In 2002, Winston Churchill won his final nationwide vote—beating off competition from Darwin, Newton, Nelson, Elizabeth I, Princess Diana and Shakespeare, among others—to be named the Greatest Briton of all time by BBC listeners. It was hardly surprising, given the iconic moments that punctuated Churchill’s life: giving the V sign to Nazi Germany, guiding the country through the Blitz, and, of course, “We shall fight them on the beaches”.
But there are other sides to the great man that are less frequently mentioned: his oversight of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign is one; his increasing doubt, depression and alcoholism as the war continued, another. No cinematic depiction has attempted to complicate the image of the wartime hero, until now. Churchill, starring Brian Cox, shines a light on the iconic politician’s demons in the run-up to the D-Day landings in 1944.
“What’s fantastic about it is that you have such a visually iconic person—the hat, the scarf, the coat, the shape, the height, the walk—all those things, because they’re so iconic, you become very aware of not wanting that to be all it’s about,” explains director Jonathan Teplitzky. “I was very conscious of wanting to go deeper than that and to go beyond that. In many ways, Churchill was a great performer, and they were all his props, and it was very important to peel back some of those layers.”
From the outset, Teplitzky brought a fresh perspective. “Being Australian, I didn’t grow up with a British point of view of Churchill, [as] this great man who saved Britain from the Nazis; you also have this flip side, which is that he was one of the great architects of Gallipoli … the man who basically used Australians as cannon fodder.
“What was most interesting was this guy at a very vulnerable state of his life. He was 70 years old, almost, he was an alcoholic, he was suffering these incredible downward spirals of depression. I began to realize [that] a lot of what fuelled his depression was his great—I would say—shame and guilt about what he had been part of, and not wanting to repeat it. Which is where the idea of the film comes from, which is: Churchill tried to stop D-Day. Not many people actually know that, but it’s true.
“He tried to stop it because he feared it would be another Dunkirk; another Gallipoli.”
Much of the film comes from Churchill’s own words. “One of the interesting things about that period of time,” Teplitzky adds, “is that Churchill himself is the expert on that period. He kept meticulous and very detailed diaries on this. Other world leaders of the time, like Eisenhower, weren’t keeping diaries and writing about it in the same way. And Alex [von Tunzelmann, the film’s writer], who is a historian, guided me through a lot of the historical stuff.
“It’s a question that comes up all the time: how much was dramatized, how much was fictionalized? I don’t think a lot was fictionalized; I think quite a bit was dramatized.”
One example of such a moment in the film comes when George VI visits Churchill, the two having initially planned to go on a boat to direct D-Day in person, and informs him that they can no longer do so.
“It’s true that [Churchill] wanted to lead the men. When the King comes to see him, we dramatized that as taking place face-to-face. That whole scene is based on the letter that the King wrote Churchill to say, ‘We can’t do this, and this is what our duty is.’”
Why does Teplitzky think that Churchill wanted to go to D-Day?
“I suspect—and this is only a personal thing—because depression can lead you into these places, he had a kind of death wish; that he would prefer to die on the front lines with the men as opposed to send a whole lot of 20-year-olds off to be slaughtered on another beach.”
Teplitzky is clear on the origins of this connection to the average 20-year-old on the front lines; this empathy to those facing death that drove Churchill to such distress: “So often, now, people sit in an air-conditioned room and push a button, and someone on the other side of the world gets blown up, and the people doing that suffer the same post-traumatic stress disorders that people who fight on the front lines suffer. That tells you about the nature and the fundamental thing about killing people.
“I think political leaders today don’t always understand the nature of what it is to fight wars; Churchill is unusual because as a political leader he also fought on the front lines. After the debacle of elements of the First World War, he quit [political office] and he went off and fought on the front lines. He had a great sense of what it was to send people off to that situation.”
While politicians may have lost that human connection, we conversely know a huge amount about their lives thanks to rolling media coverage. Does Teplitzky think Churchill would have survived the war under today’s scrutiny?
“Say, for example, that the amount that he drank or that his depression had come out during the Blitz. I am sure [the public] wouldn’t have cared, because this was a man overcoming those things, and in doing so he gave them the sense that tomorrow would be better than today, and that there was a sense of hope,” he says.
“That’s what you ask first and foremost from the people that lead you, because most people just want some kind of future, and some kind of security, and some kind of care for them and their family. Some kind of opportunity. I think people are universal in that, throughout the world.”
Churchill is in cinemas from June 16; @churchillfilm