Magazine article The Spectator

Churchill on Film

Magazine article The Spectator

Churchill on Film

Article excerpt

Andrew Roberts on the challenges of playing Churchill

Gary Oldman has joined a long list of actors who have portrayed Winston Churchill -- no fewer than 35 of them in movies and 28 on television. He is one of the best three. 'I knew I didn't look like him,' Oldman has said. 'I thought that with some work I could approximate the voice. The challenge in part was the physicality, because you're playing someone whose silhouette is so iconic.'

We all have our own mind's-eye view of what Churchill should look and sound like, and his personality was so strong and sui generis that it is almost impossible for an actor to impose himself on the role. He is therefore almost always left with either mere impersonation or caricature. Oldman avoided this in Darkest Hour through research. 'I went to the newsreel,' he says, 'and what I discovered was a man who had this very athletic tread. He would skip around at 65 like a 30-year-old, he had a sparkle, the eyes were alive, he had a very sort of cherubic grin.'

This is an insight that a number of actors who play Churchill -- who came to power in 1940 aged 65 -- have missed, and who thus play him as a man in late middle age. Sir Jock Colville, Churchill's wartime private secretary, who was 41 years younger than him, wrote of how exhausting it was to keep up with the Prime Minister as he bounded up staircases, climbed bombsites and marched quickly down corridors. Oldman catches this. Others have played what Oldman calls 'this sort of rather depressed grumpy man with a cigar', but he wanted to 'give him a bit of a twinkle in the eye'.

Churchill was depicted on the silver screen half a decade before he even became prime minister. The first time was in Royal Cavalcade (1935), when he was played neutrally in the movie made to celebrate King George V's silver jubilee. The next was in Goebbels's propaganda film Ohm Krüger (1941), about the British invention of concentration camps in the Boer War, where he of course is evil personified. Scarcely less believable were the four Soviet propaganda movies of the late 1940s -- that is, after Churchill's Iron Curtain speech that denounced Stalinism -- in which Viktor Stanitsyn played Churchill as a scheming, grasping imperialist. There was an American movie, Mission to Moscow (1943), made at President Roosevelt's request, which was naturally far kinder, but not really any more useful as an insight into Churchill.

After two movies in which Churchill appeared in cameo roles, played by Patrick Wymark and Jimmy Sangster, Simon Ward played the eponymous Young Winston in the 1972 film based on Churchill's autobiography My Early Life. Written and produced by the genius Carl Foreman (High Noon, Guns of Navarone) and directed by Richard Attenborough, it was sublime. (I saw it recently yet again on the big screen, and it still is.) Ward captured Churchill's courage and adventurousness, but also his occasional youthful bumptiousness.

Although Warren Clarke played a creditable Churchill in the seven-part TV series Jennie (1974) -- in which Ronald Pickup, who is a convincing Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour, played Lord Randolph Churchill, -- the next series overshadowed it. Richard Burton was perhaps too handsome to play Churchill in the The Gathering Storm (1974), but the script was historically accurate, whereas his off-camera remarks about despising Churchill for what he had supposedly done to the Welsh miners were not. …

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