“Someone had to speak on behalf of the ordinary fighting men.”
Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Written by: Alex von Tunzelmann
Cast: Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery
Swift shot: They’ve called him the Greatest Briton who ever lived, they’ve called him many other things, to be sure, but one thing they would never call him is a coward. Through Alex von Tunzelmann’s screenplay, Churchill unveils the hesitation that Winston had about Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Normandy, France. The story unfolds as a masterful reminder that the most powerful person can be ironically, wholly powerless. It is a tragedy about a man coming to terms with his new role in a rapidly changing world, while he watches the youth step in and pat him on the head and basically say, it’s ok, old sport, we’ve got it now.
Winston Churchill (Cox) has been appointed the British Minister of War and had served as the stalwart voice of resolute defiance to Hitler’s merciless London bombings by the powerful German Luftwaffe. But Churchill is a flawed man, he’s haunted by the greatest failure of his life and is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the last war. His many critics feel that perhaps the new battlefield is just too advanced for his understanding, but by God, at least he is the one voice in the room that wears the black hat – someone with balls and prestige who is needed to stand up to American General Eisenhower (Slattery). At least that is how Winston sees things.
Churchill is flanked by two very important characters in his life, his military steward Smuts (Richard Durden) and his wife Clementine (Richardson). They serve as sounding boards for Winston, to remind him what his role is and what it isn’t now that the Allied Commander has taken over his theater of operations. Smuts seems to sate Winston’s adversaries by convincing them to placate his whims. Clementine keeps him squarely grounded in reality as he deals with running a war while fighting severe PTSD as he self-medicates with heavy doses of liquor.
Despite his understandable shortcomings, Churchill is never a weak character. Even when he shows weakness, we never see a broken man, rather a man struggling. All men struggle. That is the core of what Churchill is, a film not about an invasion and not about a nation at war, but a man at war with himself.
There isn’t any action to speak of in Churchill. We don’t see grand images of an invading force, and that’s fine, because there have been many spectacular films that remind us about the horrors of war and what is necessary to keep civilization intact. Rather we are shown a behind the scenes dramatization of how Churchill tried to persuade his King and Ike to rethink their plans to drive right into the teeth of the enemy.
Cox dignifies Churchill as a man torn between his duty to his country, his king, his wife, and himself. You may not be excited by Churchill, but after seeing the film, you should be driven to learn more about the man. As a history major and World War II buff, this is certainly a wonderful complement to the many excellent historical dramas I have encountered about the defining years of Western Civilization.
And, I spoke to Director Teplitzky and Screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann about Churchill and that desire to inspire more people to explore Winston Churchill, the man, not the myth.
I asked Teplitzky why he had a desire to direct Churchill.
The thing that attracted him to it was the ability to tell a very intimate and personal story about an iconic historical figure. Everyone thinks they know Churchill, and in many ways they do, but according to Teplitzky so much of what we’ve heard and what we discover about Churchill in school and all the rest of it, the mythological character, the iconic character, the great leader is essentially known. But what Alex von Tunzelmann did with her screenplay was to come at it in a much more behind the scenes and much more personal intimate story.
There was an opportunity to really delve into his personal life with himself and his wife. As Teplitzky stated it, “You always find that with these particular characters, there’s a very worn path with a lot of books written, TV shows, and films and so there’s a lot out there about it but to come at it this way I thought was a really interesting thing.”
Further, he thought a film about Churchill, especially about the lead up to D-Day and the momentous historical decisions about the last hundred years was itself fascinating, but he wanted to do it in a way that gave a ringside seat with this man and a window into what he was feeling, the darkness in his soul that he was dealing with, the difficulties politically that he was going through. He thought this was a fascinating way of capturing the essence of who Churchill, the man, was.
Ultimately, Jonathan said the film is a sort of metaphor for growing old. What happens to Churchill in an albeit very heightened way, happens to everyone. You get old, young people take over, running the world or your world, your powers and influence wanes and the world around you changes.
The main message that Teplitzky wanted to convey is that Winston Churchill had to struggle with the concept of his relevance. What was his new role? What was his place to not only lead Britain to the end of the war, but also as an individual, as a human being. He wanted to give us a portrait of a man versus the mythological character, that he felt, was really interesting.
When I asked him what it was like working with a man the Queen had bestowed the title of Commander of the British Empire upon, Teplitzky mentioned that it was a privilege to be in the presence of an actor who completely transforms himself into a character. And, I have heard that said about many an actor in many a film, but I agree with Teplitzky, Brian Cox truly did transform in mind, body, and spirit into Churchill. In one scene in particular he confronts the King and my God, that scene alone is worth your time and money.
I was elated to learn that the screenwriter, Alex von Tunzelmann was a big time historian too, and actually writes a column for The Guardian called “Reel History.” When I learned that, I had to ask her if she’d heard of the Alan Alda film, Sweet Liberty. We got into a brief discussion about that, and I earnestly hope she seeks it out after our little chat. That led to my question for her about historical accuracy.
I wondered if she had to take a stand at any point during the filming process to make sure things were historically sound. She joked, “Where they were like, ‘Can we just have Churchill punch Hitler in the face?’ and we were like no no you can’t do that!”
She went on to say there is a lot of pressure, because it is a complex thing, and she was so glad that she’s worked on “Reel History” for such a long time, because she’s aware of the kind of pressures that you come under. She said you sort of start out as a historian thinking why don’t they get things right? So it was important to her to get things right, but when she started in on the process she started thinking . . . my God how does anybody get these things right.
But she came into the project already having read a lot of Churchill biographies and having a lot of familiarity with him as a man, as a writer, and as a political figure. And, she wasn’t starting cold, because there’s so much written about him and so much written by him, that she knew which aspects about him interested her.
As she put it, “The thing is when you sign on to do a movie you’re trying to make real life fit into a three act structure, and it doesn’t and so there can be a certain amount that you have to do and so many historical films amalgamate characters and speed up timelines and take liberties with things like that, and I think that I was okay with doing some of that, because there is already a precedent set with doing that.”
She felt the crux of the movie really was true to his experience in 1944, was just to the point where the allies and Britain were beginning to win the war. Churchill was beginning to lose and his powers were beginning to wane, and she found that a poignant moment that fighting a war even as a politician not as a combatant can really take a lot out of you, and she felt that was kind of a fascinating moment to look at and she really wanted to put that front and center and really focus on that.
And according to the historian, there’s actually a lot of stuff in the film that did actually happen. There’s a lot of stuff based on real incidents, but she also mentioned you have to be true to the story, making a feature film, not a documentary and that’s the sort of decisions that have to get made.
Teplitzky added, “I think what Alex is saying about really capturing the essence is really the point, you know you’re doing a real-life historical drama, I did one before about a real life person in The Railway Man, so you have to respect the people of the times, the events, but I think you need to sometimes dramatize things, you know sometimes amalgamate characters into one and all those kind of things to keep the clarity of the story, otherwise the essence won’t come across.
You could be a stickler for the details being literal but you don’t always have the time to make it accessible to the audience. A good example within our film, it’s true that Churchill wanted to lead the men across the channel and all on the beaches and tried to persuade the King to do it who then subsequently talked him out of it. We dramatize, that originally was a letter, but Alex based that dramatizing on the letter and the truthfulness of it, of the situation.”
Alex continued, “With historical movies drama creates a real buzz and interest in the subject. For example when The Tutors came out on TV in the UK, a great series with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, super fun, pretty historically accurate and inaccurate in some ways, but enormously entertaining. After that, sales of books about the Tutors rose, so people found out more about the real story and there are certainly no shortage of books to read about Churchill.”
Jonathan interjected that in this period of time, in the months leading up to D-Day and just after D-Day, the one person who became the authority on it was Churchill himself, because he was one of the few world leaders who actually chronicled those times in detail. Granted, Alex reminded us he wrote pretty self-serving versions.
Jonathan concluded with a sentiment I have been trying to get across to my non-history nerd friends for years, “History is not science. History is something that is about points of view to become a self-serving agenda driven point of view where they act like there’s facts behind it but there actually isn’t.” He concluded that his film, along with many other films, in terms of coming at things with differing points of view, presents a kind of truthfulness and gives an audience access to make up their own decisions about things and events.
As time was wrapping up I asked Alex what lessons she learned working on her first feature film.
She had to be succinct, but she said it best and Jonathan agreed, “Making a film is super hard, and it’s really important to work with great people!”
It was an interesting conversation with two bright people who helped bring about a fresh perspective on the Greatest Briton of All Time.