It’s hard to spot the precise reason for Winston Churchill’s cinematic bloom, whether in Telluride and Toronto with the scheduled festival showings of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour; at the box office, with the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk; or on the indie circuit the recent debut of Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill.
This doesn’t seem to be a significant anniversary year. Churchill was born in 1874, and died in 1965; so there’s no centennial at hand. World War II ended 72 years ago, and Churchill last served as Britain’s prime minister in 1955 — no handy markers there, either. And it can’t be a sudden vogue for Old White Men, who have been out of fashion at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and elsewhere of late. Still, sophisticated filmmakers and more than a few viewers suddenly are drawn toward the life and times of a gruff old bulldog whose famous admonition to fight on was woven into Dunkirk’s inspiring final scenes.
Personally, my favorite Churchill is probably the 18-year-old goof who tried to elude his brother and cousin by jumping off a bridge at an aunt’s Bournemouth estate. The pursuers found him unconscious after a 29-foot fall. “He jumped over the bridge and he won’t speak to us,” they dutifully reported. Young Winston woke up three days later with a ruptured kidney and a new realization that his father must love him to have spent so much on surgeons.
Objectively, the Churchill most worthy of respect might be the 41-year-old who, after having overseen Britain’s Admiralty during the Dardanelles debacle in World War I, resigned from the Cabinet and joined the Royal Fusiliers as a front-line officer. He never was one to believe that young men should die while statesmen stayed out of machine-gun range.
But the Churchill of our current films is an older, less rash, more seasoned man. For actors such as Gary Oldman, who portrays him in Darkest Hour, or Brian Cox, who did the honors in Churchill, he is a feast of grunts and mumbled wisdom — the very stuff of Oscars, a flawed but far-seeing curmudgeon who rallied his people, conquered evil and won the war.
For the rest of us, in this troubled year, however, the appeal might lie more in the simple horse sense (he was an ex-cavalry officer) of a Winston Churchill who, 80 years ago, saw the world tottering on the brink of calamity and labored, without much luck, to save it. That Churchill is perhaps best captured in Step by Step, a compilation of his biweekly columns, written between 1936 and 1939, as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese military inexorably rose.
“The ordinary smooth and balanced phrases of diplomacy, with all their refinements and reserves, are of little use in dealing with the fierce chiefs of German Nazidom,” Churchill warned in a column published on September 15, 1938, even as Neville Chamberlain was using just such diplomacy in attempting to appease Hitler’s appetite for Czech territory. In terms that could apply to the current exchanges with a nuclear-armed North Korea, he continued: “Only the most blunt, plain, even brutal language will make its effect. Moreover, whatever words are used must carry with them the conviction that they are spoken in deadly earnest. This is not time to bluff.”
The same, plain-spoken Churchill on August 10, 1936, had described the Spanish Civil War in words that might resonate for those who are confused and alarmed by contemporary political street wars. “Two antagonistic modern systems are in mortal grapple,” he wrote. “Fascism confronts communism.” His advice for those in the middle? “However hard it may be, there is only one rule for the liberal Parliamentary countries: Send charitable aid under the Red Cross to both sides, and for the rest — keep out of it and arm.”
Armed vigilance, Churchill certainly advocated, even as he advised against undue alarmism in an October 15, 1937, column entitled “War Is Not Imminent” and repeatedly preached adherence to simple prohibitions against aggression, as prescribed in the Covenant of the League of Nations. In column after column, in fact, he insisted that Great Britain, already dominant at sea, must expand its air force to match that of a rapidly arming Germany.
“Where’s the bloody air force?” cries that exasperated British soldier in Nolan’s Dunkirk. But he is only repeating what Churchill — with a cautious strength that may now strike a chord with uneasy viewers — had been asking for years.