The recent announcement that Margaret Thatcher will be granted a British State Funeral has attracted no small controversy. It hasn’t just been questioned on grounds of taste (Lady T being very much alive), but also because it is a privilege granted to so very few. In fact only one politician earned the honour during the entire 20th century, and his list of achievements is so vast that any smaller memorial would have been regarded as an act of gross ingratitude.
That politician was, of course, Winston Churchill, and his funeral topped off a life that was as notable for it’s variety as it was for its successes. There was Churchill the soldier, who saw action throughout the British Empire, and most famously in South Africa. There he became Churchill the popular hero, the daring escapee from a Boer prison camp. There was Churchill the war correspondent, who sent journalistic despatches from conflicts around the world. Then there was Churchill the gifted historian, writer and Nobel Laureate. Each of these aspects of his character combined into his most iconic role, that of leader and statesman. Within this role there was Churchill the orator, the author of some of the most inspirational and fondly remembered addresses of the modern era.
It is this aspect of Sir Winston that is recalled in Churchill, His Life and Speeches, a DVD that uses archive footage to portray him at the peak of his career. Beginning, at the end, in 1965, as his body lay in state, the documentary is presented almost as a visual obituary, covering his life in retrospect, and favouring his feats over his faults.
The title is something of a misnomer, as very little in this film is dedicated to Churchill’s life. The first 60 years of it are sketched very broadly indeed, and serve merely as an introduction to the main act; his years in Downing Street. None of the speeches are dwelt upon in any length; they are simply excerpted to illustrate the progress of Churchill’s career after 1939. Although there is some editorial justification to this (some of his lengthier addresses would warrant a DVD of their own), the overall effect is to make this documentary seem like a mere primer, a jump-off point for further study rather than a fully informative piece in its own right. The narration is straightforward and functional, offering a simple description of the path that took Churchill from speech to speech.
This is not to say that there is nothing to be learned from this film. Several of Churchill’s speeches are so iconic that it is often difficult to pick up on their gentle nuances. Churchill’s reputation as an exponent of high flying rhetoric is founded on his booming oratory style and undulating voice. Listening to his speeches again is to be reminded of just how subtle, playful and quietly audacious he could be.
Many people recall his description of the Battle of Britain as the nation’s ‘Finest Hour’. He actually said that “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years”, the battle would still be regarded as its greatest triumph. Contrast that humble ‘if’ with Hitler’s dogmatic ‘Thousand Year Reich’. Then contrast again that hint of humility with the fact that Churchill delivered that particular speech before the Battle of Britain had even started, never mind been won.
Also on display in this film is Churchill’s often overlooked talent for comedy. Although the bulk of material here is from Britain’s ‘darkest hour’, Churchill the crowd pleaser never forgot to win over his audiences with levity whenever he could. While condemning Hitler as a genuine threat, his descriptions of Mussolini were characterised by withering contempt, to the great amusement of his audiences. The conceited ego of the Italian leader was well known, but Churchill accorded him no respect, scornfully reducing him to ‘Hitler’s lackey’ or ‘that greedy Italian’, never referring to him by name. Picture a modern politician using a similar tactic or harvesting comparable delight from his audience.
Churchill shared his greatest gift for entertainment with the very best stand-up comedians: impeccable comic timing. We hear his speech in Ottawa in December 1941, in which he dismissed the French assertion that Germany would ‘wring England’s neck like a chicken’. “Some chicken,” mocked Churchill, and with an exquisite pause, “some neck”. The laughter in the room was thunderous and he soaked it up like a slick Las Vegas entertainer.
Following the war, the film’s narrative speeds up once again. The Cold War begins with startling alacrity, and has scarcely started before Churchill is being honoured on his 80th birthday in 1954. The final decade of his life, the quietest since his first, is sketched very briefly before we return to the beginning, and his lying in state in Westminster Hall. The great man was now silenced, and for the first time, alternative voices are heard, in the form of vox pops from some of the people whom he had served throughout his long life – the people of Britain.
It is here that the film’s single dissenting voice is presented, when Churchill is acknowledged by the man in the street to have ‘made a few mistakes’ in his time. That the controversial aspects of his career should be noted so meekly is consistent with his standing in history. His career was like his life, very long and very wide in range. Some of his actions were divisive, and his views—always stridently spoken— were frequently contentious. Nonetheless, reckoned against the feats he accomplished for the good, they seem very minor, indeed.
In the four decades since his death, his reputation has continued to soar, and he is now counted among the great men of history. There are libraries of works about him, and miles of footage of film. His Life and Speeches has added, in a small way, to that canon, but adds very little of its own. It succeeds most where it is passive, leaving the talking to Sir Winston himself.