinet Room, at Ealing Studios.
Sarah Greenwood

Today, on the ends of that chair’s armrests can be seen scratch marks, evoking the nervous energy of its occupant. Close-up shots in Darkest Hour depict Churchill making those gouges with his right-hand fingernails and with the signet ring on his left hand.

Darkest Hour also required some imaginative mystery-solving, alongside the historical research.

“One thing that nobody [among the historical consultants] would ever say, or couldn’t ever give us a real answer on, was whether there were tunnels linking 10 Downing Street to the War Rooms,” Greenwood says. “‘We don’t know' was the answer. I think it’s still a secret actually. I personally think there were tunnels between Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament and everything. But of course, nobody will admit to it.” 

Darkest Hour's switchboard
The War Rooms' switchboard, recreated for Darkest Hour (2017).
Sarah Greenwood

So Greenwood and her team created a dimly-lit set of tunnels stretching from their War Rooms to a small elevator that lifted Churchill back into the famous home of Britain’s Prime Ministers.

Since Darkest Hour takes place over the course of less than a month, beginning in early May 1940, the film doesn’t capture what it was like to spend prolonged amounts of time in the War Rooms. Sleeping in the cramped, rat- and cockroach-infested sub-basement (called “The Dock”), never shown in the film, was a necessity during periods of intense bombing for all but higher-ranking officials (who had bedrooms on the upper levels). Later during the war, 12-hour shifts underground meant that some staff members went weeks without seeing daylight.

Ben Mendelsohn and Gary Oldman in 'Darkest Hour' (2017)
Ben Mendelsohn, as King George VI, with Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017).
Jack English/Focus Features

But Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel still crafted a space with a clear lack of natural lighting, in contrast to the film’s scenes that take place aboveground during daytime, where large, bright beams of sunlight stream into screen versions of 10 Downing Street, the House of Commons, and other historic locations. The stark sunlight also evoked the weather of Churchill’s first month as PM, which was one of the hottest Mays on record. 

Today, the Churchill War Rooms bear an unassuming, modest entrance that’s easy to miss, though it has become an ever-more popular tourist destination since its opening as a museum in 1984. In 2017, the Churchill War Rooms welcomed over half a million visitors, “a number that I’m sure would amaze anyone who ever worked there,” Kikuchi says. 

Map Room Officers at work in the Cabinet War Rooms, 1945.
Map Room Officers at work in the Cabinet War Rooms, 1945.
© IWM

And as for what Churchill himself—a man who has eloquently written and spoken about the importance of studying history—would think if he could see the Cabinet War Rooms as a popular tourist attraction today? Here’s what Kikuchi had to say: 

“Churchill was a man born in the 1870s. There’s all manner of things about life in the 21st century that he would be amazed and baffled by. Churchill, in his memoirs, he talks about the moment of becoming prime minister, feeling like he was ‘walking with destiny.’ He was a man who was very conscious of his place in history. And I think he would be proud and gratified that his War Rooms still exist and are reminding visitors from around the world of that crisis moment in 1940 that you see dramatized so effectively in Darkest Hour.”

Darkest Hour is in U.S. theaters now and will be released in the UK this Friday. Churchill War Rooms in London is open daily.

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The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
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The 25 Best Movies to Stream Right Now
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster (2015).
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster (2015).
A24

An incredible amount of entertainment is at our fingertips now, which causes an unfortunate conundrum: water everywhere and not a drop to drink. There’s so much on offer that we end up scrolling endlessly through vast online libraries of enticing movies, plagued by the burden of choice until we give up and wash the dishes.

Instead of resorting to household chores, here’s a tidy list of excellent films worth considering before you’re blinded by the infinite streaming options on the main Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime screens. Pick one from this concise list, and fear option paralysis no longer.

1. 13TH (2016)

Ava DuVernay’s primal scream in documentary form chronicles the American prison system through the lens of historical racial inequality. It’s as informative as it is enraging.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. AIRPLANE! (1980)

A classic parody of disaster movies that places Julie Hagerty, Robert Hays, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen into the cockpit. Surely, you can’t pass up streaming this one.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992)

Hilarious, heartfelt, epic, and intimate, this story of an all-female baseball team during World War II is one of the best movies of the modern era. It also taught us that there’s no crying in baseball.

Where to watch it: Hulu

4. THE BIG SICK (2017)

The breakout romantic comedy of 2017, Kumail Nanjiani stars as a wannabe stand-up comic who falls for a PhD student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) despite his parents wanting him to have a traditional Pakistani arranged marriage. It’s a fantastic (and partly autobiographical) film that was written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. But there’s no shame in watching it solely for Holly Hunter.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

5. A GHOST STORY (2017)

Another hit from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, this meditation on grief will either completely entrance you or leave you ice cold. Starring Rooney Mara (eating pie for the first time in her life) and Casey Affleck (who spends most of the movie under a sheet), it’s a divisive but profoundly rewarding experience.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

6. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS (2016)

Inventive and incendiary, this novel adaptation breathes new life into the stumbling zombie genre. In a post-apocalyptic Britain, a group of hybrid children who salivate for human flesh but also have the ability to learn is held captive so that the military can workshop a cure and study their behavior. The brightest among them, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), plots her escape.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

7. THE GODFATHER (1972) AND THE GODFATHER II (1974)

Don’t think of it as a double feature of two of the best movies of all time. Think of it as a singular, six-and-a-half-hour experience with a brief intermission. And if you’ve got an entire day to kill, let The Godfather III pull you back in.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE INDIANA JONES QUADRILOGY (1981 - 2008)

All four Indy movies—from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—are available on Amazon, which means you can spend an entire day trying to retrieve mythic treasures before Gestapo officers get their mitts on them. Just watch out for snakes …

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

9. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Speaking of treks into the past, Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-hunting, scalp-retrieving mission is available to stream without the danger of highly flammable nitrate film reels. Our introduction to Christoph Waltz as a charming villain, who faces off against Brad Pitt’s American GI and Mélanie Laurent’s French Jewish cinema owner as everyone tries to kill Hitler.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. THE LOBSTER (2015)

In the world of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2016 film, being single is illegal, which is why Colin Farrell’s David must find a life mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal of his choosing. The comedy is as dry as a salt lick in the Sahara, and the dystopian vision is absurd, which allows this story to prove just how strange love can be.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

11. THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (2017)

Noah Baumbach has earned a reputation for digging 10 feet deep into his characters and leaving their hearts exposed for us. In his latest, Adam Sandler stars as an unemployed divorcee who moves in with his father (Dustin Hoffman) and navigates relationships with his sister, half-brother, and daughter, while juggling a difficult diagnosis.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. MOONLIGHT (2016)

A trailblazer and last year’s Best Picture winner, Barry Jenkins’s film chronicles the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) as he grows up under the burden of his own and others’ responses to his homosexuality. It’s a stirring portrait anchored by phenomenal performances (including an Oscar-earning turn from Mahershala Ali).

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

13. MUDBOUND (2017)

It’s amazing that we can watch a few awards season favorites from our couch, but with Netflix and Amazon pushing for more original content, you can expect that to become the norm. One of the very best of 2017 (and certainly the best ensemble), Dee Rees’s exceptional film weaves together the lives of one white family and one black family in WWII-era Mississippi to both joyous and tragic effect.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

Invite your friends over and bet them all the money in your pocket that Tim Burton didn’t direct this holiday classic, where Jack Skellington tries to take over Santa’s job. You’ll have a creepy fun sing-a-long, and you’ll win your friends’ money.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. OKJA (2017)

If you didn’t think the adventure of a young girl and her super pig could make you pump your fist in the air, it’s time to check out this quirky firecracker from Bong Joon-ho. Thought-provoking and breathtaking? That’ll do, super pig.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. PADDINGTON (2014)

The sequel to this animated hit is in theaters now, offering fans even more uplifting, good-spirited thrills. The original sees the adorable bear on a slap-stick ride through London. Don’t forget the marmalade!

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Christopher Nolan’s poetic and exciting exploration of the antique world of stage magic and Tesla-fueled wizardry hides its tricks in plain sight and still manages to confound. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman star as dueling conjurers with a deadly serious rivalry. 

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. SCREAM (1996)

Wes Craven riffing on Wes Craven, this is the ultra-rare horror film that manages to mock the genre while getting the blood pumping in terror. Come for the slasher brilliance, stay for the 1990s fashion and lack of cell phones.

Where to watch it: Hulu

19. SICARIO (2015)

In this gripping crime drama, Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent struggling with the abandonment of ethics apparently necessary in taking down a Mexican drug lord. It’s a showcase of intense talent, from Blunt to director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) to cinematographer Roger Deakins (whose career is too long and impressive to condense).

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

20. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Serial killer perfection. Jonathan Demme managed to create a incredible thriller, detective yarn, and horror film all in one. Of course, Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling is a quiet tornado at the dark center of this murder mystery, even if Anthony Hopkins gets to chew more scenery. Did you know it was released on Valentine’s Day?

Where to watch it: Hulu

21. SUNSET BLVD. (1950)

Perhaps the greatest film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s cinematic stick of dynamite features a formerly famous actress (who’s ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille) and a hack screenwriter whose relationship with her ultimately leads to him floating the wrong way up in her swimming pool.

Where to watch it: Netflix

22. SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)

Vibrant, effervescent, and deeply weird, Paul Dano stars in this musical collage as a depressed loner stranded on an island until he finds a talking, farting corpse played by a very post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. They save one another and, together, attempt to get back to civilization while singing the praises of Jurassic Park.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

23. THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998)

Unmistakably hopeful and humane, Peter Weir’s sci-fi film stars Jim Carrey as a naïve man who has lived since birth as the only person on a reality show who isn’t in on the reality. Blending philosophy and reality TV together is a feat on its own, but the movie is also fantastically entertaining.

Where to watch it: Netflix

24. THE WITCH (2015)

Delicately crafted with an eye toward historical accuracy, this existential horror film focuses on a New England farming family in the wilds of 1630 who believe a witch has cursed them. Anya Taylor-Joy’s standout performance acts as a guide through the possessed-goat-filled insanity.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

25. ZODIAC (2007)

The product of David Fincher’s notorious perfectionism, this deep dive into the unsolved case of a series of brutal crimes in the San Francisco Bay Area explores the depths of humanity’s depravity as well as its capacity for seeking justice. It’s a masterclass in filmmaking with powerful turns from Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

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The Prime Minister seated at his desk in the No 10 Annexe Map Room, May 1945.
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The Dark Crystal Is Coming Back to Theaters
The Jim Henson Company
The Jim Henson Company

In 1982, Jim Henson and Frank Oz dared to venture into somewhat gloomier territory with the release of The Dark Crystal. Though the film, which centers on two Gelflings (a sort of creepy elf-like creature) attempting to save their species and restore peace to the world, wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, it has developed a large cult following in the more than 35 years since its release—even among those kids it scared the hell out of back in the day. Now, as Netflix preps its prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, for release later this year, Nerdist reports that the original film will make its way back into theaters next month.

As part of Fathom Events’s ongoing effort to breathe big-screen life back into classic films with limited releases across the country, The Dark Crystal will be playing in more than 500 theaters nationwide on February 25 and February 28. In addition to the original film, the screenings will also feature a brand-new introduction courtesy of Lisa Henson, Jim’s daughter and current president/CEO of The Jim Henson Company, who will talk about the making of the film and how it fit within her father's creative legacy.

To find out whether The Dark Crystal will be coming back to a theater near you, log onto Fathom’s web page for the movie and type in your ZIP code; tickets are on sale now.

[h/t: Nerdist]

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