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Churchill: Now More Than Ever

Young Winston at the Cheri Complex

By Sim Johnston

IN HIS LATER YEARS, when Sir Winston was completing his Great Man Act by flashing V. signs to the press at St. Tropes, he saw The Guns of Nevarone and, apparently impressed by Gregory Peek's shenanigans, summoned its writes producer Carl Foreman. Foreman was just the man to write a movie version of his early years, the statesman decided. Foreman's script of Young Winston is loosely based on Churchill's My Early Life, which in turn is loosely based on the author's career until age twenty-eight.

The film is in many ways true to the nature of Churchill's self-examination in all his writing, if not exactly true to the man himself. Churchill showed very little interest in the complexities of his own psychology. His writings about himself all conform to the Classics Illustrated school of statesman autobiography, that "I am a part of all that I have met" syndrome whereby the man of action records no inner feelings which do not readily follow the logic of the events in which he is partaking. In accordance with this and with the Hollywood approach to everything in general. Foreman's screen adaptation doss not tap any deep springs of character or political behavior. What we get instead is a robust action flick far above the usual cut, interspersed with the documentary machinery of early rotogravure photographs on mahogany bureaus, newsreel clips of the real Winston, and a decent imitation of Churchill's familiar, lisping voice narrating various segments of the film.

Churchill is played by three young actors at various stages of his youth who neatly blend into each other in the fashion of growing boys and girls in a Wonderbread commercial. Simon Ward, who carries the bulk of the film from age 18 on is a bit too smooth and pretty as the young adventurer but highly entertaining. He deports himself in the battle scenes as if he were presiding at the Grand Ball and some unfortunate occurence--Lord Whatdyecallit fainting or something--had made him all excited running around calling for a doctor. The daintily etched grease smears on his time-cut alabaster face seem a trifle ludicrous even in the thick of battle.

CHURCHILL HIMSELF was not much to look at or listen to in his early days. When the poet, Wilfred Scawen Blunt met Churchill at age 27, he described him as "a little square-headed fellow of no very striking appearance." He had a severe lisp until his thirties, and, like Demosthenes, his skill in oratory was partly a consequence of his will to overcome it. Indeed, the two most distinctive and forceful presences in British public life in this century, those of Churchill and Bernard Shaw, were both artifices wrought by sheer will power. The expression of bulldog defiance which appears in Churchill's most popular photographs was not evident upon his face before the war, and, as one of his friends once hinted, is likely to have been assumed when declaiming speeches in front of the mirror, and subsequently used on appropriate public occasions.

Young Winston does make a pretense of revealing some of the less attractive sides of Churchill's personally, but does so in a shallow, journalistic sense which avoids the darker recessed of a very complex man. The young Churchill was brash, egocentric, wholly absorbed in his political career. He blatantly infringed on a main canon of British breeding (somehow lost in the Atlantic transit) which considers youth a regrettable interlude to be borne with patience and modesty, and ambition as tolerable only if it is decently concealed. The film does treat Churchill's publicity-mongering, as well as his dismal performace in school, where he was invariably ranked last, but in a manner which makes it all seem cutely ironic. ("What is ever to become of you?" Churchill's father asks.)

FOREMAN MAKES the semblance of letting some Churchill family skeletons dance obscenely in a series of TV-style interviews. On several occasions we suddenly find Young Winston his father Lord Randolph (Robert Shaw), and the American mother (Anne Bancroft) alone in a study badgered by the bitchy Rex Reed-style questions of an off-screen journalist. "What precisely was the nature of your husband's last illness?" the journalist inquires, adding after an evasive answer, "Come, come, Lady Randolph, we live in modern times, Surely the word syphilis need hold no terrors for us." Lord Randolph's death, his wife's love affairs and her lack of interest in her son until he started to become famous are reduced to the level of Screen Magazine scandal-mongering.

There is no real personal conflict, not any genuine speculation over the sources of Churchill's greatness--merely tabloid figures seen through the spectacles of high school history books and pop psychology.

Granted, the film was made to be enjoyable junk, but this reviewer wishes to enter a plea that for once the movie industry make a film biography of a statesman that treats its subject like a human being. The youths of ambitious men like Churchill. Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt were often messy affairs, full of manias and self-conflict, and why not treat them as such? Churchill, for instance, never had the smooth self-conception this film imputes to him. In his journals, Churchill's physician, Lord Moran, quotes a conversation with the dying crony Brendan Bracken:

You and I think of Winston as self indulgent: he has never denied himself anything, but when a mere boy he deliberately set out to change his nature, to be tough and full of rude spirits.

It has not been easy for him. You see, Charles, Winton has always been a 'despairer.' Orphan, who painted him after the Durdanelles, used to speak of the misery in his face. He was quite certain that he would never get into office, for everyone seemed to regard him as a wild man. Winston has always been wretched unless he was occupied. Why, he told me that he prays every day for death.

LIKE LINCOLN, Churchill was a manic depressive. There is no reason why film biographies cannot take the same strides that literary biographies have in the past years under practitioners like Erik Erikson and Richard Ellmann in regard to the interpretation of personality. Film biographies always show their subject in conflict with some external foe like the Boers or Lord Salisbury, but never in conflict with themselves. But to a Churchill freak like myself, any kind of visual stimuli is welcome which recalls a man whose abilities would put any post-war American politician to shame, particularly the current resident of the White House who is fond of comparing himself to Churchill when he isn't calling Nguyen Van Thieu the Churchill the Churchill of Asia.

Apart from its antiseptic treatment of its hero, Young Winston is a highly entertaining film, From the little threaticals of young Winnie with his nanny and toy soldiers to his exploits in India and the Boer War, the film maintains a fast pace which is bolstered by a superb cast. If the battle scenes sometimes descend below the level of fury of a snowball fight in the Lowell House courtyard, the scenes in Parliament, Ascot, and the Editorial Office of the London Times have a special flavor that probably comes close to the personality of the Edwardian period, the last time England was very sure of herself.

Much of the film is centered around the meteoric career of Churchill's father, Lord Randolph. Robert Shaw, with his twinkling arrogant eyes, angulating cigarettes, and expressions which flash between aristocratic disdain and hard calculation is a pleasure to watch. Anne Bancroft is serviceable as his wife, being required only to produce a variety of worried expressions to accompany such lines as, "Must you be...so hard on Winston, Randolph?" Almost every minor role--Pat Heywood as Winston's nanny Ian Holm as George Buckle, the Editor of the London Times, Anthony Hopkins as Lioyd George--is perfectly cast, although director Richard Attenborough has his actors occasionally read their lines as if they were already inscribed in history.

It is difficult to say what makes some mindless action films, like James Bond, enjoyable and other like Van Ryan's Express, a Wretched viewing experience, except perhaps a certain sense of style. This film has plenty of that, and enough other good point to keep Sir Winston peacefully at rest.

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