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Churchill: Downton does D-Day

Another big-screen celebration of the man frequently voted the “greatest Briton” is currently greeting cinema goers. Churchill (2017) tells the story of the war leader as he tussles with his subordinates during the final preparations for D-Day in June 1944. The film certainly has its charms, but do we really need yet another version of “Winnie the War Hero”?

For some, the answer is clearly an emphatic yes – and depictions of Britain’s “finest hour” are understandably reassuring for some in Brexit Britain. Put it this way – the UK left Europe after Dunkirk in 1940 with their tails between their legs, seemingly defeated by superior German forces, before returning triumphantly in 1944 (with a bit of help from their allies). Seen in this context, such films as Their Finest (2016), Dunkirk (due for release in July 2017), and Churchill offer attractive historical visions of resilience, resolution and transatlantic comradeship.

Indeed, Churchill, with Brian Cox in the title role, is only the first of two cinematic portrayals of the cigar-smoking warrior to be released this year. The second – Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman, is due in November. In portraying the curmudgeonly war leader, Cox and Oldman join a veritable cinematic who’s who, most recently including Albert Finney (The Gathering Storm, 2002), Brendan Gleeson (Into the Storm, 2009), Michael Gambon (Churchill’s Secret, 2016) and John Lithgow (in The Crown, 2016).

But where Finney’s Churchill was portrayed as being ignored and isolated during the wilderness years of the 1930s – and where Lithgow’s brandy-drinking bathtub raconteur is seen negotiating the changed global order of the 1950s, the latest depiction of Churchill takes us back to 1944. As such, the film offers a rather different take on the great war leader of popular memory.

Isolated and frustrated

The film’s focus is revealed in the opening scenes which see Churchill wandering a windswept beach, alone. As he looks to the shoreline his mind and memory return to a past amphibious invasion for which he was partly responsible – the Gallipoli landings. The disaster which followed this 1915 assault on the Dardenelles clearly still weighs heavily on Churchill in 1944. And so there, on the foreshore, as he contemplates the D-Day operation, the sea runs blood red.

This nightmare of Allied destruction and defeat prompts a series of increasingly desperate attempts by Churchill to redirect Anglo-American strategy. Adamant that his instinct remains right, Churchill deploys all his charm, oratory and obstinacy to disrupt D-Day plans. In doing so, he comes into conflict with his leading generals, including Field-Marshal Montgomery – but most importantly the Allied supreme commander, General Dwight D “Ike” Eisenhower.

These encounters reveal that Churchill’s cherished status as strategic genius is suffering in the face of growing complaints that he no longer understands the details and demands of modern conflict. At one point, terrified that the Allied army will bleed out on the beaches of Normandy, he orders up alternative plans. But the Allied military is no longer his to command – chief of the British General Staff, Field Marshal Alan Brooke countermands his orders, while his efforts to force the cancellation of Operation Overlord are ignored by an increasingly irritated Eisenhower.

At loggerheads over D-Day: Churchill and Eisenhower.

Too often elevated

The film thus offers a commendable critique of a man too often elevated to the status of military demi-god in Britain. Better, surely, to see our heroes as humans – with all the flaws and failings that are their gift and burden. But, like any film, there is also much that it omits or overlooks.

So for all the distraught pleas to Ike to spare the lives of his soldiers, we should also acknowledge that this “humane” Churchill was still the very same man who authorised the area bombing of Germany (a policy, admittedly, which he later found deeply troubling). Similarly, this guilt-laden apologist for past military disaster was also the same man whose role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 has long been criticised, most recently (and controversially) by journalist Madhusree Mukerjee.

Haunted by Gallipoli, yes. Desperate to avoid the mistakes of the armchair generals of 1916, certainly. Humane to his core, no. And nor should we expect anything different. As Carlo D’Este has argued, Churchill was always a soldier, always a warlord, always a defender of the British Empire. These nuances, contradictions and complexities of character are absent, unfortunately, from the latest film.

But such quibbles are secondary to a more significant issue concerning the film’s overall focus. Where Their Finest follows a young Welsh woman (Gemma Arterton) negotiating the misogyny of the wartime film industry as she strives to pen an inspiring story of the “people’s war”, Churchill returns the heroics to its all too usual place: Winnie, Monty, Ike. Little space here for the valour of the common man – and even less for that of the common woman (apart from one scene where Churchill’s young typist checks a moment of prime ministerial despair). This is Downton does D-Day.

Even Churchill’s wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) remains in the wings. Over the past 40 years Clemmie – just like Churchill – has been played by a succession of greats, and Richardson’s performance is, as usual, compelling. Now and then we see the interventions of an increasingly exhausted Clemmie as she endeavours to control, contain and censor the words and actions of her husband.

Nonetheless, the result is that Clemmie remains peripheral, stoically enduring. Oh, to have Clemmie front and centre for once. Winnie was great, that is a tale long told. But so was Clemmie – not to mention those many others who fought and won the people’s war – and it’s high time that these stories also had their day in the sun.

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