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Winston Churchill Revised

On a quick trip to Paris I managed to catch the opening showing of a new Churchill movie — a decidedly revisionist take on the great man:

All history is revision, of course, provided that the historian can adduce evidence that supports some kind of new understanding of an historical event or character. But what is there in the record to back up a depiction of Winston Churchill diminished? In this film he is presented as almost decrepit in the days prior to the the invasion of Normandy. He feels pushed to the margins by younger men more vigorous and sure of themselves (Eisenhower, Montgomery) and consequently holds deep doubt about the invasion itself and his own impact on and place in history. The lion that led England in 1940-41, as the nation fought alone against Germany, is by 1944, the film says, only a peripheral figure, even as he tries, somewhat vainly (in both senses of the adverb), to stay center stage among decisive leaders.

I’ve read most of the Churchill books, many of which refer to strategies that he proposed but that were refused by the other Allied leaders — invading Greece and other actions involving the “soft underbelly of Europe” — but Churchill is never described during the war years as a man well beyond his prime.

There will be debates among Winston’s admirers about this film.

Addendum: The WSJ’s reviewer, Lee Pollock, a trustee and adviser to the board of the International Churchill Society, was not impressed:

A less fortunate treatment is “Churchill,” opening this Friday and set in the four days before D-Day. The veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox is well-cast as Churchill but sabotaged by a historically absurd story line in which he pathologically opposes the Normandy landings, even ludicrously praying on his knees for a Shakespearean tempest to stop the whole undertaking. The real Churchill wasn’t much given to prayer, and he completely supported the enormously well-prepared Allied invasion.

Historical dramas always distort at the edges and add fictional characters—in Churchill films, usually a devoted nurse or secretary. But good films center on a core truth. Without that, “Churchill” collapses into a heap of comic-book characters, histrionically shouted insults unfound in the historical record, and slipshod errors. For instance, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower sports British medals. Particularly disappointing is watching Churchill spout wobbly phrases such as: “The most important thing in a war is for people to feel truly unified.” The film’s reported $10 million budget apparently lacked room to license the actual, glorious words of the real Winston.

“Churchill” is billed as the “untold fascinating true story of D-Day” but it includes so much distortion and fabrication that the historian Andrew Roberts called the film “a depiction with which Dr. Goebbels would have been delighted.”

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