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Winston Churchill - Film Adaptations of his Life

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I'm free! I'm free! I'm Winston bloody Churchill!
- Young Winston

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in 1874, the eldest son of prominent politician Lord Randolph Churchill and American socialite Jennie Jerome. He served the British army in the cavalry in India in 1897, as a War Correspondent in the Sudan in 1898 and in the Second Boer War, during which he was captured by the Boers before escaping. He entered politics in 1901, serving as a Conservative MP but argued so strongly against the proposals for what later became the 1905 Aliens Act, a law the Conservatives introduced to prevent the immigration of Jews, that he was dropped from being that party's candidate for Oldham. He switched to the Liberal Party in 1904 and championed prison reform, workers' rights, introduction of social security and legal rights for trades unions. He served in the cabinet in various positions including First Lord of the Admiralty between 1911-15, until his planned Dardanelles Campaign resulted in catastrophic failure.

With trench warfare in France at a stalemate, Churchill proposed that Britain and France should capture Constantinople and the strategic straits of the Dardanelles, believing that if Constantinople was threatened then Turkey would immediately surrender. The initial plan was subject to severe compromise and reduction in resources and the initial naval bombardment of enemy positions was slow and ponderous, losing all element of surprise. This was followed by an ambitious amphibious assault on Gallipoli, in which men were landed near a highly-fortified enemy position. This was a disaster as, instead of securing vital strategic positions such as nearby high ground, the troops were so delighted to be beside the seaside that they started building sandcastles on the beach and playing in the sea. The Turkish and German forces opposing them took up highly-defensive positions in the high ground and 250,000 allied men died.

Resigning his seat he rejoined the army and served as a colonel until 1917 when he became Minister for Munitions, overseeing the creation and development of the tank, among other duties. He rejoined the Conservative Party and served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1925 and in the 1930s was consistent in being the lone voice opposed to German expansion, while also writing at least two film scripts for Hungarian refugee-turned-movie mogul Sir Alexander Korda, one a biography of King George V, as well as being historical advisor for London Films' historical features. He once again was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty on the declaration of war in 1939 and in May 1940 replaced Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) as Prime Minister. As Prime Minister he was renowned for his stirring speeches while smoking cigars and giving the V-Sign for 'Victory', while he kept antisocial hours and was rarely-ever sober. He also had great diplomatic skills in cementing alliances with both the USA and USSR, until after the war in which he coined the phrase 'Iron Curtain' to describe the Soviet Union's action in East Europe.

In 1945 Churchill lost the first election after the war's end; despite being regarded a hero he was unable to compete with the beacon of hope that was Labour's promise to create the NHS and the Welfare State. He served as Prime Minister one last time between 1951-55, when he resigned at the age of 80.

Winston Churchill spent much of his life writing histories and biographies and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. His history The Second World War (1948-54) is still considered the definitive text on the era by Oxford University. He died in 1965.

Since 1940 almost every white baby born in Britain has looked like Winston Churchill. In 2002 the BBC ran a poll to discover who the public believed was the 'Greatest Briton'. This was won by Winston Churchill.

The British War Film Genre

I will leave judgements on this matter to history - but I will be one of the historians.
- Sir Winston Churchill

British war films tend to emphasise realism, legitimacy and documentary principles; what is shown is an adaptation of true events, usually strongly researched with input from the people concerned. These are films that have often embraced documentary principles, realism and autobiography. This practice began shortly after the war when filmmakers realised that it was possible to make grand films on comparatively small budgets with the support of the armed forces who would lend men and equipment for free. The services were happy to help support filmmakers wishing to re-enact historical events that portrayed them in a positive light, seeing it as a beneficial PR exercise.

This has meant that in Britain all war films are expected to uphold the ideal of accuracy, and when a war film does not it is considered an outrageous insult.

Young Winston (1972)

Young Winston Churchill grows up largely ignored by his parents despite hero-worshipping his father, Chancellor of the Exchequer Randolph Churchill, who is considered a potential future prime minister. Randolph tells his son he is 'just another public-school failure' doomed to 'live out a shabby and a miserable life to the end of your days'. Though Winston longs to help his father with his political career, asking to be his father's secretary's assistant and maybe one day follow him into the House of Commons, Randolph believed his son incapable. Shortly before his death, Randolph arranged for Winston to join the army.

Winston decides to distinguish himself in the army as a springboard to launch his true calling of being in politics. He soon gets a reputation for being a medal-hunter. As a war correspondent in the Mohmand Campaign 1897 in northern India (now Pakistan) he writes a popular book about his experience that is not considered favourably by the military. He uses his political connections to join Kitchener's expedition to the Mahdist Second Sudanese War (1896-99), much to Kitchener's disgust, taking part in the Battle of Omdurman's cavalry charge where 400 British Lancers defeated 2,500 Mahdists. Churchill writes another book highly critical of Kitchener's leadership and treatment of the Sudanese. When he stands to be elected a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party in Oldham, he is defeated.

Despondent, Churchill heads to South Africa as an army correspondent during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). During an armoured train ambush he rescues the injured but is captured by the Boers before making a daring escape. After evading his captors by spending days hidden down a coal mine, he triumphantly crosses from the Transvaal into Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) with his story capturing the world's attention. He wins the next election he stands in, standing as a Conservative. Despite his mother believing he will end his political career before it begins, during his first Parliamentary speech he wins the praise of the Liberal Party and disgust of his own party by calling for an end to the arms race and promoting the cause of peace in Europe.

DirectorLord Richard Attenborough
StudioColumbia Pictures
Length157 minutes
Period & Setting1881-1901 - Victorian England (including Blenheim Palace, Harrow and Sandhurst), India (now Pakistan), Sudan, South Africa
  • Winston Churchill, schoolboy and army correspondent (Simon Ward)
  • Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston's politician father (Robert Shaw)
  • Lady Randolph Churchill née Jennie Jerome (Anne Bancroft)
  • Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (Laurence Naismith)
  • Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener (Sir John Mills)
  • Elizabeth Ann Everest, Churchill's nanny he nicknamed 'Woom' (Pat Heywood)
  • James Welldon, Headmaster of Harrow School (Jack Hawkins)
  • George Earle Buckle, Editor of The Times (Sir Ian Holm)
  • David Lloyd George, future Liberal Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Hopkins)
  • General Sir Bindon Blood (Patrick Magee)
  • Captain - later Sir - Aylmer Haldane (Edward Woodward OBE)
  • Sir Austen Chamberlain, politician and Neville's father (Sir Jeremy Child)
  • Joseph Chamberlain, politician and Neville's half-brother (Basil Dignam)
  • Headmaster, sadistic caning bully (Robert Hardy)
  • Pamela Plowden (Jane Seymour1)
  • Uncredited Boer Sentry (Sir Nigel Hawthorne)
Bechdel TestFail2

The idea for the film came from Carl Foreman CBE and Winston Churchill. Foreman, an American screenwriter and producer, like many of those blacklisted by the McCarthy witch-hunts, had fled to England where he remained for much of his career. Churchill had been impressed by Foreman's films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Guns of Navarone (1961) so he asked to meet him and suggested that Foreman adapt his autobiography, My Early Life (1930). After the screenplay Foreman needed a director and chose Richard Attenborough, having been impressed by his directorial debut Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Lord Attenborough is perhaps best known for his acting career, appearing in such films as Brighton Rock (1948), The Great Escape (1963) and Jurassic Park (1993). He later won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Gandhi (1983).

The film shows a side of Churchill that is not normally considered. Aged seven at a boarding school where he is severely caned, beaten and bloodied for such terrible crimes as not knowing the correct way in Latin to invoke, address or speak to a table. It also compares Winston with his father, who, despite being Winston's idol, always looks down on his son - though he has since been completely eclipsed by his son's memory. Randolph Churchill throws his career away when resigning on principle about the Secretary of State for War's3 plan to increase military spending. He is also shown as dying of syphilis, a sexually-transmitted disease his wife is not afflicted by, with an open question over how he came to contract the disease.

Much of the film is focused on the father/son relationship, with a lot left unspoken between them or said in a roundabout way. One particularly moving scene has Winston asking his father on a rare occasion that they are together at a racetrack if he could work for him. Randolph, looking at a horse, replies: 'The breeding's there, but something's lacking in the stamina. You know? Character. No, I don't see him winning the race.' Randolph, the man Winston cares for most in the world is the blindest to his son's potential and destiny, telling Winston's mother: 'He's our son, but we mustn't blind ourselves, must we? He's no scholar. Can you imagine him qualifying for the bar or cutting any kind of figure in politics? So unless you see him in the church, you see the army's all that's left.' Despite this, Winston grows up sharing many of the same political views as his father even though he knew these views ended his father's career.

As the film covers a 20-year period, showing Churchill between seven and 26, it jumps along quite quickly to compress it all into a runtime of just over two hours. As well as at Shepperton Studios, filming took place on location at Blenheim Palace, where both Winston and his father were born, the Brecon Beacons National Park, and Morocco. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Art Direction and Costume Design.

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)

Aided by the traitorous Lord W'ruff, Adolf Hitler flies to England where he hides in Buckingham Palace. He plans to kidnap and forcibly marry Princess Elizabeth, thus allying the British Empire and German Reich before launching a joint invasion of the United States. Yet Princess Elizabeth has already fallen in love, falling for a common American GI called Winston Churchill even before he gave her silk stockings. Is their love doomed and can Churchill save the day? Will the neglected Eva Braun listen to The Archers or shag a Beefeater? How will Elizabeth react when away from her privileged home and goes down Ye Olde Dick van Dyke Street, centre of London's Irish-Cockney East End? Is it true that Hitler only has one ball?

DirectorPeter Richardson
StudioPathé & Sky Movies
Length80 minutes
Period & Setting1940 England
  • Winston Churchill, American GI (Christian Slater)
  • Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne (Neve Campbell)
  • Eva Braun, Hitler's ignored girlfriend (Miranda Richardson)
  • King George VI (Harry Enfield)
  • Adolf Hitler, German Chancellor frequently mistaken for Charlie Chaplin (Antony Sher)
  • Lord W'ruff, traitorous Minister for War (Leslie Phillips)
  • General Denzel Eisenhower, official token black guy (Romany Malco)
  • Bendie & Potter, royal footmen (Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer)
  • Captain Baxter, W'ruff's aide-de-camp (Rik Mayall)
  • Tony Blair (Jon Culshaw)
  • Jim-Jim Charoo, Irish-Cockney chimneysweep from Ye Olde Dick Van Dyke Street (Mackenzie Crook)
  • Teasy-Weasy, Hitler's hairstylist (James Dreyfus)
  • Herr Bormann (Phil Cornwell)
  • Waitress (Sally Phillips)
  • Princess Margaret (Jessica Oyelowo)
  • Herman Göring (Steven O'Donnell)
  • Franklin D Roosevelt (Henry Goodman)
Bechdel TestPass

Though British war films are judged by the levels of accuracy obtained, in America war films are considered no different to other action genres. In 2000 atrocious film U-571 presented an incorrect depiction of the capture of the Enigma machine and code, with Americans inaccurately presented as achieving this feat. As a result in Britain the national press encouraged a boycott and the film was discussed in Parliament. Hollywood then made another terrible film, Pearl Harbor (2001), which was criticised for all-but implying that America won the Battle of Britain despite not having actually entered the war yet and US servicemen being officially prohibited from joining the RAF. Both U-571 and Pearl Harbor have the dubious honour of being listed in the 'Top Ten Most Historically Inaccurate War Films Ever', in ninth and third places respectively.

Churchill – the Hollywood Years is a spoof film that attempts to answer what a Hollywood adaptation of Churchill's life would be like, taking more inspiration from Hollywood films than the war itself, particularly mentioning Pearl Harbor. As Hollywood producers4 are incapable of understanding that countries other than America were involved in the Second World War almost to the extent that they regard it as virtually another American Civil War, obviously Winston Churchill himself is now an American5 Rambo-like figure.

The jokes come thick and fast, mocking Hollywood films, the American attitude to their country and aristocrats. The rap adaptation of classic song 'We're Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line' is delightful. There are references to classic film noir and the Irish Cockneys are a nod to both Dick van Dyke's inability to speak English in Mary Poppins as well as the Irish steerage passengers in Titanic (1997).

Churchill (2017)

In the lead up to D-Day Churchill is desperate to prevent the Normandy invasion. Haunted by the memory of the failure at Gallipoli, he is convinced that it will result in the loss of too many men and risks complete failure. Feeling his war experience is being ignored, will Churchill do everything in his power to prevent Operation Overlord setting sail, or sink into a depression? With the country having new heroes like Monty, does Churchill still have a part to play during the war? Having long despised generals who send men to their deaths while staying behind in safety and comfort, can his wife persuade him not to take part in the landings?

Director Jonathan Teplitzky
StudioSalon Pictures in association with Silver Reel and Embankment Films
Length94 minutes
Period & SettingJune 1944, the lead-up to D-Day
  • Winston Churchill, Prime Minister (Brian Cox)
  • Clementine 'Clemmie' Churchill (Miranda Richardson)
  • General Dwight Eisenhower (John Slattery)
  • General 'Monty' Montgomery (Julian Wadham)
  • Field Marshall Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa (Richard Durden)
  • Helen Garrett, Churchill's secretary (Ella Purnell)
  • Field Marshal Alan Brooke (Danny Webb)
  • Air Chief Marshall Sir Leigh Mallory (Jonathan Aris)
  • Admiral Ramsay (George Anton)
  • Group Captain Stagg (Steven Cree)
  • King George VI (James Purefoy)
Bechdel TestFail

Churchill is a film that was completely overlooked on initial release and overshadowed by a film made the same year, Darkest Hour, which to be fair is a superior film. Churchill tries hard to present a different side to the man, one in which he is haunted by the mistakes of the past and subject to bouts of depression he named his 'black dog'. His apprehension in the film is both in being the one to send men to their deaths but also in being ignored. He truly believes that a successful invasion at best will result in a stagnant stalemate of trench warfare like in the Great War, but will more likely be a disaster like Dardanelles6.

Essentially the film is about Churchill's coming to terms with his changing identity. He has become used to being the hero and the only man willing to fight, yet now others are fighting alongside him and are considered to be heroes by the nation. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, now has to entrust the fight to the generals and, unable to come to terms with that, fights against them. George VI comes across sympathetically with the audience feeling his frustration that he wants to do all he can for his country, but being the 'most powerful man in the country' he is 'not allowed to do anything'. He is the one man that Churchill is prepared to listen to, though he begrudgingly respects Monty as a general who leads from the front. The only other person he listens to is his wife Clemmie, played by Miranda Richardson, who had played Eva Braun in Churchill: The Hollywood Years.

The film sometimes comes across as being very arty, with the opening caption unhelpfully informing us the scene takes place on the '1,736th day of World War II' when a label of 'June 1944' would actually mean more. Churchill stands on a beach which turns blood-coloured and then black and white.

Overall Brian Cox7 plays the lead role well in a film that tries to deconstruct the man behind the myth. Yet the film delights in portraying Churchill so different to the popular view so much that the public rejected the film and instead flocked to a film with a more traditional, heroic portrayal of the man. Churchill was panned critically and flopped commercially.

Darkest Hour (2017)

In May 1940 the Conservative Neville Chamberlain resigns as Prime Minister having lost the confidence of Parliament following his policy of appeasement being seen as weakness. Though Chamberlain wants Viscount Halifax to succeed him, the only Conservative politician that the opposition parties will serve with in a coalition government is Winston Churchill.

Despite the support of the Labour and Liberal parties, Churchill is distrusted by his own party and is forced to appoint his political enemies and rivals Chamberlain and Halifax into key positions in his War Cabinet and work closely with them, despite their strong opposition to his determination to continue fighting Nazi Germany. The king also has no confidence in Churchill, particularly after Churchill refuses to admit that the allies are losing the Battle of France. With a French surrender inevitable, leaving the British Expeditionary Force stranded and surrounded, matters reach a crisis point both militarily and politically.

As the British army is surrounded at Dunkirk without a hope of rescue, Chamberlain and Halifax plan to resign and institute a Vote of No Confidence in Churchill because Churchill refuses to consider negotiating a surrender with Hitler and instead orders the small garrison in Calais to sacrifice themselves to buy time for a Dunkirk to be evacuated, which no-one believes possible.

Trying to connect with civilians rather than politicians, Churchill has a ride on the underground and finds that the people have the will to continue the fight, which reinvigorates him. Will Churchill survive the political crisis? Can any man be saved from Dunkirk and will one man come to personify the Dunkirk spirit?

DirectorJoe Wright
StudioWorking Title, Distributed by Universal Pictures, Finance from Perfect World Pictures
Length120 minutes
Period & SettingMay 1940, predominantly London
  • Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman)
  • Clementine Churchill, his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)
  • Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's personal secretary (Lily James)
  • Viscount Halifax, Conservative political rival (Stephen Dillane)
  • Neville Chamberlain, former Conservative Prime Minister (Ronald Pickup)
  • Anthony Eden, Conservative politician and future Prime Minister (Samuel West)
  • King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn)
  • General Ismay (Richard Lumsden)
  • General Ironside (Malcolm Storry)
  • Sir John Simon (Nicholas Jones)
  • Clement Attlee, Labour politician and future Prime Minister (David Schofield)
Bechdel TestFail

Darkest Hour, written by acclaimed New Zealand writer Anthony McCarten, also known for biopics The Theory of Everything (2014) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the most successful biographical film of all time, won immense critical praise. Nominated for six Oscars and nine BAFTAs, for both awards it won Best Actor (Gary Oldman, who also won the Best Actor Golden Globe) and Best Makeup and Hairstyling (Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and the Isle of Wight's Lucy Sibbick). One of the key themes of the film was the issue of the stranded men at Dunkirk; this was the focus of another British 2017 film, Dunkirk, which won three Oscars (Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing) at the same ceremony.

The film is certainly dramatic, though as with historical dramas as a whole is a more accurate representation historically for the year it was made than the year it depicts. As with biopics as a whole the main character, in this case Churchill, is seen to be an isolated figure in his distrust of Hitler when in truth Attlee and the Labour Party shared his revulsion of dealing with the fascist. To increase the drama and tension, Britain is portrayed as being completely isolated in the world in its opposition to the Nazis with the rest of the Empire, including Africa, Australia, Canada and India, only mentioned during one of Churchill's speeches and have no part to play in the drama.

One memorable scene has Churchill travelling on the Underground and talking to ordinary people. This persuades him not to give in to his fellow politicians urging him to negotiate a surrender, but to continue the fight. This event did not happen – though Churchill did indeed wander around London to talk to the public during the war – but should not detract from it being a particularly moving dramatic moment and exceptional cinema. Though the filmmakers had hoped to use the London Transport Museum's 1938 Tube Stock, such as is still in daily use on the Isle of Wight, in fact the scene uses 1959 stock from the Mangapps Railway Museum instead.

The film is dedicated to John Hurt, who had originally been cast as Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was dying of cancer at the time the film was set, but Hurt was unable to play the role before himself dying of cancer.

Man or Myth?

Films about Winston Churchill are predominantly about the myth, rather than the real man. They often overlook how, being born in 1874, many of Churchill's views look positively Victorian to a 21st Century audience. Should he be judged for his Imperialist beliefs having been raised at the centre of the British Empire? Having fought in India during his youth, in later life he was particularly opposed to Indian independence and is often accused of failing to address the 1943 Bengal Famine. He also frequently used the sending-in-troops approach to deal with problems with strikes and unrest in Ireland. Similarly, before the Great War he did not support votes for women at a time when it would have been political suicide for him to do so. None of these events is mentioned in any of the films.

Each of the films reacts to the myth of Churchill in a different way. Young Winston is a direct adaptation of Churchill's autobiography. Churchill: The Hollywood Years Hollywoodises the first non-American in the 21st Century to have a US warship named after him, the USS Winston Churchill, commissioned in 2001. This parodies both the legend and the US approach to historical films in general. Yet it is the two films made in 2017, Churchill and Darkest Hour, which are the most telling. Churchill challenged the legend and was washed aside, Darkest Hour embraced it and rode the wave to glory. That two very different films were made at the same time shows not only that every story has at least two sides and every person is a complicated being with many conflicting, contradictory outlooks, views, perspectives, moods and views as they grow, gain new experiences and obtain or lose innocence, insight, weariness, cynicism and/or optimism as they age. This also reflects the division running through British society in 2017, particularly with regards to Britain's role in Europe. In Darkest Hour Churchill is battling to maintain British identity in face of Europe while in Churchill he is seen as stubborn, old-fashioned and unwilling to take the risk of reaching out and embracing/freeing Europe, which, despite his fears of failure and disaster, will instead lead to success and glory.

1Not the former Queen of England, but considering the stellar cast it wouldn't be that surprising.2Churchill spends the first half of the film in all-boys schools and the second half in the army.3Though not mentioned by name, the Secretary of State for War at the time was WH Smith, who inherited his father WH Smith's news vending business and transformed it into Britain's largest newsagent and stationer chain, WH Smith's. He is also best known as being the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan's character of Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, in HMS Pinafore (1878).4Except possibly Steven Spielberg; the widely regarded as disappointing 1941 (1979) aside, films Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and War Horse (2011) are well worth watching.5In real life Winston's mother was American, who met Randolph Churchill in Cowes on the Isle of Wight.6Not mentioned in the film was the similarly-disastrous Dieppe Raid (1942), in which 3,363 of the 4,961 Canadians sent to Dieppe died, as did 247 British Commandos, with 2,200 British and Canadian troops captured. The complete failure was analysed in minute detail and the hard-learned lessons were remembered.7The actor, not the scientist.

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