Churchill Bio-Pics: The Trouble with the Movies

Churchill Bio-Pics: The Trouble with the Movies

“The Trou­ble with the Movies” was pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Thinker, 5 August 2017.

David Fran­co, review­ing the film Churchill, star­ring Bri­an Cox, rais­es ques­tions he says every­one should be ask­ing. “Isn’t the abil­i­ty to accept one’s mis­takes part of what makes a man a good leader? …. To what extent should we rely [on] past expe­ri­ences in order to min­i­mize mis­takes in the future? These are the ques­tions that make a bad movie like Churchill worth seeing.”

Well, I won’t be see­ing this bad movie. Described as “per­verse fan­ta­sy” by his­to­ri­an Andrew Roberts, it joins a recent spate of slop­py Churchill bio-pics that favor skewed car­i­ca­tures over his­tor­i­cal fact.

Revisionism: A Thriving Industry

Mak­ers of movies might think it nov­el to crit­i­cize Churchill, but this is far from the case. Attacks on his lead­er­ship began ear­ly after World War II and have con­tin­ued ever since. There’s a thriv­ing mini-indus­try in “Churchill revi­sion­ism.” But it start­ed with books, not movies.

In 1963, R.W. Thompson’s The Yan­kee Marl­bor­ough por­trayed Churchill as a man of flesh and blood, who made mis­takes, like any­body else. In his 1970 study, Churchill: A Study in Fail­ure 1900-1939, Robert Rhodes James focused on Churchill’s polit­i­cal gaffes, such as his dogged sup­port of King Edward VIII in the 1936 Abdi­ca­tion cri­sis. Edward, lat­er Duke of Wind­sor, gave up the throne to mar­ry an Amer­i­can divorcee. The Duke’s tepid admi­ra­tion of Hitler, and dis­mal per­for­mance as Gov­er­nor of the Bahamas, caused Churchill to reflect: “I’m glad I was wrong.”

In 1993, John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glo­ry rocked Churchill’s sup­port­ers by claim­ing that he should have backed away from the Hitler war to pre­serve Britain’s wealth, pow­er, and empire. More recent­ly, Max Hast­ings crit­i­cized Churchill’s war lead­er­ship on mul­ti­ple issues in both World Wars: Cat­a­stro­phe 1914, on the open­ing months of WW1, and Winston’s War, 1940-45.

What­ev­er we make of their assess­ments, these his­to­ri­ans were qual­i­fied crit­ics whose thor­ough­ly researched the­ses mer­it con­sid­er­a­tion. Alas, we can­not say the same about the recent round of Churchill movies.


Movies Faithful to Reality

Churchill movies start­ed off well and were hon­est for decades. Young Win­ston (1972), star­ring Simon Ward as WSC and Anne Ban­croft as his moth­er, was a vivid pre­sen­ta­tion based on Churchill’s own account of his first twen­ty-five years. Its inac­cu­ra­cies stemmed from Churchill him­self in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy. (In it, Antho­ny Hop­kins played David Lloyd George. Lady Ran­dolph says: “He has the most dis­con­cert­ing way of look­ing at women.”)

In 1974, Lee Remick bril­liant­ly reprised the role of Lady Ran­dolph the tele­vi­sion series Jen­nie: as accu­rate a por­tray­al as ever exist­ed. We Church­ll­lians gave her an award for it—the dying Lee’s last pub­lic appear­ance. It was attend­ed by Gre­go­ry Peck, who co-starred with her in The Omen, who praised her “depth of womanliness.”

moviesThat same year, Richard Bur­ton played a believ­able Churchill in The Gath­er­ing Storm, about the years lead­ing up to World War II. Again, it didn’t devi­ate from fact, although Bur­ton spoiled the effect by denounc­ing Churchill for fic­ti­tious acts against Welsh min­ers, includ­ing Burton’s father. Pri­vate­ly, Bur­ton had expressed his admi­ra­tion for “the old boy”.…but lat­er, the cam­eras were on.

The 1981 TV series Churchill: The Wilder­ness Years, remains the mod­el Churchill bio-pic. Here­in Robert Hardy showed us both Churchill’s human frail­ties and his great­ness. Hardy and his writ­ers part­nered with Churchill’s offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er, Sir Mar­tin Gilbert to por­tray the anx­ious politi­cian of the 1930s, out of pow­er, vain­ly warn­ing of the Nazi men­ace. Bril­liant­ly cast, the result was a masterpiece.

More Recently…

Albert Finney was a sol­id Churchill in the sec­ond Gath­er­ing Storm (2002), a 90-minute film for tele­vi­sion. As skill­ful­ly cast as The Wilder­ness Years, it fea­tured Vanes­sa Red­grave in a bavu­ra per­for­mance as Clemen­tine Churchill. The sto­ry line, while not uncrit­i­cal, did not devi­ate from fact. Even in the cyn­i­cal, anti-hero­ic 21st cen­tu­ry, it seemed, film­mak­ers could still tell his sto­ry with­out reduc­ing Churchill to a flawed bur­lesque or god­like car­i­ca­ture. Then came “Into the Storm,” a 2009 tele­vi­sion dra­ma broad­cast by the BBC and HBO. Here in a series set in 1945 with 1940 flash­backs, Bren­dan Glee­son gave us the most accu­rate Churchill since Robert Hardy. Things were look­ing good.

Or so I thought. Alas, in the last cou­ple of years, we’ve had three films which can only be described as “fake his­to­ry,” and a one-dimen­sion­al doc­u­men­tary that fails to tell the full story.

A Turn to the Worse

The Crown, a 2016 Net­flix series cov­er­ing the ear­ly reign of Queen Eliz­a­beth II, was well act­ed. But John Lith­gow por­trayed a senile prime min­is­ter who hides his 1953 stroke from the Queen and repeat­ed­ly paints his gold­fish pond in a mud­dle of depres­sion. Fac­tu­al­ly, the Queen knew of Churchill’s stroke three days after it happened—and he was nev­er so dot­ty as to make repeat­ed paint­ings of his fish pond. The Duke of Wind­sor resur­faces here, promis­ing that he will get the new Queen to move into Buck­ing­ham Palace if Churchill restores his roy­al allowance. Where do they think of this stuff?

Viceroy’s House has not been seen yet in the US, and we’re miss­ing noth­ing. A visu­al­ly elab­o­rate pro­duc­tion, it cov­ers the end of British rule in India, under the last Viceroy, Lord Mount­bat­ten, white­wash­ing the lat­ter at Churchill’s expense. Mountbatten’s insis­tence that Britain leave before the India-Pak­istan bound­aries were set­tled led to vio­lent strife and the mas­sacre of mil­lions. Some­how, the film man­ages to blame this on Churchill, who was not even in pow­er at the time.

* * *

Churchill star­ring Bri­an Cox is built around the myth that Churchill opposed D-Day vir­tu­al­ly to the moment of the Nor­mandy land­ings. In real­i­ty, Churchill had sought “a lodg­ment on the con­ti­nent” since the British were thrown out of Dunkirk in 1940. His con­cept of float­ing “Mul­ber­ry Har­bors” for land­ing tanks and equip­ment dat­ed back to 1917. This hasn’t pre­vent­ed Mr. Cox from flaunt­ing his igno­rance in inter­views repeat­ing a host of canards, includ­ing the notion that Churchill want­ed to invade Ger­many over the Alps.

I held my breath when the film Dunkirk appeared, hop­ing it would not be anoth­er dose of lame pro­pa­gan­da. Churchill doesn’t appear in it. But his absence, along with oth­er heroes of the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion, reduces the film to a one-dimen­sion­al por­trait. It’s war on a beach, with mov­ing scenes of hero­ism and sur­vival. Who was the ene­my? A view­er has no idea why Churchill said after Dunkirk, “We shall nev­er surrender”—though his words are read mov­ing­ly by a sol­dier in the final scenes.

Hope Ahead? We’ll See

There’s no ques­tion that fic­ti­tious scenes and con­ver­sa­tions are legit­i­mate devices in bio-pics. But they must not depart from what we know. And thanks to his­to­ri­ans like Mar­tin Gilbert and the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, we know a lot.

There is cause for hope. This autumn, Gary Old­man will star as Churchill in anoth­er bio-pic, Dark­est Hour, about fac­ing Hitler’s armies in 1940. Promis­ing­ly, Old­man has con­sult­ed with qual­i­fied his­to­ri­ans, striv­ing to find “a way in” to the real Churchill. Col­leagues who’ve seen pre­views say he has Churchill down per­fect­ly. But his script con­tains some bizarre counterfactuals.

One can only wish him suc­cess. Per­haps this film will answer David Franco’s ques­tions. Yes, accept­ing one’s mis­takes does make a per­son a good leader. Yes, Churchill did learn from his mis­takes. He was a man of quality—a good guide for our trou­bled decade. And after a long lapse, he deserves a film that does him justice.

2 thoughts on “Churchill Bio-Pics: The Trouble with the Movies

  1. Whoops, sor­ry! I thought it was good. Click here for review. Added to my post: “Into the Storm” was a 2009 tele­vi­sion dra­ma broad­cast by the BBC and HBO. In a film set in 1945 with 1940 flash­backs, Bren­dan Glee­son gave us the most accu­rate Churchill since Robert Hardy.

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