Making movies out of historical matter is a fraught business. The “facts” may be “correct”, but they may be presented in such a way that they completely alter the meaning of an event. Or a story may be mostly invented, but still have great psychological and philosophical insights about its subject.
Moreover, due to the practical limits of filmmaking, a movie usually contains one element that acts as a sort of narrative anchor, and this anchor will be the thing that resonates most with its makers. It therefore makes sense that a Churchill film made by an Australian and a New Zealander will be haunted by the spectre of Gallipoli.
Churchill tells the story of the days leading up to D-Day and presents a picture of the wartime leader challenging his generals and the allied forces over the worth of the attacks. Churchill (Brian Cox) is depicted as a man horrified at the slaughter he expects to occur at the beach landings.
Gallipoli preys on his mind as he tries to change or stymie the plan, or at least to be more involved, to absolve himself of the guilt he feels at being an armchair general, sending young men to die while he is safe at home. The film presents him clashing with Generals Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery (Julian Wadham) over the plan, while also clashing with his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), his good friend Field Marshal Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) and his new secretary Helen Garnett (Ella Purnell) as he tries to manage the pressures of leadership towards the end of the War.
The performances are stunning. Brian Cox captures the imperiousness, sensitivity, and outright brilliance of Churchill magnificently, as if he were King Lear. John Slattery depicts Eisenhower’s calm and determination, while Wadham manages to show both Montgomery’s heroism and connection with his troops, as well as his prickliness. Richardson’s Clementine beautifully shows her dignity as well as the challenges of living with a great man in a time of great strain.
Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky – who made the cheeky and daggy Gettin’ Square (2003) and the powerful and confronting Burning Man (2011), as well as the historical drama The Railway Man (2013) – and New Zealand writer and historian Alex von Tunzelmann have crafted a heartfelt and affecting film, one that seems especially geared for Australian and New Zealand audiences, what with its focus on the Gallipoli campaign and its impact on Churchill.
However, the film’s accuracy is keenly debated, with one Churchill historian denouncing it as a piece of propaganda in the spirit of Dr Goebbels.
Von Tunzelmann, Teplitzky and Cox admit that they shortened the timeline of events for the film, and that they interspersed events from different times to amp up the emotional impact. This is fair enough from a dramatic perspective, but in so doing they present Churchill as a man bent on stopping the Normandy landings. While it is true that he had his doubts about the operation when it was first being devised – in 1942 and 1943 – by the time it was launched he supported it wholeheartedly.
Since Churchill’s opposition is central to the plot, the fact that it is not true renders the whole thrust of the film questionable, at best. This is a shame, as the central theme, that Churchill regretted the loss of life at Gallipoli, is a powerful one, and one worth exploring.
Moreover, the film seems to miss the fact that D-Day was not an operation that existed in isolation. Quite apart from the other theatres of war, the Allies ran one of the most successful deception operations in history – Operation Bodyguard, which convinced Hitler and the Germans that the Normandy landings were a diversion and the true invasion would be elsewhere.
The film is, in essence, a character study; an exploration of a great man. But in situating the character study in such a concentrated period of time, and then rearranging and adding details so as to suit the film’s thesis, the character study is itself undermined. Instead of revealing the true character of the man, it fashions a new man out of bits and pieces, one that resembles its subject, but one that also differs markedly. Despite all this, Churchill is a powerful movie, taken in its own right and not as history.
The Gallipoli theme is especially poignant for Anzac audiences, giving the sense that, while we may have been far away in geography, we were nonetheless close to the heart of the Empire.