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.

10 Game of Thrones Fan Theories About How the Series Will End

HBO
HBO

Our faces are longer than Jon Snow’s right now. It’s been nearly a year since the last season of Game of Thrones ended, but season 8—the series's final one—won’t air until next spring. To tide you over until 2019, we’ve collected some of the most plausible as well as the most bonkers fan theories about what could go down in the final episodes. They predict everything from a new contender for the Iron Throne to a new species classification for a major character. On the bright side, we’ll all have plenty of time to debate these before the first episode airs.

1. JON SNOW WILL KILL DAENERYS.

Almost since the series began, fans have been predicting that Jon Snow is the Prince Who Was Promised—a reincarnation of the legendary hero Azor Ahai. But most predictions have overlooked a central piece of the Azor Ahai legend, which may spell doom for Daenerys: Azor Ahai, a lousy metallurgist, had a tough time forging his fabled flaming sword Lightbringer. Then he realized he needed to temper the blade by plunging it into the heart of his wife, Nissa Nissa, to imbue it with her power. (Because in the logic of this legend, killing a powerful woman turns a mediocre man into a hero.) If Jon Snow is Azor Ahai, the theory goes, then Daenerys will be his Nissa Nissa—the one true love he must kill in order to save the realm.

2. THE LANNISTERS’ REPAID DEBTS WILL BE THEIR DOWNFALL.

Lena Headey in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

You know the family creed: A Lannister always pays his debts. In Season 7, Cersei stayed true to her family name when she paid off a large debt to the Iron Bank. Most viewers read this as a play to buy the loyalty of the bank and its mercenary soldiers, but one Machiavellian Redditor has predicted that paying off the debt will have the opposite effect. “While the Lannisters were in debt to the Bank, the Bank had a vested interest in their success,” one Redditor wrote. Now that the debt is paid, the Iron Bank will invest in the side that seems to have the best chance of winning—and right now, that doesn’t look like Cersei's.

3. EURON GREYJOY IS THE FATHER OF CERSEI’S CHILD.

Somehow this seems more disturbing than Jamie being the baby’s incestuous father. PopSugar rolled out this hot take based on some circumstantial evidence. First, Euron and Cersei cooked up a plan to betray Jon and Daenerys without telling Jamie, which “raises the question about what else Cersei was doing with Euron behind Jamie’s back.” Then there’s the fact that Cersei just let Jamie ride north to fight the White Walkers, which doesn’t seem like a risk you’d want your unborn child’s father to take. She has no idea when or if he’ll be back. But on the other hand, she knows exactly where Euron will be. Perhaps she’s keeping an eye on her baby’s true father.

4. DAENERYS WILL DIE BEYOND THE WALL.

Redditor Try_Another_NO reached all the way back to season 2 to substantiate this theory about Daenerys’s demise. While Daenerys is in the House of the Undying, she has a series of possibly prophetic visions. She walks through the throne room in Kings Landing, which is damaged and filled with snow. Before she can touch the Iron Throne, she’s called away by a sound and suddenly finds herself walking beyond the wall. There she meets Khal Drogo who says he has resisted death to wait for her. According to the theory, these were clues about the series’s end: The White Walkers will threaten Kings Landing. Daenerys will turn away from the throne to fight the White Walkers. Death awaits her beyond the wall.

5. CLEGANEBOWL WILL FINALLY HAPPEN.

For years fans have eagerly awaited a fight between Sandor and Gregor Clegane, which has been affectionately dubbed “Cleganebowl.” In the season 7 finale, the Hound hinted that the much-hyped fight is coming when he told his brother, “You know who's coming for you.” The cryptic message also spawned a fan theory about the real origin of the Clegane brothers’ beef. Our only version of the tale comes from noted liar/sleazebag Littlefinger, who claimed Ser Gregor burned his brother’s face over a stolen toy. But Redditor 440k11 thinks the Hound has always had a talent for reading the future in the flames. In fact, the theory goes, the Hound saw his brother’s death foretold in a fire and told him about it. Enraged, young Gregor pushed his brother’s face into the fire he was reading, burning Sandor and cementing their lifelong enmity.

6. VARYS IS ACTUALLY A MERMAN.

The case for this one is watertight. The books make several mentions of merlings living alongside dragons, giants, and White Walkers—mythical creatures we know exist in Essos. Varys, meanwhile, constantly covers his lower body in long robes. What is he hiding? According to Redditor nightflyer, it’s his freaky fish body. In the books, it would explain his cryptic response when Tyrion threatened to have him thrown off a ship: “You might be disappointed by the result.” In the show, it might explain how Varys traveled from Dorne to Daenerys's ship in Mereen seemingly overnight in the middle of season 7. (It wasn’t lazy writing—he swam there!) In general, it might explain why he’s such a slimy weirdo.

7. THE MAESTERS ARE COLLUDING WITH CERSEI TO BEAT DAENERYS.

Finally, a fan theory fit for our political age! According to this theory, the maesters are natural enemies of magic. The strange forces that bring the dead back to life, reveal the future in fire, and allow Arya to wear many faces are beyond the maesters’ powers of rational explanation. But if magic were eliminated, the maesters’ monopoly on knowledge would continue unchallenged. It follows, then, that the maesters would feel comfortable with Cersei’s cruel reign but threatened by Daenerys’s magical dragons. Maybe that explains why a former maester built Cersei a weapon meant to kill dragons. And maybe the maesters will intervene in the conflict more directly in the next season.

8. ARYA WILL KILL CERSEI ... WEARING JAMIE’S FACE.

Maisie Williams in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Predicting that Jamie will kill Cersei is so mainstream. Seeing Jamie kill Cersei for the good of the realm would reprise his role as the Kingslayer (or Queenslayer). It would neatly fulfill the Volanqar prophecy—the prediction a witch made to a young Cersei, that she would be killed by a volanqar (which translates to "younger sibling" in High Valyrean). And it would be so easy. Reasoning that George RR Martin would never do something so obvious, and that Arya’s assassin character arc has to led to a more consequential target than Walder Frey, Redditor greypiano predicts that Arya will be Cersei’s killer. If she first kills Jamie and uses his face to catch Cersei unaware, then the volanqar prophecy will be confirmed (even if it’s on a technicality).

9. VISERION WILL COME BACK TO LIFE.

Here’s a fan theory for moms, from a mom. Redditor Cornholio_the_white wrote that after the season 7 finale, their mom called to say she was sad about Viserion’s death. But she had a prediction: “I think it’s going to remember its mother.” She explained that Daenerys’s love would free Viserion from the Night King’s spell. Cornholio_the_white scoffed. That wasn’t possible. The dragon was dead. But then Mom dropped a compelling counterargument: “Not if the Red Woman brings it back. They’re keeping her around for something.”

10. GENDRY IS THE LEGITIMATE CHILD OF CERSEI AND ROBERT BARATHEAN.

This theory throws another contender for the Iron Throne into the mix. It maintains that Gendry was not Robert Barathean’s bastard son—in fact, he was the only legitimate child of the king. We know that Cersei and Robert had a child—a “black-haired beauty”—who supposedly died shortly after birth. Curiously, Cersei says she never visited her firstborn child in the crypt, even though we know she is a fiercely devoted mother. Perhaps that’s because she knew her son was actually in Fleabottom as a blacksmith’s apprentice. And perhaps it was Cersei all along who was looking out for Gendry, securing his apprenticeship and protecting him from Joffrey’s purge of Robert’s bastards. Gendry, for his part, remembers only that his mother had yellow hair. If that yellow-haired woman was Cersei, Gendry would have the most legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of anyone in Westeros.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. To celebrate his birthday (he turns 73 today), here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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