The Guardian reports on Jan. 16 that the British are standing to applaud at the showing of "Darkest Hour," the best film made about Winston Churchill. Compare that phenomenon to the review of the film in the New York Times. The place where the cheering British and the New York Times part company is the place where the whole political division is located these days.

Here is the telling paragraph in the Times:

… like “Dunkirk,” [Darkest Hour] falls back on an idealized notion of the English character that feels, in present circumstances, less nostalgic than downright reactionary, and as empty as those ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” internet memes. Rather than invite the audience to think about the difficulties of democratic governance at a time of peril, the filmmakers promote passivity and hero-worship, offering not so much a Great Man Theory as a great man fetish. Their sham populism is most evident in a ridiculous scene in which Churchill rides the London Underground and meets The People, a motley mass of stiff upper lips and brimming eyes.

I wonder what the reviewer thinks the British people were up to in 1940? We have a lot of evidence about that, some of it summarized in the fine book by John Lukacs, Five Days in London, which is the basis of "Darkest Hour." He draws his information chiefly from two sources: newspaper accounts, many of ordinary life and what people were doing, and an early attempt at polling called “Mass-Observation.” This was an effort by two Englishmen, Charles Madge and Tom Harrison, the latter having been a birdwatcher, and both of them now entered into people watching. They recruited a “nationwide panel of observers to participate in a study of everyday life.” This panel of ordinary people kept up their observations into the war and reported what they saw to many places, including the British Ministry of Information.

As Lukacs summarizes these reports, in the second half of May the British people were becoming worried, and yet they kept their confidence that Britain would finally win: in other words, “a stiff upper lip.” As facts about the gravity of the situation accumulated, people began to talk of German invasion and defeat. But they were encouraged by Churchill’s speeches, which they felt were giving them the real facts. This he began to do on May 19, his first radio broadcast as prime minister. The radio speech ends:

Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

This is not pie in the sky, and the British took hope from it.

My knowledge of this comes not just from reading about it in documentary sources and history books, but also from my wife’s family. Her mother and father fought in the war, her father having left Dunkirk beach on June 4, the last day. Later he was captured in Singapore by the Japanese and commanded the camp in which he was held. Her mother served in London as a plotter for the Royal Air Force. They were wonderful people, and there was no bragging in them. In fact, they did not like to talk about the war as a rule. But if an eager son-in-law persisted, they would describe it as the best if also the most grievous thing they ever witnessed.

We look upon the past with such smugness now that we rebel against any story of heroism. This makes us blind. The story of 1940 in Britain is not one of the “difficulties of democratic rule at a time of peril.” It is a story of the bravery of a democratic people. For the British, the fearful point was that their Army was across the Channel, running for its life from aggressive and cruel Germans, and bombs might soon be falling on London. The British people understood this much better than we can today: the First World War, in which they suffered the greatest loss of life in their history, had happened but 22 years earlier, not even a generation.

One should not fret much about falling into “hero-worship” when he watches "Darkest Hour." Churchill was in those days a hero, but he was prouder of nothing than the heroism of the British people: they were in his telling the “lion, and he was called upon to give the roar.”

This is the real test of democracy in a time of peril, and the British passed it. They are proud of that today, and it does not make them “passive.” Instead, they stand up and cheer.

Dr. Larry P. Arnn is president of Hillsdale College.

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