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This mini-series is truly a classic, the best historical drama that I have ever seen. There are slow spots whenever the action moves away from Churchill, or else the mini-series travels over-familiar territory like German preparations for World War II, but these points are simply quibbles. You literally hear the clash of arms, the ring of combat and the roars of the crowd as Churchill battles one foe after another, often defeated but never giving up. I swear, this movie will give you chills with the sense of history being made.
PBS broadcast the mini-series in 1986. Drew Middleton, a WWII correspondent, said that it had the force of Greek tragedy, Churchill the antagonist while everyone--friends, family, political opponents--became part of the chorus. Robert Hardy performs that role magnificently. He has done good work in "Middlemarch", "Elizabeth R" and "All Creatures Great and Small", but those roles are simply dwarfed by his Churchill. Alternately raging, noble, petty-minded, sulking, humorous, sly and generous, Hardy's Churchill is a character of Shakespearean proportions. Rarely does an actor match the emotional force of an historical giant, but Hardy succeeds. Over eight hours, Hardy is never dull.
Still, a great hero is nothing without opposition. When Hardy did a one-man show of Churchill, I was terribly disappointed. Hardy was still doing what he did before but, without context and response, his performance seemed little more than a recital of greatest hits. It is really the entire cast, uniformly excellent, that lifts this mini-series above the usual attempt at history. Nigel Havers does an entertaining and ultimately tragic performance as Randolph, Churchill's beloved son, who is already being ruined by his father's indulgence and overblown expectations. Peter Barkworth as Samuel Baldwin is the ultimate politician, ever so slyly maneuvering with one honest insincerity after another so that, through a bewildering series of missteps that no one but he can understand, he gets exactly what he wants. But Churchill's greatest opponent is Neville Chamberlain. Eric Porter plays him full of arrogance and incomprehension, already marked by the flaws which Hitler will brilliantly exploit. Yet the gradual breakdown, his ultimate realization that his best efforts have led to nothing but ruin, gives Chamberlain a measure of tragic dignity that makes him sympathetic despite the historical record. Churchill is a triumphant Henry V, but Porter plays the blinded hero of his own Greek tragedy to perfection.
An aside. The opening and closing music of this mini-series matches with the greatest music ever made for the movies. Starting mysteriously dim and obscure, it swells into a mighty torrent of sound and victory, at once enthralling to the ear and a perfect encapsulation of the mini-series. If Churchill had had a taste for such music, he would have loved it. Comparable to Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" but infinitely better, the theme music really conveys the character of Churchill and of the times.
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