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Winston Churchill in TV and Film: Background information when reading Churchill's Shadow

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Churchill's Shadow

The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill

by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Churchill's Shadow by Geoffrey Wheatcroft X
Churchill's Shadow by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 640 pages

    Apr 2023, 640 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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About this Book

Winston Churchill in TV and Film

This article relates to Churchill's Shadow

Print Review

Darkest Hour movie poster featuring Gary Oldman as Churchill in profile smoking cigarCountless movies about Winston Churchill have been made in the decades since World War II, with different actors playing the starring role to varying degrees of success. What are some of the most — and least — memorable of these cinematic depictions, and what effect did these films have in perpetuating the Churchill legend?

As Geoffrey Wheatcroft notes in his book Churchill's Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill, movie and television adaptations of Churchill's years as war prime minister run the gamut in both quality and historical accuracy. Indeed, not every actor chosen to play the enigmatic Winston liked the man, the best example being the A-list English actor Richard Burton. For the 1974 BBC television series The Gathering Storm, Burton told a New York Times reporter that "to play Churchill is to hate him."

Love him or hate him, however, Winston Churchill is a favorite go-to for filmmakers and television writers. According to a 2017 Internet Movie Database (IMDb) tally, there are 208 movies and TV shows featuring an actor who plays Winston Churchill. With the neverending fascination of WWII, the count will surely continue to climb.

The year 2017 introduced two very different portrayals of the prime minister with the release of Churchill and Darkest Hour, featuring Brian Cox and Gary Oldman, respectively, in the leading roles. While Cox's histrionic performance was mellowed by the accomplished acting of Miranda Richardson in the role of Churchill's wife, Clementine, the movie was roundly criticized for its historical inaccuracies and the depiction of Churchill as a "pathetic, doddering and deluded old fool."

Darkest Hour, on the other hand, was lauded by audiences and critics alike, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and earning Gary Oldman the Award for Best Actor. Both the script and Oldman's performance are considered to be far more historically accurate than Churchill, and while painting a more sympathetic and quietly heroic portrait of Churchill in 1940, Darkest Hour doesn't presume to insinuate a "cartoon hero or plaster saint" vision of the man. Oldman's performance is simply electrifying, as the movie highlights the real Winston Churchill's ability to wield words as weapons. It covers a small window of time (May 4 to June 8, 1940) that would have massive implications for the war effort, as it featured the retreating of British forces to the beaches of Dunkirk. While some of his own party wished to make a deal with Hitler, Churchill's conviction and words, as mesmerizingly portrayed by Oldman, helped rouse the nation to commit to fighting and defeating the Nazi menace.

Other entries into the Churchillian cinematic library include an Emmy Award-winning performance by Albert Finney in an updated BBC version of The Gathering Storm (2002) that focused more on the years before WWII, Churchill's imperialist policies and his strained marriage with Clementine, or "Clemmie," played here by the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave. The extremely popular Netflix series The Crown saw American actor John Lithgow portray Britain's most famous man, which earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. When asked how an American might approach playing such a larger-than-life person, Lithgow's response might well sum up what any actor could feel about this role:

"I think anybody playing Churchill feels like an outsider...He's such a one of a kind character, and I think everybody is equally intimidated by it because he's so iconic. He's arguably the best-known man of the 20th century."

As such, film, television, stage and even video game representations will surely continue to tackle the man, the myth and the legend. After more than 200 portrayals to date, it seems there is always a new way to envision Winston Churchill.

Darkest Hour movie poster, courtesy of Internet Movie Poster Awards

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Peggy Kurkowski

This "beyond the book article" relates to Churchill's Shadow. It originally ran in January 2022 and has been updated for the April 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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