Film review of Churchill

Cast

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  Admiral Sir  Bertram Ramsay

Steven Cree as Group Captain James Stagg , 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)

Director:  Jonathan Teplitzky

Script by Alex von Tunzelmann

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 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 s 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 t   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 had been widely  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 some 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 being bullying to 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  almost 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   fed into the  picture the film painted of Churchill being a man who by that stage of the war at least was a spent force at best and a positive hindrance to the successful prosecution of the war.

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, tactics which fed into the film’s  Gallipoli complex.   There are also some startling and incongruous in the circumstances 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 Churchill of  ‘doubt, dithering and treachery’. The PM  later  describes  Montgomery (not in Montgomery’s presence)  as a ‘Puffed-up little s**t.’  It all seems very unlikely, not least because it implies that  the military not  the politicians were the real government of the UK at that time.

In fact the film plays to that idea for there is a  strange  absence of other British  politicians in the film and or   indeed of any  civilians in position 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 a little 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 for Churchill it is probable that he ill would have welcomed having  Lindemann around.

Then there is Churchill’s relationship with his wife Clemmie.  She is  shown as  being very ready to criticise Churchill either directly through confrontation as when she scolds  him for his drinking and indirectly by  her general  behaviour towards him which includes her apologising for Churchill’s behaviour towards his staff .  She is also shown slapping him at one point for which there is no evidence.   There is also rather too much angst from  Clemmie  about how Churchill had neglected her and a feeling that somehow her life has been unfulfilling.  Churchill is shown playing up to this, at one point  saying ‘I would understand if you left me. I’d leave me if I could.’  Real?

Even if there had been any substance to this behaviour would Churchill’s wife  have been  raising it just before D-Day?  However, again the evidence for such behaviour  is lacking.  This element of  the filmic Clemmie’s   behaviour smells  suspiciously like an inappropriate and anachronistic  feminist implant designed to show that men behaved “badly”, that is, displayed politically incorrect behaviour, in 1944 and women spiritedly rebelled against such  treatment.   The fact that the scriptwriter Alex von Tunzelmann is female may have something to do with this , a suspicion strengthened by  her  being a Guardian columnist. It would be very interesting to see Tunzelmann justifying her script in terms of historical accuracy.

Is the film worth seeing?  Probably not for  as a pure piece of drama it fails. The action flits from scene to scene  in rather 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 as a stamp collector might  congratulate themselves on having acquired a particular stamp to add to a set.  Nor apart from Churchill and just about  his wife is there much character development for the film has a substantial number of historically  important  characters but 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 very limited roles  allow. Within the  confines of this  hindrance  of Julian Wadham’s  Montgomery stood out.

That should be enough  to say don’t waste your money. However Dunkirk 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 and   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 .

 

 

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