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This historical drama is an account of the early life of the future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Simon Ward), including his childhood, his time as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Second Boer War and culminating in his first election to Parliament. Written by
Rich, if Uneven Tapestry of Churchill's Early Years...
YOUNG WINSTON was a film that director Richard Attenborough said was very difficult for him to make...his reputation as a director, in 1972, rested solely on his only previous film, the anti-war cult classic OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR (1969), and with YOUNG WINSTON, he was expected to tackle a subject that was directly opposite to his point of view. Winston Churchill was the moral center of Great Britain in WWII, staunchly pro-Empire, and anything but anti-war. Yet his early life was an fascinating saga of contradictions, and the director felt that if he could focus on the personal odyssey Churchill experienced, against the backdrop of the dramatic events of the time, it would be a story worth telling. While the end result of Attenborough's labors would not be entirely successful, YOUNG WINSTON is still a rewarding, entertaining movie.
Told as a series of flashbacks, narrated by the older Winston Churchill (mimicked very accurately by the film's young star, Simon Ward), we jump from battlefields in the Sudan to a childhood in Blenhiem Palace, at an occasionally dizzying pace. The son of a brilliant yet self-destructive MP (played, with élan, by Robert Shaw), and his dazzling American wife (the radiant Anne Bancroft), young Churchill worships his parents, but is largely ignored by them, except when the cruelty of a boarding school would become too apparent. Only an average student through most of his youth, he seems destined to a life of mediocrity, at least in his father's eyes, and the parent's cold indifference would only become more pronounced as he experiences the ravages of syphilis, which destroys his career, and would kill him. Too late to win his father's love, Winston blossoms as a student, and determines to win fame, first as a soldier/journalist, then to take up his father's banner in Parliament.
Self-centered, opinionated, and glory-hungry, Winston attracts the animosity of Britain's war staff, yet seems to be anywhere history is being made, from tribal rebellions, to the last cavalry charge in history (seeing Churchill sheath his sword and pull out a pistol as his weapon is a telling sign that the era was ending). Behind the scenes, his widowed mother, trading on her legendary beauty and string of admirers, makes up for her earlier aloofness by using her contacts to help her son 'get ahead'. Yet Winston feels his progress is too slow, and decides to go to South Africa, where the Boer War rages.
As a journalist, Churchill is captured, but, taking advantage of the British prisoners' escape plans, manages to break out of prison, and elude the Boers, while all England watches. By the time he finally reaches safety, the entire world is celebrating him as a hero, and he easily wins his father's seat in Parliament...and takes up the same unpopular issues the elder Churchill had championed, and gone down defending. As Anthony Hopkins, playing Churchill friend David Lloyd George remarks, "A young lion is loose in Parliament."
With an all-star cast (including Jack Hawkins, Patrick Magee, John Mills, Edward Woodward, and a very young Jane Seymour), the greatest credit must go to Simon Ward, the oldest of the three young actors portraying Churchill through his early years. Ward is astonishing, not only physically resembling Winston, but giving the character a humanity that makes his opportunism and ambition far more palpable.
Of note, as well, is Gerry Turpin's cinematography, with it's sweeping vistas of the British army in the field, and Alfred Ralston's rousing score, drawing heavily from Elgar's marches.
While the sheer scope of the story, and flashback approach, ultimately defeat the 'intimacy' Richard Attenborough had hoped for, YOUNG WINSTON is still well worth watching, and helped him prepare for his next film, the even more challenging A BRIDGE TOO FAR.
It is a wonderful film adventure!
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