I am a director, playwright, and theatre critic with a Masters in Writing for Performance. You can check out my my portfolio and musings at www.samsaradunston.blogspot.com.au
Published June 1st 2017
Can Winston Churchill stop the allies from winning the war?
Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister throughout most of World War II, is one of the greatest orators and war leaders of modern history. With the anniversary of the Normandy Landings (what we now refer to as DDay) upon us, a movie looking at the actions of this great man over the 96 hours leading up to the beach landings, Churchill, is due for release in Melbourne on June 8.
General Allen Brooke (Danny Webb and Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) in Churchill (Photograph courtesy of the Distributor)
The film is headed by iconic actor Brian Cox playing Winston Churchill and he is ably backed up by a slew of stars including Miranda Richardson as his wife Clementine, and John Slattery playing Dwight 'Ike' Eisenhower. The entire cast is made up of great actors, and Cox gets to display his Shakespearean techniques in this rendering which seems to be written in a manner which portrays Churchill as some kind of great tragic figure of history - something in the vein of Macbeth perhaps.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky reinforces this motif by constantly placing the great men in this historical moment (King George VI, Churchill, Eisenhower, and Montgomery) foregrounded in front of looming landscapes and towering edifices which dwarf them. You get this sense their greatness is at the whim of natural forces like all great tragic heroes. Even the mundane moments of bedtime prayer are breakfast with the wife are used to expound on Churchill's extraordinary capacity as a wordsmith, with the prayer resonating with all the power and portending of Macbeth's speech in Act V as he calls for the men to 'Hang out our banners on the outward walls'.
Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson as Winston and Clemmie in Churchill (Photograph courtesy of the Distributors)
With all this talent and such a great cast of characters, as well as such a pivotal moment in history, and the writer (Alex von Tunzelman) being a historian herself there is no way this movie can fail, right? Wrong. It is a mystery as to how von Tunzelman has managed to get everything so wrong - particularly as she is a writer for The Guardian who specialises in critiquing historical inaccuracies in movies.(I can forgive her the flaw of using a non-tragic figure within a tragic frame because she isn't a scriptwriter - although that leads to all sorts of other questions.)
Churchill relies on some underlying premises and this is where it gets into trouble. Von Tunzelman wants us to believe two core precepts which determine everything about the trajectory of this film. The first is that Churchill was against the Normandy Landing and the second that Churchill suffered from a clinical depression which was debilitating. According to my research, there is no evidence of either of those notions. Churchill did have a level of anxiety (which presents nothing like clinical depression) but was not on any medications and he was a vociferous leader in campaign discussions contrary to her portrayal of him as a sulky child being ignored and bullied in the schoolyard.
I also admit to having some parochial resentment to how the Gallipoli campaign is used to insinuate Churchill has some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or similar which the Normandy landing was triggering. The script actually has Churchill saying he tried to stop them going to Gallipoli when the whole thing was his idea in the first place! Even the 'Never Surrender' speech is wrong. It was made in 1940 at the Battle of Britain, not in 1944 for Operation Overlord.
Churchill is a film which (if you dig deep enough to find it), makes something of a commentary about the world and warfare moving from old ways into modern times. Despite the inaccurate representations, Montgomery and Eisenhower somehow represent modernity whereas Churchill is meant to represent the old ways. Their imagined polar positions in the planning of DDay represent that struggle and Churchill's reference to the 'new' unpiloted bombs Germany is sending as being soulless reinforce the movement of time and a sense of helplessness within that. And yes, undoubtedly this is a condemnation on our modern drone technologies.
Unfortunately, we just know our history to well for this film to work. It is not a docudrama because it fails the test of known truth. It is pure fiction and therefore a frustrating watch despite the skill of the cast and crew involved.
I have not seen the film yet so will be interested to do so, but you say that there was no evidence to suggest Churchill had clinical depression. He himself talked about black dog days to chart how he felt about his days. In his own words:
"I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.
Churchill knew it and named it his “black dog”. Alex Von Tunzelman is a first rate historian and researcher. Marina Marangos