Brian Cox as Winston Churchill
Miranda Richardson as Clementine Churchill
John Slattery as Dwight D. Eisenhower
James Purefoy as King George VI
Julian Wadham as General Bernard Montgomery
Danny Webb as Field Marshall Alan Brooke
Jonathan Aris as Air Chief Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory
George Anton as Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay
Steven Cree as Group Captain James Stag, a Royal Air Force meteorologist
Angela Costello as Kay Summersby chauffeur and later as personal secretary to Dwight D. Eisenhower
Richard Durden as Jan Smuts, South African general turned politician
Ella Purnell as Helen Garrett (Churchill’s secretary)
Script by Alex von Tunzelmann
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Film reviewed by ROBERT HENDERSON
This was a disappointing film in terms of its general theatrical quality which veers towards the melodramatic, but even more because it is a travesty of Churchill’s character. That fine actor Brian Cox might have been made for the role of Churchill and with a script which reflected Churchill’s personality, opinions and behaviour accurately I have no doubt that he would have produced a great depiction of the man. But here he is bound by a script which makes Churchill seem like a tempestuous child, and a child who more often than not could be side-lined and insulted to his face despite being Prime Minister in the midst of a most terrible and threatening war. It is difficult to think of any scene involving characters with power and influence which shows him as being the dominant character. For example, he does not chair the meetings with Eisenhower and the other military men. In real life he did.
The film is set in the four days before D-Day and the execution of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Churchill is portrayed as being pathologically anxious that the invasion should not be another bloodbath like Gallipoli in the Great War, a failure for which Churchill has been held wholly or largely responsible. As a consequence, the film has him interminably prevaricating over the D-Day landings and after the decision is made to invade Churchill is shown praying for unfavourable weather to stop the operation: “Please, please, please let it pour tomorrow. Let the heavens open and a deluge burst forth such as has never been seen in the English Channel. Let the sea churn into peaks and troughs and tidal waves!”
That passage encapsulates the tone of the film. Churchill is not seen as being either in command or as a figure of authority but as a man frightened for his reputation and perhaps his soul. So strong a part of the film was the obsession with the failure at Gallipoli I could not help wondering if this was in part a consequence of having an Australian director, Jonathan Teplitzky. Australians are frequently more than a little angry about Gallipoli even today and blame the British for the loss of Australian lives there. Film scripts are not sacrosanct and it would be interesting to know if the subject of Gallipoli loomed as large in the initial script as it did in the film.
The historian Andrew Roberts has unreservedly slated the film for its many inaccuracies relating to Churchill’s state of mind leading up to the Normandy landings, viz: “The only problem with the movie–written by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann – is that it gets absolutely everything wrong. Never in the course of movie-making have so many specious errors been made in so long a film by so few writers.” Roberts attacks the film on the grounds that it wrongly shows Churchill as dithering over D-Day, being seriously at odds with his wife, at war with the generals and bullying his staff.
To the lack of historical accuracy about events and Churchill’s state of mind can be added the portrayal of his physical state. Churchill in real life was far from the physically lumbering man obese to the point of physical handicap that was depicted in the film. He played polo into his fifties and rode to hounds into his seventies (in 1944 he was seventy). This physical misrepresentation feeds into the picture the film painted of Churchill being a man who by that stage of the war was a spent force and a positive hindrance to its successful prosecution.
The depiction of Churchill’s relationship with the military is also improbable. He is shown displaying a chronic fault of Hitler, namely, playing at being a military mastermind by suggesting different strategies such as decoy operations to mislead the Germans. There is also some startling and incongruous language involving the military, with Montgomery calling Churchill a ‘bastard’ to his face and casting aspersions on his commitment to the Normandy landings by accusing him of ‘doubt, dithering and treachery’. The PM later describes Montgomery (not in his presence) as a ‘Puffed-up little s**t.’ It all seems unlikely, not least because it implies that the military not the politicians were the real government of the UK at that time.
Indeed, there is a striking absence of other British politicians in the film or of any civilians in positions of authority and influence. For example, Churchill’s leading scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann had a very close relationship with him and the two met often during the war. It is somewhat odd that he did not appear at all because apart from his value as a scientific advisor Llindemann had a real friendship with Churchill and at a time of great stress it is probable that Churchill would have welcomed having him around.
Then there is Churchill’s relationship with his wife Clemmie. She is quite ready to criticise Churchill, as when she scolds him for his drinking and apologises for his behaviour towards his staff. At one point she even slaps him. There is far too much agonising from Clemmie about how Winston has neglected her and about how her life has been unfulfilling. Churchill is shown playing up to this, saying at one point, ‘I would understand if you left me. I’d leave me if I could.’
Even if there was any historical evidence for this behaviour, would the Prime Minister’s wife have exhibited it just before D-Day? However, the evidence for such behaviour is simply lacking. This element of the film seems suspiciously like an anachronistic feminist implant designed to show that in 1944, men behaved “badly”, that is, displayed politically incorrect behaviour and that women spiritedly rebelled against such treatment. The fact that scriptwriter Alex von Tunzelmann is a Guardian columnist may be indicative here. It would be very interesting to see if she could justify her script in terms of historical accuracy.
Is this film worth seeing? Probably not for as a pure piece of drama it fails. The action flits from scene to scene in a stilted fashion which robs the film of cohesion and leaves the impression that each scene is being ticked off as having covered a particular issue. Nor, apart from Churchill and his wife, is there much character development for although the film has a substantial number of historically important characters, little time is allotted to each. These supporting characters are, as one can more or less take for granted in a film manned by British actors, adroitly executed in as far as their limited roles allow. Within the confines of this constraint, Julian Wadham’s Montgomery stood out.
That should be equivalent to saying don’t waste your money. However, Churchill is one of those films which has an importance beyond its qualities as a film. Its effect is to turn Churchill from a war hero into an irresolute, fearful incompetent. In fact, the misrepresentation of Churchill is so complete that it qualifies as character assassination. The danger is that it will colour the public’s view of the man. Consequently, see it so that you can afterwards refute its view of Churchill. In short, it should be seen for its faults not its virtues.