Young Winston is an old-fashioned biopic. If such a movie were to be made today it would be a hatchet job. Larger-than-life heroes like Churchill are out of fashion. Richard Attenborough is quite content simply to present us with what is largely Churchill’s own version of his early life, and let us make up our own minds. We see Churchill’s flaws - his excessive ambition, his political ruthlessness, his glory-seeking. And we see his strengths - his conviction of his own destiny, his courage, his determination to succeed. Attenborough doesn’t try to tell us what we should think of Churchill. Whether that is a plus or a minus depends on your point of view.
Even in 1972 when it was released this was an old-fashioned movie, quite different from a movie like Patton. And at the time this was seen as a weakness. Today, to audiences grown tired of being bludgeoned by message pictures, it seems more like a virtue.
Churchill’s early life was so colourful that it would have been difficultif not impossible to make this a dull film. The young Churchill saw action on the Northwest Frontier of India with the Malakand Field Force, he saw further service in the Sudan under Lord Kitchener (where he participated in the charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898) and then went to South Africa as a war correspondent, covering the Boer War for the Morning Post.
In South Africa he found fame. He was always anxious to be where the action was, not from an excess of courage so much as from a desperate need for material. Although born into the aristocracy (he was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and a direct descendant of England’s greatest general, the 1st Duke of Marlborough) Churchill had to support himself from his writing. He managed to be on the scene when a British armoured train was ambushed, was captured and then escaped. His adventures became front page news.
The movie gives us plenty of spectacular action sequences but it is just as interested in its hero’s early attempts to forge a political career. Churchill’s father had been a prominent Tory Cabinet Minister but managed to destroy his own career. Young Winston was determined not to make the same mistake.
For Churchill war was a means of gaining fame, a springboard to political success. He was always quite open about this. His father Lord Randolph had alienated himself from his colleagues and being his son was more of handicap than an advantage to an aspiring politician, and his mother had managed to lose most of the family’s money. The young Churchill needed to make a name for himself, and he set about doing so.
The movie possibly puts too much emphasis on Winston’s relationships with his parents although this does give Robert Shaw as Lord Randolph and Anne Bancroft as Lord Randolph’s beautiful American wife Jennie the opportunity to give bravura performances.
The supporting cast is a roll call of British acting talent, with Sir John Mills, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Magee and Edward Woodward all enjoying themselves enormously. The most remarkable thing about the movie though is Simon Ward’s performance in the title role. He looks like Churchill, he sounds like Churchill, he captures the Churchillian gift for theatricality and most of all he captures Churchill’s sense of destiny. He is so good in this role that he did a great deal of harm to his career, so identified did he become with this one role. But he really is superb. His speech in the House of Commons at the end of the movie is spell-binding.
Director Richard Attenborough is quite comfortable handling the grand action sequences, and he certainly had a gift for getting performances from actors. Critics then and since have felt that he failed to penetrate beneath the surface of the grandiose Churchillian façade. Perhaps he did, but at least he resisted the temptation to try to tear down a hero merely because he was a hero.
Whatever shortcomings this film has it has to be said that it is enormously entertaining and visually magnificent. And it’s certainly worth seeing just for Simon Ward’s uncanny performance. Recommended.
The Region 2 DVD looks terrific and includes interviews with Simon Ward and Richard Attenborough as extras.