Monday, 29 January 2018

Churchill Overkill


With Gary Oldman tipped for the Oscar this year for his performance in Darkest Hour, many have proclaimed him to be the definitive Churchill. But, well I don't know about you, but don't you think we've had enough biopics about Winston Churchill now?

We've had Albert Finney in 2002's The Gathering Storm, and Brendan Gleeson in 2009's Into The Storm. We've had Michael Gambon in 2016's Churchill's Secret and Brian Cox in last year's Churchill. We've had Timothy Spall appear as Churchill in The King's Speech from 2010 and John Lithgow as Churchill in Netflix's acclaimed drama series The Crown. We've even had both Andy Nyman and Richard McCabe play him in Peaky Blinders. And all of these are just those of note made in the last 15 years or so, there's plenty more, and (perhaps asides from Peaky Blinders which shows him to be a ruthless horse trader) all of them say the same thing: that Churchill was The Greatest Briton Who Ever Lived™.

Now far be it from me to say that Churchill wasn't a remarkable man who helped obliterate Hitler's dream of a thousand year Reich, but I've always believed that this canonisation of Churchill to be deeply worrying. To my mind, Churchill was simply the right man for the job at the time. In short; he was a wartime prime minister, terrible in peace time. None of these biopics ever explore any other aspect of Churchill's life, character or political career and it's immensely frustrating because they're choosing to ignore a lot of things that need addressing about the man.

Churchill was not a saint and many would struggle to view him heroically. This is a man who said "I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion". In 1943 4 millions Bengalis died from a famine he later claimed was their own fault because they "bred like rabbits". 

A year later in 1944 he ordered the British army to open fire on protesters on the streets of Athens, killing 28 civilians and injuring 120. These Greeks were partisans who fought with the British against the Nazis and the reason Churchill turned on them was because he feared their communist tendencies. He supported the right wing Greek government and wanted to see the monarchy restored. He employed former RUC commander Charles Wickham to train Greece's security forces. His actions helped shape the far right movement that continues in Greece to this day. 

His actions in India and Greece were not uncharacteristic either, there's several countries blighted by Churchill's less than saintly character: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kenya, and South Africa, the latter with its disgusting British run concentration camps and which Churchill argued that black people should be exempted from voting. He was a keen proponent of chemical warfare against Kurds and Afghans, believed in the superiority of white people, and also advocated sterilisation and labour camps for 'degenerate Britons'. Perhaps he considered the striking miners of Tonypandy as degenerates when he sent the troops in to the area  to maintain order in 1910? A decision he made again in Liverpool just a year later - this time the soldiers opened fire, killing two people. Also that year Churchill dabbled in the Sidney Street siege between some 200 police and Latvian anarchists, ordering the police to let the house the gang were hiding in burn down.

You can read more about this less than glorious side to Winston Churchill both here and here.

All I'm saying is if these countless biopics don't address all sides of the man then aren't we just whitewashing his legend? And isn't it time we started bringing the lives of other notable politicians to the screen - where, for example, are the biopics of Clem Attlee or Nye Bevan?

9 comments:

  1. He also sent tanks and soldiers into Glasgow in 1919 to crush a workers' strike because he considered it a Bolshevik uprising. In reality, the workers were demanding an end to unemployment and a reduction in working hours.

    I really don't think it can be a coincidence that this rash of Churchill biopics and other World War 2 movies have all coincided with Brexit. I'm not saying they were directly commissioned in response to the outcome of the referendum, but rather that both the vote and the explosion of "plucky Brits standing alone" reminiscipackages (to quote The Day Today) are symptoms of the same malady.

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    1. Indeed he did, remiss of me not to include that - but I perhaps subconsciously knew my trusty Scottish correspondent would raise it ;) He lived in fear of a workers revolt akin to the Russian Revolution and was always quick to send the troops in to quell unrest. Despicable really. Can you imagine how he'd have handled the riots of the 1980s or 2011?

      And yes I think you're right about the Brexit effect and how the Brexiteers have leapt upon these biopics and films to support their own ideology/peculiar patriotism - Farage's much publicised visit to the cinema to watch Dunkirk springs to mind. Though how anyone like that could walk away from Nolan's film immune to the central message of hands across the ocean is beyond me

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    2. In fairness, I don't have too hard a time seeing how isolationist Brexiteers could take a film about the Dunkirk evacuations and assume it speaks for them. (And not just in the tongue-in-cheek "recasting an ill-planned, chaotic retreat from the mainland as a victory" sense.) Don't get me wrong, I think the film itself was sufficiently apolitical that people can freely apply their own ideologies to it, but I can't say I got much of a "hands across the ocean" message from it. On the contrary, due to its highly telescoped perspective, it struck me as being exclusively concerned with the plight of "our boys", with no one else really getting a look-in. (Apart from that one French soldier, who pretty much conformed to the old Anglo stereotype of the cowardly Frog.)

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    3. Really? I must concede it's not really there in the action itself (as you say there's only one French character, played by a Welshman of course) but the spirit, of how we didn't stand idly by, I found to be quite palpable and timely. I guess its what mindset some people approach war films with: for the St George flag mob I imagine they only ever see it as the mighty British Empire kicking Germany's arse, for me it's about responding to a threat because we knew it was the right thing to do and that's something we should never lose sight of. I do think it was interesting how sparing Nolan was to even mention Britain, British, Germans etc, it didn't feel like a flagwaver to me

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    4. Again, I think it comes down to the highly telescoped nature of the film. Because of its very specific focus on the three "strands", there's no real context to why the soldiers are at Dunkirk in the first place - no sense of the broader context of the war and the fact that they were over there trying to halt the global spread of fascism. Instead, it feels a lot like "Our lads are in trouble in foreign parts - better bring 'em back to good old Blighty!" I dunno, maybe I'm just being overly cynical, but when they started reading out Churchill's "fight them on the beaches" speech at the end and Elgar (Elgar!!!) started rising on the soundtrack, my bullshit-o-meter went up to eleven.

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  2. Incidentally, I find it quite amusing to see Oldman's V for Victory when you consider as a young man he was flicking the V's as Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy!

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  3. Saw the Gary Oldman flick at the weekend. It does at least suggest that Churchill was pretty useless prior to the war. Interestingly, I started compiling a Top Ten Churchill songs, and it appears that there are more negative portrayals in pop songs than positive ones. (Oldman was excellent though, even if he did sound like George from Rainbow much of the time.)

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    1. That's good to hear, as it chimes with my argument that Churchill was hopeless in peace time. He wasn't a nice man, and you don't really want nice men in war do you? You need them in peace though.

      I will probably get round to watching it when its out on DVD. Despite my reservations I do have an interest in Churchill and the period and I've always been an admirer of Gary Oldman. It's interesting to see Oldman get these parts now, the kind of 'masterpiece theatre' parts that would have seemed impossible back in the 80s and 90s when he was the dangerous angry young man of the Brit Pack. But it's good to see good actors get these roles and prove themselves, as opposed to just giving the job to any fat, bald, old British thesp. George from Rainbow though! haha!

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    2. PS look forward to that list! BTW, in Morrissey's dreadful novel List of the Lost there's a lengthy passage detailing Churchill's rumoured affair with Ivor Novello during the war. Quite why this murky corner of history is preying on the mind of the members of a 1970s All American high school track and field team is beyond me!

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