June 5, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 44

Books, Arts & Curiosities – True Persona: Two Works of Genius

By Richard M. Langworth

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Here is a TV docudrama packing exceptional honesty. An old man, at an age when most retire (or in his time die), is handed command of his nation, when no one else wants it, in the greatest crisis of her history. They fight alone, save for their kith and kin, “the old lion and her lion cubs,” as he put it, “against hunters who are armed with deadly weapons.” And they win— only to see the old man dismissed in the moment of victory.

The opening scene is Hendaye, France, July 1945, where Churchill, his wife and daughter Mary spend a week’s break between polling-day in the British General Election and the start of the Potsdam Conference (see FH 128:45). Anxious for election returns (delayed for a fortnight to count the service vote) Churchill relives the past five years in a series of flashbacks.

This is the film’s one jarring element: the back-and-forth occurs without obvious transition, and you have to remind yourself whether you are in the past or present. But overall, the story is massive, the action real, the history honest, the dialogue convincing, the scenes artful, the acting superb.

Brendan Gleeson is the best Churchill since Robert Hardy. He falls into none of the usual traps. Most impersonators overdo the accent or the famous lisp, the V-sign or siren suits, the caricatures painted by Lord Moran or Alanbrooke. Gleeson was praised by Lady Soames, the sternest of critics.

Hugh Whitemore, who also wrote the script for the preceding film “The Gathering Storm” (FH 115:32), helps by not loading the dialogue with soaring rhetoric. “Papa spoke in private,” his daughter says, “much as he did in public.” And here is the private Churchill, with doubts about winning, fears of the future, and faults of his own—for he was as human as anyone, freely admitted it, and often apologized for it, especially to his wife.

Several quotes are taken out of time or context, but Whitemore blends them flawlessly into the story, and the student of Churchill’s words doesn’t mind. Several scenes—like the “naked encounter” with Roosevelt—didn’t happen that way, but are so seamlessly integrated and well acted as to make them acceptable. Churchill’s habits, like the siesta which enabled him to work into the wee hours, are deftly conveyed. History is not bent for the sake of drama. Only extreme pedants can object to the film’s artistic license.

Janet McTeer is no Vanessa Redgrave, the archetypal Clementine in “The Gathering Storm,” falling short of the character described by her daughter and biographer. Though she gives Winston good advice, she seems more a neurotic scold than a pillar of strength. It doesn’t matter because Gleeson, “throws himself into the character and completely owns him,” as Daniel Carlson writes, “from the nonstop cigars to the famous cadence of his speeches. Gleeson is believably tough but doesn’t make Churchill a warmonger or bully; if anything, he’s burdened by the thought of the boys he has sent to die.”

Carlson has his finger on the film’s greatest quality: its sensitivity to WSC’s true persona. Resisting opportunities for ignorant political posturing—the leveling of German cities, for example—Scott and Whitemore always have Churchill saying what he truly believed—culled in this case from My Early Life: “War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid.”

“Into the Storm” packs less depth than “The Gathering Storm”—like the persecution of Ralph Wigram for sending WSC secret reports on German rearmament. But too much is happening for sidebars. This is World War II, remember: the French debacle, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, Pearl Harbor, Singapore, the fraught meetings with Roosevelt (Len Cariou) and Stalin (Alexy Patrenko), the all-or-nothing assault on Fortress Europe. Leadership is the plot, sub-plot and sidebar.

Some Churchillians have asked why Ridley Scott couldn’t have stopped at Pearl Harbor and done a third film later; why there couldn’t be multiple parts; why it wasn’t a Churchill version of “Lord of the Rings.” The best editor I ever worked for said: “A bore is someone who tells everything.” And we are not film-makers. We have no idea what constraints Scott labored under. We do know that he had ninety minutes. And what he does in that time to portray the true Churchill is a work of genius.

The enduring impression of “Into the Storm” is of an old man, realizing after the most heroic chapter in his country’s history that history itself has passed him by, “the palmy days of Queen Victoria and a settled world order,” as he put it in 1947, gone forever. The war is won, the country lost in a Socialist dream. Hardly, alas, unfamiliar: a signal message in 2009.

A lot of us who grew up in Churchill’s time feel the way Churchill does at the end of this film, as he reads a sympathetic post-election note from his old friend Jack Seely: “I feel our world slipping away.”

Churchill thinks back: “I met him in South Africa, riding across the veldt. He was Col. Seely then. I saw him at the head of a column of British cavalry, riding twenty yards in front, on a black horse. I thought of him as the epitome of Imperial power.”

Watching this film, I had the sensation that it was well Britain chose World War II for what John Charmley called “The End of Glory.” A great country, focused one last time by a leader steeped in history and language, held the fort “till those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready.” Better to go out in a flash of light than face the long decline that seems now to attend another superpower. “The proud American will go down into his slavery without a fight,” Pravda (astonishingly) declared recently, “beating his chest and proclaiming to the world how free he really is.” That will take years. For Britain the End of Glory came in months.

“Yes, I’ve worked very hard and achieved a great deal,” Churchill reflected at the end of his long life, “only to achieve nothing in the end.” A life that rose to the heights of fame, the honors of the world showered upon him—for what? “I feel,” he said, “like an aeroplane at the end of its flight, in the dusk, with the petrol running out, in search of a safe landing.”

Not only he.

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