by Sam Juliano
Despite its distinguished cast and reverent subject, Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston fared poorly at the box-office, while dividing the critics, and it quickly disappeared after a brief run in USA theatres. The film did win a most prestigious honor though, and that was the Best Picture prize from the London Film Critics Association. Decades later, the film’s reputation has risen, and is now seen for what it is: a superbly-acted, splendidly-mounted and poignant examination of the early years of Sir Winston Churchill, that is as enriching as it is inspiring.
Winston Churchill has been the subject of many television biographies, and has appeared as a minor character in numerous feature films, but Young Winston was the only theatrically released film where the iconic figure was the protagonist. Of course there have been several successful television series that have focused in on the twentieth century’s most famous single person, including Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years starring Robert Hardy and Sian Phillips and the 2002 British television drama The Gathering Storm starring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave. But a comprehensive portrait of the most-quoted of figures always seemed so prohibitive in scope that filmmakers always balked on pulling the trigger on such a project. However, noted producer Carl Foreman managed to secure right’s to Churchill’s own My Early Life and The World in Crisis, from which he crafted his own screenplay. Rumor has it that Churchill himself suggested that Foreman adapt his early books, as he was a big admirer of the producer’s 1961 film, The Guns of Navarone. As displaced in the onscreen credits, (I just re-viewed the Region 2 DVD I own in preparation for this review) interiors for this British-American co-production were shot at Shepperton Studios, London, with exteriors shot in London, at various locations throughout England, in Swansea, Wales and in the Atlas Mountains and other areas of Morocco, where the Indian, Sudanese and south American scenes were filmed. Cinematographer Gerry Turpin asserted that the film’s period hues and transient landscapes were shot with the Colorflex camera process that he developed to create layers of color and light. Voice-over narration recurs throughout the film, with central actor Simon Ward (who plays Churchill from ages 17 to 27) and other actors portraying Churchill’s voice at different ages, from early childhood through the time period when the books were written. At various intervals actual letters, news reports, portions of speeches or passages from My Early Life are recited, sometimes by Churchill at different ages, other times by his mother, the American Jennie Jerome Churchill (Anne Bancroft), his father, Lord Randolph Churchill (Robert Shaw), or other minor characters. A number of speeches, newspaper reports and letters are recreated, sometimes verbatim, from actual speeches, such as the “tattered flag” speech that was delivered before the House of Commons and other noted historical documents.
The action seems to stop at one point in the film when Bancroft is shown playing the piano in a drawing room where she as Jennie, is being questioned by an offscreen interviewer, presumably a reporter, who comments on recent and past events, raising pointed questions about her behavior. In that scene, Bancroft speaks in direct address, responding to Jennie critics, but some time later a similar scene shows Ward as the young adult Churchill being questioned by the same interviewer. Ward at first gives answers in direct address, then moves back, assuming a familiar Churchillian pose and delivers one of the future prime minister’s actual speeches. As he does so, Ward alters the cadence of his voice to more closely mimic that of the real Churchill. Some of the film’s action does not advance the plot Per se, but rather evokes characterizations and the historical era in which Churchill’s early life took place.For example, at one point Jennie visits a butcher (Colin Blakely) to seek the man’s vote for her husband, and the butcher’s reaction to a woman trying to influence him on politics, as well as his reaction to her beauty and charm, and establish her character in addition to the social life of the time.
Although some critics charged that the film idealized or glossed over various aspects of Churchill’s life, it briefly touches upon many actual incidents, including his imprisonment and escape during the Boer War, and his father’s resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer and eventual death from syphilis. Although much of Churchill’s international fame as a statesman and writer came years after the events of the film, there are allusions to some of them, including the beginning of his temporary break from the conservative (Tory) party in 1904, his stand against Fascism in the 1930’s, and the clips of what, arguably, was the highpoint of his political life, VE day in 1945. Shortly after VE Day, Churchill was ousted from office, but again became prime minister from 1951 to 1955.
The film opens with actual black-and-white newsreel footage of cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace in London on May 8, 1945, the aforementioned “VE Day,” which marked the end of European hostilities during World War II. The credits then roll over shots of Churchill’s study in his home, Chartwell, followed by still photographs and intermittant archival footage of events throughout his life. It should not at all be underestimated that the film’s score, composed and conducted by Alfred Ralston, sets the proper archival mode, with a lovely, nostalgic and inspirational title theme, one of the best of its kind ever written for a film. It it a fitting aural testament to the military heroism and political ascendency present in Churchill’s early years, and it is altogether stirring. Ralston also uses various pieces from Edward Elgar to wonderful effect throughout the film. From the point in the film at which Churchill reaches early adulthood, the action proceds in chronological order.
The last lines of dialogue are spoken in voice-over by Ward as an older Churchill are are apparently very close to the final words of My Early Life, (a book I read years ago, but can’t remember all of the specifics of) in which Churchill wrote of his future marriage to Clementine Hozier in 1908, approximately seven years after the action of the book and film ends: “and I lived happily ever afterward.” The final shots of the film return to historical footage of VE Day, in which the real Churchill is seen with King George V and Queen Elizabeth, waving to cheering crowds from the balcony at Buckingham Palace.
Simon Ward, whose profile has been favorably compared to the young Churchill, gives a well-rounded and appealing performance which lies at the film’s center, but he’s superbly complimented by Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft as Churchill’s parents, and a veritable English stock company of superstar actors that include Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Edward Woodward, Patrick Magee, William Dexter and John Mills, all of whom give distinguished portrayals.
As expected, the film was much more popular in its own country than the United States since Churchill was recognized as one of England’s greatest statesmen. Critic Felix Barker of the Evening News proclaimed it “An Even Greater Film Than Lawrence of Arabia,” adding, “In a production so full of subleties, I have only space to praise one aspect of Richard Attenborough’s brilliant unobtrusive direction. The man who displayed so much virtuosity in Oh! What a Lovely War is here content to paint his canvas with modest delicacy and a perfect sense of period.”
The critical response in the U.S. was as stated earlier in the review, mixed, but the favorable responses were most enthusiastic, even if the boxoffice receipts were not overly impressive. Richard Cuskelly of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote, “Director Richard Attenborough has recreated with great skill the final halcyon days of the British Empire – a time of rigid morality, ultra-conscientious self-discipline and unsurpassed elegance.”
Using admirable restraint, Attenborough wrings as much emotion out of his subject as he can without becoming sacharine or manipulative, but much of the credit much go to writer Foreman, whose writing here is economical and direct. Young Winston manages that rarest of feats: it doesn’t shame its subject.