Veteran actor Brian Cox and screenwriter and historian Alex von Tunzelmann spoke to Paraag Shukla and Claire Barrett of World War II magazine about the new film, CHURCHILL, which tells the untold story of Winston Churchill’s personal struggle with his demons and fears on the eve of the pivotal Normandy invasion in 1944.
How did you become involved with this project?
ALEX: I was commissioned to write this in 2013. I’ve really had a long interest in Churchill and that period. I’d been thinking about writing about it for ages, but my inclination as a historian was to consider a biography, which would have been a very different angle. But when the producer approached me to write a screenplay about Churchill, I knew it was a fantastic opportunity. They had stumbled across this story about him initially being opposed to D-Day, which was a good jumping off point and allowed me to explore some of the things that were interesting about his character.
We are very familiar with Churchill as the great hero of 1940, and that’s the popular image of him in the U.K. The movie is set in 1944, which is a very different period—the war has been going on for years—and it is a really different Churchill. That’s also when Lord Moran, his doctor, started dating the beginning of Churchill’s decline. There is an incredible kind of poignancy. Just when the Allies were really beginning to win the war—D-Day was going to turn the tide on the Western front—that Churchill himself personally was beginning to lose, fail, and have difficulties. That seemed to say something about the incredible toll war takes on you, even if you are fighting as a politician, not as a combatant.
BRIAN: I was taken by the amazingly good script. Alex did an amazing job. It’s not really a biopic, that would be boring, but it’s about this man and how he deals with this dilemma. I thought it was very truthful. It has an enormous veracity about it. And it seemed to me that this was something I would really like to be involved in.
It is no easy feat to play a real life character, especially one as well-known as Churchill. It would be easy for an actor to slide into caricature or mimicry. How did you approach playing him as a complex, real human being?
BRIAN: Well, the thing is that character comes from contradiction. Winston was incredibly rich as a character. He has this constructed side of him—the Churchill of the public, the Churchill of the rhetoric, the Churchill of the writing. He was the mainstay; the constant bolster of who went through the whole of the Second World War and did this phenomenal job and made some of the most famous broadcasts of all-time.
His links to Shakespeare are quite extraordinary, his use of Henry V and his references to Shakespeare throughout his writing are quite powerful and strong. Especially the way he spoke in his broadcasts: [phonetically] The “Nazzees” or “Frahnce.” The way he spoke the vowels out. You realize that this is a construct, this is a performance. This is somebody who is doing something to an effect, and it was a very important to give the British people the confidence to get through one of the worst periods in our history. In that sense, it was remarkable.
On the other side of that is a man who suffered from what he called “the black dog,” which a lot of people thought was a euphemism for hangovers, but it was much greater than that— he likely suffered from depression. In a day, he consumed an amazing amount of alcohol. He started with breakfast with champagne, lunch was brandy, and in the evening it was whiskey (or the other way around). And then topped-up during the day with wine. Of course, it is a form of self-medication. The cigar smoking, the picture of Churchill with the “V” sign—again, it is a construct.
The cigar is like a form of thumb-sucking, a comforter. It is said: “all babies look like Winston Churchill, and Winston Churchill looks like all babies.” There is a certain child element to Churchill as well, and this goes right back to his childhood, right back to his initial destiny. For a long time, it was assumed he would be the heir to the Duke of Marlborough in Blenheim. He was the heir until his uncle had a child.
Winston was quite a lonely little boy, with his syphilitic father. He had this very ambitious American mother who was not present a lot of the time during his childhood. He was a chubby little boy. He got healthier as he got older. So there was that element in him, the element of the child. You know he’s got all that cantankerousness in him, that sort of veracity that children have.
So you put that together through that sort of detective work you do as an actor, and you create this rather extraordinary character. It’s like King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth—like all these great classical characters. You know Churchill has all these elements to him, which gives him a kind of Shakespearian density.
When you were researching the man and developing your interpretation of him, what surprised you the most?
BRIAN: The doubt—and yet I think that is also the making of him, the questioning that eventually leads to a conclusion. I think as he got older, the doubt increased. But at the same time, in terms of his legacy, there was no space for that doubt. You couldn’t see it publicly, and certainly his wife Clementine was fierce about protecting it.
There is a marvelous video of the unveiling the 1954 Graham Sutherland painting, done as Churchill was nearing 80. Churchill is in the bottom third of the painting and he is sitting there, an elder statesman. He is quite rumpled. He’s got a button undone. It’s a sort of “warts and all” painting, but there is still an element of celebration of this extraordinary man.
As Churchill is unveiling the painting, Clementine is staring at him, gimlet-eyed. She’s seen the painting and knows what it is like. She has a very clear opinion on it. So the moment Winston turns and reveals the painting, he makes some kind of backhanded remark, “Oh, a remarkable example of modern art.” He hardly bats an eye. But Clementine gets it—and she arranged to have that painting destroyed. And that is the protection of the Churchillian legacy.
That whole protection was very much in play right through the war. For example, any idea of demurring the plan for Operation Overlord—that would not come to public knowledge. Only by piecing it together do we see that it wasn’t as simple as we had been historically led to believe. Facts and truth are in two different arenas.
Understandably there was to be a level of artistic or dramatic license taken to convey those emotions. Were Churchill’s doubts about the Normandy invasion as severe as depicted?
ALEX: I think they were pretty serious. On the night before the invasion, when the ships had sailed, Churchill famously said to Clementine, “Do you realize that by the time we wake up, 20,000 young men may be dead?” For him, that was the worry. It did recall the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and the amphibious landings in the Dardanelles. I think it’s so extraordinary—how he responded to the Gallipoli disaster by leaving political life and actually going and signing up for the army and fighting on the Western Front. I think that is an amazing response that you wouldn’t see any politician doing today! [Laughs.]
BRIAN: I believe quite strongly that Churchill was very, very stricken by the failure of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. In fact, he was so stricken that he resigned and went to the Western Front. Now if that is not an act of someone who is penitent, what is? He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to go into the army. He didn’t have to make sure that he was at the Front. It was fascinating for me to see this man and realize his humanity, his tremendous humanity. And fun! He was a fun-loving person. He was about the affirmation of life even though he was plagued by these demons.
What were the most challenging aspects of the process for you?
ALEX: The difficulty is the kind of four-dimensional game of chess that you’re trying to play. I was concerned with trying to be as accurate as we could be given that we were making a film for entertainment. I knew the essence of the story I wanted to tell and wanted it to be true to the sources that I found poignant—like Alanbrooke’s diaries at the time and some of Churchill’s secretaries’ memoirs—which made really excellent reading. And some of his own writing about his depression, which I found extremely poignant. I knew that those were the kind of aspects that I wanted to bring out. You know you’ll have to make certain compromises because real life doesn’t squish into three acts in a lovely, beautiful way. You know it is about determining what you think is really important, and then making the changes you have to make, with respect hopefully, for the truth of it.
But I did want to be true to that and I did care about respecting Churchill. Particularly this massively huge thing of portraying his depression, or at least giving a glimpse into that. We were very respectful about that because you can’t accurately diagnose a historical figure. It’s not possible to do because you can’t meet him or psychoanalyze him. All you’re going on is the clues in his writing, so I didn’t want to disrespect any aspect of that. But I also wanted to make that sympathetic, and I hope moving, because that is something to me that has huge resonance. Obviously most of us haven’t had to fight World War II, but a lot of us have experience with depression personally, or through a family member or friend, so I think that is an incredible thing. And I know some people may find that disrespectful—there is unfortunately still prejudice out there about how depression works—and they see that as making Churchill less of a hero, but in my mind, it makes him much more of a hero. I hope people find that inspiring.
We like to end our conversations on a lighter note. If you could ask Winston one question, what would it be?
ALEX: Oh, there are so many! Such an interesting guy. I don’t think I could reduce it to one question, but I’d love to have a conversation with him about the way he wrote about depression, in a time where there wasn’t really a language to talk about it. It is extraordinary and touches people across a generation. I think he put it into words better than anybody else. I’d like to thank him for that and maybe ask him more about it. I’d bring him a bottle of champagne, which I think would be a good way to get him to start talking. That would be a privilege.
BRIAN: There are many questions I would like to ask Winston. I’ll tell you something that might amuse you—
I said earlier on that “all children are like Winston Churchill and that Winston Churchill is like all children,” Now that kind of notion of “the little boy.” My kids are besotted by this TV show called Family Guy, and I hadn’t watched it. So I sat down and watched it with them one night, and I thought, “Stewie Griffin is Winston Churchill!”
Stewie Griffin was a little bit of an inspiration for me, because there he is and nobody is listening to him. Brian the Dog listens to him and they share these great intellectual arguments together. He is completely out of touch with his blue-collar parents and relations and has this extraordinary impeccable British accent. And of course, it is just so witty. Seth McFarlane is a bit of a genius.
We agree with that. And he is apparently a big fan of history and old films.
Is he really? Well, that is really interesting! Wow. If you look at the drawing of Stewie Griffin, it could easily be baby Churchill.
Maybe that is something you could tell Winston if you could speak with him— “slain by modern art.”
[Laughs] Yes, that is the question I would ask him—how important is “the little boy” to you? ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of World War II and Aviation History magazines at HistoryNet.
Churchill opened in select theaters on June 2, 2017.