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.

15 Facts About Rushmore On Its 20th Anniversary

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

On December 11, 1998, Wes Anderson introduced the world to his unique brand of whimsical comedy with Rushmore. Though it wasn't his feature directorial debut—he had released Bottle Rocket, which he adapted from a short, in 1996—it was his first major Hollywood movie. And kicked off his still-ongoing collaborations with a stable of talented actors that includes Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. It was also the second film Anderson co-wrote with Owen Wilson.

To celebrate the quirky comedy's 20th anniversary, here are some things you might not know about Rushmore.

1. Rushmore Academy was the director's Alma Mater.

Wes Anderson sent location scouts across the United States and Canada to find the perfect high school to shoot the movie. He was having a tough time trying to find the school, until his mother sent him a picture of his old high school in Houston, Texas: St. John's School. Anderson thought it was the perfect location to make the movie.

2. Bill Murray wanted to make Rushmore for free.

Bill Murray in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Once Bill Murray read the screenplay, he wanted to be in the movie so badly that he considered appearing in it for free. Murray ended up working on Rushmore at scale with the Screen Actors Guild day rate minimum for smaller indie film projects. Anderson estimated that Murray made about $9000 for his work on the film.

3. Film critic Pauline Kael had a private screening.

Pauline Kael’s film criticism was a major influence on Anderson’s view of cinema. “Your thoughts and writing about the movies [have] been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that," he once wrote to her.

Kael retired from The New Yorker in 1991, so Anderson arranged for her to have a private screening of Rushmore before the film came out in 1998. He wrote about the screening in the introduction to the published version of the screenplay, and shared what Kael told him about the film: "I genuinely don't know what to make of this movie."

4. It was Jason Schwartzman’s first film role.

Casting directors searched throughout the United States, Canada, and England to find a young actor to play the lead role of Max Fischer. Australian actor Noah Taylor was the frontrunner for the part when, on the last day of casting in Los Angeles, Jason Schwartzman auditioned. He was wearing a prep school blazer with a Rushmore Academy patch that he made himself.

5. Owen Wilson's private school experiences inspired some of the movie's plot points.

As a sophomore at St. Mark High School in Dallas, Texas, Rushmore co-writer Owen Wilson was expelled for stealing his geometry teacher's textbook (the one that contained all the answers); he went to Thomas Jefferson High School to complete 10th grade. This was the inspiration for when Max is expelled from Rushmore Academy and is forced to attend Grover Cleveland High School.

Although Wilson doesn’t have a credited role in Rushmore, he does appear as Ms. Cross’s deceased husband, Edward Appleby, in a photo in Appleby’s childhood bedroom.

6. Wilson's Dad Inspired a Moment in the Movie.

Wilson’s father, Robert Wilson, was the inspiration for Herman Blume’s speech about privilege at the beginning of Rushmore.

7. Alexis Bledel was an extra in the film.


Getty Images

Before she starred as Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, actress Alexis Bledel was an uncredited extra—she played a Grover Cleveland High School student—in Rushmore. You can see her in the background in various scenes, including dancing with the character Magnus Buchan (Stephen McCole) at the end of the film.

8. Both Anderson and Wilson's brothers had parts in the movie.

Owen and Luke Wilson’s older brother Andrew plays Rushmore Academy’s baseball coach, Coach Beck. He also appeared in Anderson’s directorial debut, Bottle Rocket, playing the bully John Mapplethorpe.

Eric Chase Anderson, Wes's brother, plays the architect who designs Max’s aquarium.

9. The Movie's Editor Made a Cameo.

Rushmore editor David Moritz plays the Dynamite Salesman; he sells Max the dynamite and explosives for his stage play Heaven and Hell at the end of the film.

10. Producers Made a Deal to get a Bentley.

Producers needed a Bentley for Murray's character, Herman Blume, but Rushmore’s production budget was only $20 million and they couldn’t afford to rent one. A Houston resident was willing to lend them his Bentley if they gave his daughter a role in the film. Producers agreed; the man's daughter plays an usher who seats Miss Cross at Max’s play at the end of the movie.

11. Mason Gamble's role in Dennis the Menace almost cost him the part of Dirk Calloway in Rushmore.

Mason Gamble in Rushmore (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Wilson referred to the character of Dirk Calloway, played by Mason Gamble, as the conscience of the film. Originally, Anderson didn’t want to cast Gamble in the part because of the actor’s previous—and very recognizable—role as Dennis Mitchell in the 1993 live-action movie Dennis the Menace.

12. Rushmore Upset Francis Ford Coppola.

Director Francis Ford Coppola owns a winery, and when he first saw Rushmore, he was upset with Anderson because he used Coppola’s chief Napa Valley wine rival during Max's post-play celebration. (It probably didn't help matters that Coppola is Schwartzman's uncle.)

13. Anderson's Brother Did the Movie's Criterion Collection Artwork.

The Criterion Collection edition of 'Rushmore' (1998)
The Criterion Collection

Eric Chase Anderson did the artwork for the Criterion Collection DVD cover, an interoperation of a shot from the montage of Max’s extracurricular activities at the beginning of the movie. The Yankee Racer shot is itself a recreation of a photo from French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, taken in 1909 when he was only 15.

14. Schwartzman waxed his chest to play Max.

Although Max only shows his chest once in the film (during the high school wrestling match), Anderson made Schwartzman wax his chest for the duration of Rushmore's filming.

15. The Max Fischer Players Appeared on MTV.

During the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, the Max Fischer Players recreated the year's hit movies—The Truman Show, Armageddon, and Out of Sight—as stage plays.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliffe Says Broadway Made Him a Better Actor

Dominik Bindl, Getty Images
Dominik Bindl, Getty Images

For 10 years, moviegoers watched as Daniel Radcliffe matured on film throughout eight Harry Potter films. But the 29-year-old recently revealed that he believes the bulk of his professional growth has occurred as a result of his Broadway stage work.

“It gives me a lot of confidence as an actor, which is not always something that I’ve felt,” Radcliffe told Variety. “I feel like doing theater ... it was really very important for me psychologically.”

Radcliffe starred in a number of films after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final film in the franchise, including The Woman in Black, Now You See Me 2, and Lost in London. His Broadway credits include Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The Cripple of Inishmaan.

“There’s something about doing it without an editor to save you, or a myriad of things in post-production that can help you out, something that made me go: ‘OK, I can act,’" Radcliffe continued. "I’ve grown a little bit as an actor every time I’ve gone back to the theater."

Radcliffe crediting his professional growth to working in theater may leave some Potterheads wondering if he thinks playing Harry Potter for so long held him back.

“Not professionally, at all,” he said. “There were moments when probably I coped with the personal effects of Harry Potter not as well as I could have. But professionally, no.”

According to Radcliffe, "There are directors that were, I think, excited to—I am quoting one of them here and I won’t say who—'reinvent' me.”

Radcliffe fans can gauge that reinvention for themselves with The Lifespan of a Fact, the new Broadway play starring Radcliffe, Bobby Cannavale, and Cherry Jones. It is running at New York City's Studio 54 through January 13, 2019.

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