Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”
Two Films Due in 2017 Keep Churchill’s Story Alive
Brian Cox and Gary Oldman Will Each Play WSC
Winston Churchill is on a role, or, more correctly perhaps, he is THE role. Although he still has a long way to go to catch up with Abraham Lincoln, Churchill has become a continuously popular figure from history to depict in film drama. In 2016 The Crown scored a huge hit for Netflix, with American actor John Lithgow playing Churchill at the end of his active political career. This year Brian Cox and Gary Oldman will both be seen in theatrical releases depicting the wartime prime minister.
On the last day of October, 1925 HRH Prince Albert, Duke of York, twenty-nine years old and second son of King George V, made his first broadcast speech. The occasion was the closing ceremony of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. The Duke spoke into a microphone before a crowd of 100,000, but what often happened in private now happened in public: his words came haltingly, and he was acutely embarrassed. One man listening to the crowd that day, a speech therapist recently arrived from Australia, remarked, “He’s too old for me to manage a complete cure, but I could very nearly do it.”
One year later Lionel Logue had his chance. With the Duke and Duchess of York scheduled to make a Royal Tour of Australia, the need to improve the Duke’s speaking became pressing. Help had been sought before, never with success, but the Duke agreed to see Logue, a man with no medical training but strongly recommended.
The Duke and Logue hit it off from the start, and HRH left their very first meeting brimming with confidence. After two months of treatment, significant improvement in the Duke’s speech became evident and the Australian tour was a fine success.
For his part King George V was delighted. Although the King had verbally abused his children when they were young, he admired the adult “Bertie,” who rapidly became his favored son and preferred successor. But primogeniture was not to be questioned in those days, and so arose the 1936 Abdication Crisis.
Once Edward VIII had abdicated and the Duke of York had become King George VI, the new monarch’s was preoccupied by his coming performance during the Coronation and-even more daunting-the Empire-wide broadcast he must give later that day. Logue was called upon to assist, and success was again achieved.
Logue was habitually brought in to prepare the King for big speeches until the end of the Second World War. When the time came for his 1945 Christmas Day broadcast, however, George VI felt confident enough to manage on his own. Far from feeling discarded, Logue enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing his work was complete. “You know, Ma’am,” he said to Queen Elizabeth, “I feel like a father who is sending his boy to his first public school.” The Queen patted his arm and replied, “I know just how you feel.”
This compelling story is now dramatized in “The King’s Speech,” by screenwriter David Seidler, a Londoner whose own a childhood stammer led him to see George VI as a hero. In fine Shakespearean fashion, Seidler telescopes events and takes great liberties with the facts in order to tell a dramatic story in a reasonable amount of time. Most of the film centers upon the Abdication Crisis.
At the start George V is shown hectoring the fully-grown Bertie about being tongue-tied, causing the Duke to turn to Logue ten years later than he actually did. Significantly, as Andrew Roberts noted, Bertie’s stutter was never debilitating: “In fact it was relatively mild, and when he was concentrating hard on what he was saying it disappeared altogether.”
Roberts also noted that his brother never taunted Bertie for his stutter, or accuse him of wanting to usurp his throne….the ludicrous old lies about Joachim von Ribbentrop sending Wallis Windsor 17 red roses every day, and her working as a geisha in Shanghai, are trotted out to blacken her character and make the Yorks look better. Nor were the Duke and Duchess so pampered by courtiers that they could hardly work out how an elevator door worked.”
Additionally, the film fabricates a story about the Duke having to be “tricked” into trusting Logue, says that Logue was represented as a doctor, and that he used the Duke’s Christian name. And far from working in a ramshackle office as in the film, Logue had a smart set of rooms in Harley Street.
The film does faithfully depict Logue working with the new King in preparation for the Coronation, but omits the broadcast that followed. Instead the action fast-forwards to the start of the war, when George VI had to deliver another major broadcast to the Empire and called upon the faithful Logue for assistance, representing how the King prepared for all his broadcasts until the end of the war and the film’s climax.
“The Gathering Storm,” a film for television produced by BBC Films and HBO Inc., starring Albert Finney as Winston Churchill and Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine, first aired April 2002, 90 minutes.
Churchill films seldom engender unanimity, but everyone who watched the preview, by kind invitation of the British Consul in Boston, had the same reaction to “The Gathering Storm”: astonishment at just how good it was. Even in a cynical and anti-hero age, filmmakers still can recreate what Lady Soames calls “The Saga” without reducing the Churchill to a flawed burlesque or a godlike caricature. With the exception of one huge gap in the story line, “The Gathering Storm” is a masterpiece. Unexpectedly in the male-dominated world of the 1930s, but perhaps intentionally in 2002, the two greatest supporting roles are female. Clementine Churchill is one of these. Badly misplayed by Sean Phillips in the “Wilderness Years” documentary two decades ago (FH 38), Clemmie gets justice here at the hands of Vanessa Redgrave.
Redgrave not only looks the part–Winston Churchill, who should know, tells me the resemblance is uncanny. But scriptwriter Hugh Whitemore has also provided her with exactly the right lines as she cajoles, scolds, wheedles and encourages her husband. “I often put myself in Clemmie’s shoes,” wrote Diana Duff Cooper, “and as often felt how they pinched and rubbed till I kicked them off, heroic soles and all, and begged my husband to rest and be careful. Fortunately, Clemmie was a mortal of another clay.” (FH 83:13).
Equally compelling is Ava (Lena Headey), the beautiful wife of Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache) a Foreign Office official who, as Martin Gilbert revealed in the official biography, risked his career to bring Churchill secret documents on Germany’s rearmament. Devotedly Ava bears her husband’s strain, their deep concern for their young, autistic son, and the worst that politics can throw at her.
Angered by Wigram’s aid to Churchill, a government toady named Pettifer (in fact it was Board of Trade President Walter Runciman) visits Ava with a threat: If her husband doesn’t stop helping Churchill he will be transferred abroad, leaving Ava and the boy alone in London. She promptly tells him to do his worst and throws him out.
This is an overdue tribute to a little-known heroine. Ava Bodley married Ralph Wigram in 1925. After Ralph’s death from polio in 1936 she wrote to WSC: “He adored you so & always said you were the greatest Englishman alive.” In 1941 she married John Anderson, later Viscount Waverly, Home Secretary and later Chancellor of the Exchequer in Churchill’s wartime government, for whom the Anderson Shelter was named. Churchill loved Ava all his life. When Anderson died in 1958, Gilbert reports, Churchill telephoned her from Chartwell: “After commiserating with her on Lord Waverly’s death he was silent for a while, then said to her with what sounded like tears in his voice, For Ralph Wigram grieve.”
Albert Finney, who plays Winston, is ten or fifteen years too old and looks more like WSC’s nephew Peregrine. But his mannerisms and pale blue eyes are right, and he grows on you, despite unnecessary toilet scenes and red velvet siren suits worn round the clock. Finney overplays the role–every Churchill impersonator does, except the inimitable Robert Hardy. But he is all right. Again Whitemore’s script comes through: here and there is a snatch of words Churchill spoke in later or different contexts (e.g., a 1939 broadcast to America, recast as a Commons speech in 1936). But the flow is so seamless that only the determined critic will notice.
The rest of the casting is good–not perhaps as physically exact as in “The Wilderness Years,” but convincing and finely directed by Richard Loncraine. Sarah Churchill should have had a flame red wig to hide that mousy hair, and Brendan Bracken also starts too dark-haired, though his mop reddens as the crisis mounts! Randolph is too young and silly; Nigel Havers was a better Randolph in the 1982 version. Derek Jacobi makes a lifelike Stanley Baldwin. Sir Robert Vansittart (Tom Wilkinson) is the uneasy Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, balancing loyalty to his government with fear for his country, saying of Churchill, “he demands total loyalty,” and implying that it’s worth it. Read More >
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Churchill was delighted when a little girl surprised him with flowers one day in Italy. Gratefully moving his cane aside, he gave her a kiss on the cheek. Missing his own family, and beset with troubles, he truly loved this moment. I guess we’ll never know the little chap behind the bouquet. … See MoreSee Less
The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.