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Made for television in 1974 but non the less rather well-made and supported by great actors. Richard Burton stars as Sir Winston Churchill in this epic which spans the pre-war years of 1936-40. Following Churchill from being both ignored and ridiculed to the point where he is asked to lead the British nation, The gathering storm is interesting, fascinating and a great document of history. Richard Burton gives a powerful and fully believable performance, one of his better in the 1970s. 6/10
Burton gets the speeches but it is another case of him going through the motions for the most part and collecting the fee. By 1974 he had been warned to stop drinking but failed to follow doctor's orders. Alcohol rules all his performances after 1974. If you want to see an actor play Churchill watch Albert Finney in 'The Gathering Storm.' He takes the role seriously. Virginia McKenna is the saving grace of this film and the other supporting actors play their parts well. Burton could have given a defining performance here but as usual in his final years all ambition had long gone. Compare this with his performances in his earlier work and it makes for depressing viewing. Robert Hardy who has played the most Churchill roles on TV has a supporting part here. How he must have cringed during the recording!
I'm tempted to put a check mark in the spoilers' box because I suspect
the outcome of this historical tale will be news to many Americans,
especially the young ones, a substantial percentage of whom believe
that World War II teamed up America and Germany in a war against the
USSR. One in five of us can't name the country we achieved our
independence from. (Wrong answers on that 2011 poll included Mexico and
China.) And here we have the story of a man named Winston Churchill
(Burton), entangled in a tar baby of crucial decisions involving
countries and parts of countries (eg., the Sudetenland) that nobody has
ever heard of.
Yes, I think this will be news to many people. If that's the case, it might better have been presented as a documentary with a narration and lots and lots of colorful maps with moving arrows and other glitzy graphics. "Poland? You mean as in Poland Springs Water?" It's unfair to the unknowing to hear Churchill making a brief, one- or two-sentence description of Norway being a passageway for Sweden's steel shipments to Germany, and a cut to Churchill's wife (McKenna) holding a newspaper whose lead says something about an attack on Norway. I just don't know how many of us are ready to make that cognitive leap.
As Churchill, Burton does a pretty good job of imitating Churchill's public voice, although when he becomes angry he brays. He gives us a gruff Churchill, whose only humor is expressed through sarcastic insults toward his fellow pols, the foreign office, and Herr Hitler.
The Germans are no more than stereotypes. Von Ribbentrop (Hardy) is one of those smilers with a knife. I'm afraid Ian Bannen -- a fine, innovative actor -- is lost in the role of Hitler. He looks and sounds like Ian Bannen with a mustache and a funny haircut. Neville Chamberlain is played as a weakling and a fool by Bailey, although Churchill gets to mouth some sensible words in his defense.
Nobody ever claimed that Neville Chamberlain was a tower of strength and resolve, but I've always thought he got a bad rap on Munich. He came home with a treat signed by Herr Hitler promising that no more territory would be bothered by the Nazis, which is exactly what the wary British people wanted. What else could he have done? Would he have prevented World War II by declaring war on the spot? Chamberlain's humiliation when he's replaced as PM is very moving.
In the final scene, Churchill delivers his stirring speech about "blood, toil, tears, and sweat", and it's very effective because Burton has a greater capacity for bombast than Churchill, even though Burton was drunk and Churchill was a politician. Churchill, as much as anything else, was a fine writer and speaker, precise and articulate, and this film captures those qualities well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have been viewing clips from this on YouTube (not the greatest place
to do this, I admit), and I have been enthralled. The entire cast
(including a young Patrick Stewart, pre-Jean-Luc Picard, as Clement
Atlee) is first rate, but Richard Burton is mesmerizing and
unforgettable as Winston Churchill, a standout performance by anyone's
standards. Fourteen years earlier, he had provided the voice of Winston
in the BBC-ABC documentary "Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years". Now,
he gets to portray the great man himself. And it truly is a magnificent
portrayal, by one of the world's greatest actors.
My only regret is that "The Gathering Storm", along with "The Valiant Years" is unavailable on DVD for home viewing.
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