April 7, 2013

Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012

Page 46

Film – Toils of  Youth: Looking Back at Young Winston

By Jared Feldschreiber

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Mr. Feldschreiber is a journalist and writer specializing in ambassadors, officials and dissidents. He saw the film as part of this past summer’s Morgan Library & Museum exhibition “Churchill: The Power of Words,” (FH 155:36).

The death of Simon Ward (Datelines, page 7), who played its title role, is an appropriate time for a retrospective look at the film version of My Early Life. Young Winston depicts a wide-eyed, perhaps insecure Churchill in the toils of youth, with no hints of future glory. In fact, some might see him as a troublesome youth who desperately and vainly seeks his father’s acceptance.

“Politics? How do I get there?,” wonders Lieutenant Churchill, fighting in Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. Amid the whine of bullets, Ward’s voiceover suggests a youth seeking not heroic deeds but acts that will lead to political advancement. Based on Churchill’s autobiography (with considerable license from then-popular myths) the film shows him as a precocious schoolboy, a soldier, a war correspondent, and a Member of Parliament at age 26.

Ward’s Churchill is “considerably discouraged by my school days.” Born to aristocracy, but neglected by his father (played by Robert Shaw) and at times an indifferent mother (Anne Bancroft), his education was not to his liking. In his first school he suffers physical and psychological abuse by a tyrannical head master (Robert Hardy, later himself a masterful Churchill in The Wilderness Years). At Harrow, his formidable public school, he is repelled by rote learning of the classics, but this discipline later leads him to his own self-education, as Cambridge historian Alan Watson wrote, “drawing the strength out of these books [he read].”

Winston’s father routinely badgers him, believing him ill-suited for politics and, really, most other things. But Churchill loves his father dearly, hoping always to earn his approval. His vulnerability is portrayed strikingly by Simon Ward. Their relationship is strained and a bit Freudian, in that Winston is denied approval and love. Ultimately, he is devastated watching his father’s deterioration and death at 46. (The film regurgitates the canard, long since disproved, that Lord Randolph died of syphilis.) In one moving scene, Winston watches his idol, the onetime Leader of the House of Commons, unable to finish a speech, being helped away by a colleague. Winston becomes convinced that he too will die young—a factor that motivates him. “He always wanted to be where the action was,” his grand- daughter Celia Sandys said.

The filmic style of Young Winston is often non-linear, centering on the dozen-odd years between schooldays, adventures as soldier and war correspondent, and early years in Parliament. In the beginning we see a solitary boy lost within a large estate, then sent to schools which greet him with a continuum of disapproval (historically overemphasized; some of his teachers, and Harrow Head Master Welldon, had high hopes for him).

On two occasions the film stages a running dialogue between an unseen reporter and Lady Randolph, and with her son. In almost BBC-style, the reporter talks with Jennie after Randolph’s death. When she states her adoration of the father and son the reporter scoffs, focusing on what he sees as her apathy to both, leaving her shocked and angry. This scene is based too heavily on popular notions rather than facts; Jennie’s own diaries and letters revealed her grief over her husband, and her deep interest in her two sons, even as boys.

The unseen reporter later talks to young Winston about his political ambitions, after years of war reporting. “I did kill, and people shot at me,” Churchill recalls. The interview shifts to pointed questions about his troubled
upbringing. Speaking in his father’s magnificent study, Churchill stresses the importance of young people in government. The reporter, obviously doubtful, asks: “You were not so well acquainted with your father?” Winston manfully defends himself—and Lord Randolph.

A sequel in English versions of the film is a scene from Churchill’s 1947 short-story The Dream, in which he meets the ghost of his father—who still fails to learn what he has accomplished.

If the film meant to emphasize the need for youth in government, it makes its point with Churchill as its model. “Politics was his profession, writing was his passion,” wrote Peter Clarke.

Despite its wandering at times from the facts, “Young Winston” is a pleasure to watch, because of the acting by Ward, Shaw, Bancroft and Hardy; and Anthony Hopkins as Lloyd George, the Liberal lion, Parliamentary luminary and notorious lecher. “He has the most disconcerting way of looking at women,” Bancroft remarks.

The film also fascinates because we know of Churchill’s destiny. We find ourselves scouring Ward for insights into his character, searching for the Churchill we know from his greatest years, urging him on as he struggles through a difficult adolescence. (Reminding us of glories to come, Attenborough inserts newsreel footage of his finest hours.)

Ultimately, Young Winston is an adventure story, of a brash and mischievous, privileged boy, possessed of remarkable gifts, overcoming many challenges. More than a film on the travails of youth, it shows us how Sir Winston Churchill emerged as a man—and always in a hurry. A Boer War compatriot asks at the end: “Winston, don’t you ever relax?” “I can’t!,” he replies, “I’m almost 25!”

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