Directed by: Richard Attenborough | 146 minutes | action, drama, war, adventure, biography, history | Actors: Robert Shaw, Anne Bancroft, Simon Ward, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Magee, Edward Woodward, John Mills, Peter Cellier, Ronald Hines, Russell Lewis, Pat Heywood, Laurence Naismith, William Dexter, Basil Dignam, Robert Hardy, John Stuar
Strong biographical drama about the early years of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965), based on his own autobiographical book “My Early Life: A Roving Commission”. The film faithfully follows the events of the book and tells of Churchill’s lonely childhood and his adventures in India, Sudan and South Africa while in the military. Incidentally, when the politician wrote down his memories, they were still quite fresh: Churchill was about thirty years old when he wrote down his life story. Although “Young Winston” went into circulation seven years after the statesman’s death, chances are Churchill would have agreed wholeheartedly with the bulk of the film.
It is always dangerous to use an autobiography when filming someone’s life, as the author will tend to write things somewhat one-sidedly and to his own advantage. Although that is undeniably a fact in this case, the makers did have the best basic material in their hands. With his skillful pen, Churchill was able to interpret his story with speed, irony and suspense. Director Attenborough, in turn, has managed to transfer all of this to the big screen. Writer and producer Foreman (Oscar winner for “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) added some elements that Churchill himself discreetly omitted to paint a more complete portrait. For example, the syphilis that his father died of is mentioned in the film. All the well-known traits of the adult Churchill are already present here and in that sense “Young Winston” certainly provides an illuminating picture. As for Churchill himself, he wrote this down, perhaps unintentionally and between the lines. In any case, it is not difficult to guess where he got his ambition and ambition from.
The lead role is for Simon Ward, who puts in a truly amazing performance, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Besides his physical resemblance, he knows how to display speech pattern and posture to perfection. All that’s missing – and Ward can’t help it – is Churchill’s great wit. He was known for his humorous remarks, often in the form of aphorisms, and unfortunately little of this can be found in the dialogues. Ward receives excellent support from the actors who play his parents. Robert Shaw is the energetic Lord Randolph Churchill, a man of great ability, who clumsily killed his promising career and then died of the notorious venereal disease. Despite his sometimes tyrannical attitude, Shaw turns Lord Randolph into a lovable and tragic figure. Anne Bancroft plays Churchill’s beautiful and selfish mother, parading in the highest social circles but not really caring about her son until after her husband’s death. Quite a few well-known British actors have small parts. Anthony Hopkins, with a Welsh accent, is Liberal MP (and later Prime Minister) Llyod George, and veteran Mills plays the famous General Kitchener. Both great men in the First World War, who would often cross Churchill’s path. Ian Holm also pops up as The Times editor George Buckle.
The film is at its best when it highlights the adventurous life of the young lieutenant, something entrusted to a director of Attenborough’s caliber. Good action scenes, full of shooting and explosions and a beautifully depicted cavalry charge show a different side of the Churchill as he lives in the collective memory. It is sometimes hard to imagine that the fat cigar-smoking prime minister was once a slender officer, who went on a breakneck path to achieve glory and fame. The film ends with a passionate speech Churchill made in the House of Commons about the military budget, where his father took over his disastrous resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer fifteen years earlier. The makers leave no doubt about it: from this moment on, Churchill’s fate can only go one way. The reality was a lot more complicated, but “Young Winston” has turned out to be a compelling film that is sure to be of interest to anyone interested in learning more about the lesser known part of Churchill’s life.