The British Empire in Film Blogathon: Young Winston (1972)

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This post is my contribution to The British Empire in Film Blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires.

The 1972 film Young Winston is based on Winston Churchill’s book My Early Life. A fan of the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone, Churchill himself suggested to the producer Carl Foreman that his book would make an excellent film.

It took more than a decade, but Foreman eventually made the film (he wrote as well as produced it). He offered both directorial duties and the role of Lord Randolph Churchill to Richard Attenborough, who had previously directed only one other feature film (Oh! What a Lovely War). He declined the acting role, but agreed to direct the film.

Played as a young adult by Simon Ward, Churchill’s life is covered from the age of seven to his first election to the House of Commons. It moves back and forth in time, opening with his first sojourn to India as a war correspondent and his initial taste of battle. Then it flashes back to his arrival at school with his mother Lady Randolph (Anne Bancroft). It later covers his experiences in the Sudan and South Africa during the Boer War.

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The boy Winston adores and worships his parents–from afar. Neither seems to have much time to spare Winston and his brother, Jack. They are the fashionable couple of British society. Both his parents are ambitious, his mother taking on an unusual (for the time) role as campaigner for her husband’s political career.

Lady Randolph (the former Jennie Jerome) was an American heiress who married the third son of an earl. Many people who know young Churchill make digs about his ambition, calling him pushy and overbearing–perhaps a dig at his American heritage?

Lord Randolph’s (Robert Shaw) career is derailed because of friction with his colleagues, which results in his resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He continues to sit in Parliament, but his political ascension comes to a screeching halt. Soon after, he is diagnosed with syphilis, which eventually leads to dementia and death.

As Winston grows older, he is increasingly a disappointment to his father, which cuts him deeply. He has a great deal of difficulty taking tests in school and is deemed a poor scholar. His father decides he is not suitable for any profession other than the military. Winston attends Sandhurst and trains for the cavalry, which also disappoints his father, who wanted him in the infantry.

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In spite of his poor performance at school, from an early age Winston shows talent as a writer. Feeling constrained by his military pay and allowance from his mother, he repeatedly overspends his income. For this reason, he gravitates towards military correspondence. He publishes his first book after his experiences in India, which is successful but also alienates the military establishment, who assume he thinks he knows more than they do.

The film poses the theory that his father’s disappointment in him is the very thing that goaded Churchill’s ambition. And he is very ambitious, declaring that he wants to win “lots and lots of medals,” and seeing every setback to his goals as a disaster.

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Winston stands for Parliament and loses. He goes back to working as a journalist in the Sudan and eventually South Africa during the Boer War. Aboard a military train that is attacked and derailed, he shows exceptional bravery when trying to save its passengers. (However, he is not awarded a medal because at this time he is a civilian.)

He is captured, eventually escaping and embarking on a daring 300 mile journey to cross the border. The story of his escape makes him a bit of a sensation in England. Finding himself a minor celebrity when he returns home, he parlays this fame into a successful campaign for Parliament.

The movie ends on his first major speech in Parliament and his meeting with his future wife Clementine.

I saw this movie when it was first released in America. I was about 12 years old at the time and remember liking it quite a bit. I had already read some of Churchill’s books on English history and loved seeing the story of his life as a young man.

On this viewing, though, the movie’s age shows quite a bit. (Or perhaps mine?) Movies have changed so much since then, and this type of movie was already on the wane in 1972. Young Winston hits all the notes of a typical epic biopic of the time, though it does try in some ways to avoid by-the-numbers linear storytelling.

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The results are very mixed. Richard Attenborough clearly wanted to carry on the tradition of the David Lean epic motion picture. In some ways, he succeeded. When it came to action and battle scenes, he was a superlative director. He didn’t quite achieve the lyrical images you find in many David Lean movies, but it would be incorrect to characterize his direction as merely competent. You feel as if you are in the midst of a battle. You feel the imminent danger. It is remarkable to me, after more than 40 years, how much detail I still remembered from some of the battle and action scenes.

But, boy, once the movie moves off the battlefield and into English stately manors and garden parties, it becomes a major study in tedium. Those parts I had mostly blocked from my memory. Part of the problem, of course, is Foreman’s clunky screenplay. Far too often it resorts to conveying exposition through scenes of characters being interviewed, with tons of on-the-nose dialogue.

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The acting is superb all around, which helps to save some of the boring parts. Simon Ward, who was a virtual unknown at the time, bore a remarkable resemblance to Churchill at the same age. (He also does the spot-on voice-over narration by Churchill as an older man.) He’s just plain terrific as a young man hungry for fame and success. He makes Winston brave and resourceful, if naïve and untried. His character is an interesting case: an insider who is treated like an outsider who desperately wants to be treated like an insider. Ward plays all these nuances to the hilt.

The surprise for me on this viewing was Robert Shaw as Randolph Churchill. He usually played larger-than-life characters, such as Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons and Quint in Jaws. Here, he plays a far more subtle character–stubborn and remote, yet also tragic. It’s a very moving performance.

Anne Bancroft is fine as Lady Randolph, though her character is a bit whitewashed–no mention at all of her affairs, or even the fact that she married a man her son’s age a few years after her first husband died. She’s depicted as fiercely loyal and perhaps a bit frigid (eye roll). I suppose this is because she is shown through her son’s idealized lens.

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As a depiction of a young man who became one of the titans of world history in the 20th century, Young Winston is a tad idealized, a tad timid. But this is to be expected, considering it is based on Churchill’s own memoir.

In spite of its flaws, Young Winston is still a movie worth slogging through the slow parts, as one will be rewarded with astonishing action scenes and thoughtful, moving performances.

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12 thoughts on “The British Empire in Film Blogathon: Young Winston (1972)

    1. I was AMAZED when I saw the photo of Winston Churchill as a young man. Incredible resemblance! Even more importantly, Ward was an excellent actor. It certainly was a stroke of luck!

  1. Simon Ward looks SO much like Young Winston Churchill, as you pointed out. It’s uncanny.

    I’ve not seen this film, but I feel I need to. It just goes to show that even though a person’s young adulthood might start out seemingly unsuccessfully, things can turn around dramatically.

    Thanks for another enjoyable and insightful review. 🙂

  2. Great review. What is a bit of a shame is that the general release version, admittedly said very much to be Attenborough’s preferred version, is seriously cut from the original release version, which actually concludes with the older Churchill imagining a conversation with his father, which tonally is much more in keeping with the theme and structure of the film – about 20 minutes were removed sadly and have not been released commercially though it has been shown on TV, which is when i saw it.

    1. That is a shame! Always interesting to see what got left on the cutting room floor. Sometimes, it should stay there, and other times, it adds something great.

  3. Great post, I really enjoyed all the background info. I must admit that I haven’t actually seen this but what an UNCANNY resemblance to Churchill. Interesting that you point out about how young Winston is idealised – whilst I respect his achievements and historical significance sometimes I think that’s something that could be levelled at Churchill in general, although whether that’s the result of historical prejudice or an actual comment on the man himself is hard to ascertain.

    1. Churchill was certainly conscious of how his legacy would be perceived. I think it’s what we call “developing your brand” nowadays. That doesn’t mean his achievements weren’t genuine, only that he wanted an idealized version of himself presented to the public.

  4. Belated thanks for doing such a fine job covering this film for the blogathon! I have yet to see YOUNG WINSTON but it sounds quite interesting (despite the boring parts ;). I like Simon Ward in most things I’ve seen him in…he does seem a perfect choice for Churchill as a young man. I suppose you’re right that this sort of epic biopic was on its way out around this time, but some of those dated elements you refer to would probably add to the film’s appeal for viewers like me.

    1. Belated you’re welcome! 🙂

      When I said “dated” I meant more in the context of movies of the time. This was the early 70s, after all, a kind of revolutionary period of filmmaking. Maybe what I really meant to say is it seems a bit quaint compared to some other movies of the time.

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