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UK 1972
Directed by
Richard Attenborough
145 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Young Winston

Richard Attenborough’s follow-up to his debut feature, the WWI satire Oh! Want A Lovely War (1969) is a quite different film, very much in the “authorized biography” style that he would revisit again with his Oscar-winning Gandhi (1982) and, with less success, in Chaplin (1992).

Based on Winston Churchill’s own book  "My Early Life: A Roving Commission", adapted and produced by Carl Foreman, who had performed the same roles for the rousing 1961 WWII  film The Guns of Navarone, a film which apparently so impressed Churchill that he had suggested to Foreman that his own travails as a young war correspondent in imperial North-West India, the Sudan and South Africa would warrant a similar treatment.  

He would not would not have been disappointed with the outcome (he died in 1965) as Young Winston gives him the full adventure film hero treatment. This occurs especially when, late in the film, Churchill escapes from a Boer interment camp and becomes thereby a national, nay even international, war hero.  Unfortunately this comes after the film’s intermission, a regrettable device that was popular at the time but which only serves to throw us out of our state of suspended disbelief.  Hence the assertion that Churchill single-handedly saved a troop train from a Boer ambush seems less like history than unadulterated screen romanticism (to the extent that the fact that apparently he left his two would-be fellow escapees behind when doing a bunk, even though it was their plan, is simply glossed over) .

Pre-intermission however, the film is quite strong, creating an empathetic portrait of the legendary statesman’s unyielding upbringing in late-Victorian England when children were expected to be seen and not heard, and if possible not seen at all. He idolized his rarely-seen parents: his father, Lord Randoph (Robert Shaw), a leading Tory, his mother (Ann Bancroft) a society belle of American origin. Much of the film is given over to his relentless drive to make of himself someone they would admire.  In his father’s case he appears not have succeeded (Lord Randoph died of syphilis at the age of 45).

Simon Ward (preceded by two younger look-alike actors playing Churchill at ages 7 and 13) does a very good job of playing Churchill as a young man even if he is rather awkward as an action hero while a host of British screen names of the day (many of whom had appeared in Oh! What A Lovely War), play various historical figures

The film comes to climactic resolution, tying the young man whose story we have followed to the legendary figure we see in WWII news footage at the film’s opening and will see again at its end, with Churchill’s inaugural speech to the House of Commons. Ward as the now-anointed scion of the Churchill family a little too closely emulates the familiar-sounding voice of the older version of the man (which he also periodically provides in voice-over throughout the film), making apparent just how studiously the film plays to the legend.  Still, Attenborough does this sort of thing very well and the result is a quality, wart-free production.




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