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Film review: Churchill

Good’s contributing editor, Sarah Heeringa reviews Johnathon Teplitzky’s new film, Churchill

Words Sarah Heeringa

When in 1950 US journalist Virginia Cowles told Churchill that she was planning to write his biography, he replied ‘There’s nothing much in that field left unploughed.’

That was far from true even then, and­ when Churchill finally withdrew from British politics in 1964, after a political career spanning 60 years, he left behind rich territory that historians, biographers and filmmakers have traversed ever since.

On June 15 a new movie – Churchill – will be released, set in the first week of June 1944. It’s the final days before the launch Operation Overlord, the top-secret Allied plan to invade Normady and liberate Nazi-occupied France.

The campaign was months in the planning and was a high stakes gamble for all players. They were tense times. General Eisenhower is reported to have had high blood pressure and was living on a diet of coffee and four packs cigarettes a day. He was so unsure of the outcome that at one point he drafted a press release for use if the campaign failed.

Churchill had a long-standing vision of UK and American forces operating together against the common enemy, and in his role as British prime minister and minister of defense had played a pivotal role in the strategy and planning of this joint assault. On June 6 Churchill reported to the House of Commons; “So far the Commanders who are engaged report that everything is proceeding according to plan. And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred. It involves tides, wind, waves, visibility, both from the air and the sea standpoint, and the combined employment of land, air and sea forces in the highest degree of intimacy and in contact with conditions which could not and cannot be fully foreseen.”

The campaign would later be recognised as a turning point in World War II as well as a defining moment that confirmed the heroic reputation of both men.

What was Churchill’s state of mind at this crucial time? Given his famously complex character – alternately moody, brilliantly witty and insightful, sensitive, gruff, depressive, sartorial – the question provides great subject matter for a movie.

The movie has some nicely made moments; Miranda Richardson is reliably fabulous, Brian Cox really looks the part and delivers a great speech.

Unfortunately, despite being written by a historian, Alex von Tunzelmann, the movie has numerous historical inaccuracies, including the central idea that Churchill was against the invasion and actively campaigning against it.

Churchill wanted to accompany the invasion forces on D-Day itself, and had to be dissuaded by the King. That much is conveyed in the movie, if handled a little sentimentally. But other exchanges between Churchill and key players either don’t square with known historical records or are scripted in such a painfully modern way as to not ring true. Eisenhower shouts and swears at Churchill, his wife Clementine slaps his face and his generals eye roll and override him behind his back. A ridiculous young secretary sub-plot adds another unlikely and overly-sentimental twist.

Out in the field, a seemingly woefully budget for extras has the general Montgomery addressing the smallest contingent of troops on the eve of battle.

Highlighting many of the movie’s errors when compared with the historical archives, British historian and journalist Andrew Roberts calls it by far the worst war film he’d ever seen and a “perverse fantasy which deserves to be a flop.”

So why watch this movie?

As war movies go, it’s a pretty bit of eye candy. Times were tough but looking back now with retro tinted glasses, it’s hard not to love the 1940s style. Classics such as trench coats, bomber jackets, knit undershirts, pea coats, chino pants, and aviator glasses all have their origin in WWII military clothing. Look out for languid cigar smoke curls and period details such as cufflinks in starched white shirts, clinking cut glass whiskey decanters and those nifty little brass hooks used to pull up shoe zips.

Churchill for his part was famously dapper, typically getting about in three-piece Savile Row suits and a Homburg hat (one of his large hat collection).

The Siren Suit was another signature look – a kind of bunker onesie it was basically an oversized woolen, belted number designed to be pulled on quickly over other clothes before heading into the air raid shelter. Churchill had a number made up in a range of fabrics including one in dashing velvet that included a cigar pocket. Unfortunately Churchill’s wardrobe budget didn’t stretch this far and has Churchill kitted out in a plainer variety.

History matters and watching Churchill leaves me wanting to know more. See the movie – then read a few books and decide for yourself. I’m starting with these two:

Gretchen Rubin’s Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill

Sonia Purnell’s First Lady: the Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

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