Winston Churchill’s black dog: portraying the ‘greatest Briton’ on screen

As the wartime leader returns to cinemas, a screenwriter reflects on the challenges of portraying Churchill, vulnerabilities and all

Few figures in British history are as recognisable as Winston Churchill. Voted the greatest Briton of all time in a BBC poll in 2002, he remains a hero to many; his legacy was claimed by both sides during last year’s EU referendum campaign. The presence or absence of a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office stirred up controversy earlier this year. Boris Johnson, a Churchill biographer among his many roles, claimed Barack Obama moved the bust because of what he called Obama’s “ancestral dislike of the British empire”. If there is a truth in Johnson’s words, it is that Churchill is strongly associated with that empire – for good or ill. In some parts of the world, this means he is remembered as a villain; notably in India, where he is widely blamed for the Bengal famine of 1943. Any portrayal of Churchill is likely to be considered insufficiently respectful by some or insufficiently disrespectful by others.

In the wake of John Lithgow’s magnificent performance in Netflix’s The Crown – a role written to imply some strong criticism of his 1950s leadership – two new Churchill films are coming out in 2017. Gary Oldman will star in Darkest Hour, set early in the second world war, due to be released in November. Footage has not yet been generally released, so it is too early to say what angle screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Joe Wright will take. A picture of Oldman in costume shows a physical transformation as remarkable as when the same actor played a very different British figure, Sid Vicious, 31 years ago in Sid and Nancy. And Brian Cox will appear as the prime minister in D-day drama Churchill. I wrote the screenplay for the latter film. Our intent was to create an intimate portrait of a complicated, fascinating man.

Though it may seem that these Churchill biopics coming at once reflect a historical moment, all of these projects were commissioned long before the 2016 referendum. Churchill is a perennial draw. The first record of a screen portrayal of him in the Internet Movie Database dates back to 1914. Since then, he has been fictionalised for film and television dozens of times: portrayed by Richard Burton, Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Robert Hardy (nine times) and even Christian Slater in 2004’s gleefully inaccurate Churchill: The Hollywood Years. He was played by Julian Fellowes, later the creator of Downton Abbey, in a 1992 episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Fellowes’ Churchill is dismissive about votes for women until Indy’s dinner date – a young suffragette, played by Elizabeth Hurley – splatters him with trifle. A camp, cavorting Churchill has also appeared this year in the Bollywood film Rangoon, dancing with Adolf Hitler on a map of Europe to the song “Mere Miyan Gaye England” (My Husband is Going to England).

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Photograph: Universal

Perhaps all this would have amused the real Winston Churchill, for he was himself a screenwriter, writing and editing film scripts for Alexander Korda in the 1930s. Although Churchill’s George V biopic never made it to the screen, the extensive notes he wrote on Korda’s unproduced version of Lawrence of Arabia shows him to be comfortable with myth-making as part of characterisation and a big fan of explosions.

The caricature of Churchill sums up what many would like to feel is Britain’s national character: steadfast, defiant, courageous, witty and – while perhaps given to a drink or two more than would be entirely judicious, only the more witty and lovable for it. Most of that is true enough, but the full picture is a lot more interesting. Churchill rose to fame via a hair-raising adventure-hero youth. His escape from captivity during the Boer war was worthy of Indiana Jones treatment, especially the way he wrote it. Richard Attenborough made Young Winston (1972) based on his memoirs. Churchill himself had chosen the screenwriter, Carl Foreman, after seeing his work on The Guns of Navarone. Yet Young Winston underplayed his ambition, which drove him relentlessly, and his vulnerability, which fuelled the ambition.

The popular image of Churchill is rooted in 1940: the moment he took over as prime minister, refusing to appease Hitler and giving many of his best and most famous speeches as Britain endured the blitz. For years before 1940, though, Churchill was considered faintly absurd: a fringe figure, even a failure. By 1944 – when our film is set – his star was declining again. This intrigued me as a screenwriter: the toll war takes on those who fight it, even if they are not at the front. Field marshal Alan Brooke (later Lord Alanbrooke) wrote in his diary that, by the end of March 1944, Churchill was “losing ground rapidly. He seems quite incapable of concentrating for a few minutes on end, and keeps wandering dangerously.” On 7 May, Churchill acknowledged to him that “he was no longer the man that he had been … I have never yet heard him admit that he was beginning to fail.” The Polish ambassador recorded on 31 May: “This was the first of our meetings at which I began to wonder whether Churchill really was overtired, or whether he really grasped all that was going on.”

Christian Slater in Churchill: The Hollywood Years.
Christian Slater in Churchill: The Hollywood Years. Photograph: Publicity image from film company

Some of the behaviours mentioned by Churchill or by others during those early months of 1944 – an erratic temper, heavy drinking, an inability to get out of bed – could indicate a return to the depression he had suffered periodically throughout his adult life. It is not really possible to make precise diagnoses of historical figures, but the way Churchill wrote about his condition (at a time when much of the language we now use to discuss it did not exist) is profound and moving, and inspired the portrait of him in our film. Recovering from one episode in 1911, he wrote to his wife Clementine: “My black dog … seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.” He told his doctor more than once that he did not like standing too close to the edge of railway platforms, ships’ rails or balconies, lest he be tempted to throw himself off.

While Churchill was going through a decline in the first half of 1944, one of the most important campaigns of the war was ramping up: operation Overlord, commonly known as D-day. Churchill had reservations about the invasion of Normandy from the beginning. It involved a huge commitment of resources and the risk of appalling casualties. Several historians have linked his concerns to his championing of the Gallipoli campaign in the first world war, an amphibious landing that incurred heavy losses and was ultimately a disaster for the allies. After Gallipoli, Churchill experienced one of his most serious depressive episodes: “I thought he would die of grief,” said Clementine. He left politics, signed up and went to fight on the western front.

At the final briefing for D-day on 15 May 1944, Churchill told the king and the commanders: “I am hardening to this enterprise. I repeat, I am now hardening toward this enterprise.” The supreme allied commander, Eisenhower, was shocked: “I then realised that Mr Churchill hadn’t believed in it all along and had had no faith that it would succeed.”

The Churchill film-makers’ original concept was that the movie would compress all of the action into the 24 hours leading up to D-day on 6 June 1944. Historically, this did not tally with Churchill’s declaration of support for the operation – however ambivalent – three whole weeks before it happened. (Of course, screen fictionalisations from El Cid to Bridge of Spies have sped up timelines to increase tension or create conflict; Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto elides 600 years into one scene.) Stopping well short of skipping six centuries, I suggested that we let the action run approximately from 15 May to 6 June, and avoid being too specific about dates.

John Lithgow in The Crown.
John Lithgow in The Crown. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/Netflix

There were some signs that Churchill remained privately conflicted about D-day after 15 May, though, and that (perhaps as a consequence) he tried to muscle in. He developed a madcap scheme with George VI for both of them to sail to Normandy with the invasion fleet, an idea the king had to shut down on 2 June. Instead, Churchill summoned his private train and spent 4 June touring the D-day preparations in Portsmouth. “Winston [is] making a thorough pest of himself!” wrote Brooke. On the evening of 5 June, as the ships sailed, Churchill revealed his fears to Clementine: “By the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 young men may have been killed.”

While Churchill must have been frustrating during this period (Brooke said he was “impossible” and that working with him was “awful”), I developed a considerable sympathy for a man who had spent his life fighting – yet, while Britain was beginning to win, may have felt personally that he was beginning to lose. This is the core of the film’s story: a tale about duty and greatness, about finding hope in the darkest moments.

As a superlative writer (and winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1953), Churchill helped to create his own myth. Though he may never quite have said “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”, he said similar things and wrote his memoirs accordingly. His personality, vivid even more than half a century after his death from his own brilliantly chosen words, is much richer than any caricature. I wanted to explore a part of Churchill’s life that touched on his depression and vulnerability because those are aspects with which many people can identify. It is a story that moved me: I hope it moves audiences too. And – no spoilers – I can reveal that he does not get splattered with trifle by a suffragette.

There are some who will react against any depiction of Churchill’s depression because they think it undermines his status as a hero. To my mind, it does the opposite. The greatest thing we can do for our historical icons is remember they were human.

Churchill is on general release from Friday.


Alex von Tunzelmann

The GuardianTramp

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