Even though historical biopics traditionally clean house during Oscar season, this genre of film can be downright insufferable if handled incorrectly.
In the past, a lot of filmmakers have been tempted to fit the totality of a person’s life and accomplishments into a single feature-length runtime, which can result in a bloated script and laughable use of old-age make-up.
Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter Carl Foreman attempt to sidestep these problems in Young Winston (1972) by focusing on a specific period of Winston Churchill’s life: from his childhood to his time in the military to his early years in British Parliament.
While the pair are mostly successful in crafting an accessible take on a larger-than-life figure, they do stumble a bit when it comes to the overall storytelling, which prevents this film from achieving “all-time classic” status alongside other historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Young Winston’s biggest strength and weakness lies in its narrative structure that is broken up into two distinct halves.
The first part is more of a coming-of-age story/domestic drama featuring Churchill’s academic struggles and his dysfunctional relationship with his parents.
Hour two is an all-out war movie that showcases some pretty awe-aspiring recreations of events like the Battle of Omdurman and Churchill’s involvement in the Second Boer War.
While both sections boast some tremendous performances and prestige production values, the opening 60 minutes fall a little short in terms of introducing the audience to Churchill as a character.
Don’t get me wrong, the basics are all there, with the future UK Prime Minister being framed as an unsure young boy who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father (who was a tremendously successful politician in his own right).
Plus, his sense of alienation is really hammered home thanks to some compelling work from Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft, who do a great job of portraying parents struggling to relate to their son.
However, the problem is that the first hour of this film dedicates far too much time to these supporting players, without giving the titular character any real time to make a big impression.
I’d estimate that at least half of the scenes in the first act of Young Winston feature Shaw and Bancroft exclusively, with the various child actors playing Churchill being shuffled off to the side.
Again, it’s not like these scenes are bad or anything (quite the opposite actually), but I did get the impression that the filmmakers tried to smuggle a backdoor biopic about Lord Randolph Churchill (the father) into a film that’s supposed to be about his son.
As a result, Young Winston feels a little bit unfocused at first, with most of the protagonist’s motivation being vocalized by other characters rather than being dictated by his own actions.
Another puzzling narrative choice introduced in the first half of this movie is the filmmakers’ use of overlapping narration, which is something I haven’t seen (or heard) since watching David Lynch’s screen version of Dune (1984).
Just like in that film, Young Winston features voice-overs from multiple different characters, who are meant to provide exposition and spout off about how great/terrible the main protagonist is.
I actually counted each time a new omniscient voice popped into the story and tallied over 10 narrators by the time the credits rolled.
Not only is this lazy storytelling, but layering the movie with so many conflicting narrators results in a really jarring movie-going experience that broke my immersion on multiple occasions.
Now, with all that bellyaching aside, Young Winston eventually finds its footing and picks up tremendously during its second half.
For one thing, Attenborough really gets to flex his talents as an action director, using dynamic camera movements and strategically placed extras to give the last formal cavalry charge in British military history its proper due.
Later on in the film, Attenborough outdoes himself in the action department by staging a truly nail biting sequence in the Second Boer War, where Churchill and his squad have to escape an ambush by pushing over a derailed train car.
But outside of all that bombastic war spectacle, Young Winston’s biggest asset in its second half is actor Simon Ward, who finally gets to take centre stage as an adult version of Churchill.
Despite the fact that this is his first leading-man role, Ward is completely comfortable in front of the camera and finds the right emotional beats to carry the audience from scene to scene.
He showcases some pretty impressive range throughout the film’s runtime as well, effortlessly transitioning from a nervous British schoolboy to an up-and-coming politician who easily captures the attention of his colleagues in Parliament.
Ward also doesn’t rely on doing a simple impression of his real-life counterpart to carry the story, which is a pitfall that a lot of actors fall into when they’re cast in a biopic.
Instead, he actually commits to playing a character, whose doubts and insecurities are eventually overshadowed by his sheer determination to make his mark in politics.
Of course, a lot of this character depth came be attributed to screenwriter Carl Foreman, who does a really great job of fleshing out all of the film’s major players.
Even though this approach leads to some clunky storytelling early on, everything eventually clicks into place once Ward gets to command the lion’s share of Foreman dialogue in the film’s second half.
That being said, I got the impression that the screenwriter was a little too enamored with his real-life subject, since there are select moments in the film that come across as fanboy wish fulfillment.
For example, Churchill easily guns down a bunch of enemy combatants in one of the first scenes of the movie, even though the character has very little field experience at this point in the story.
Moments like this could be chalked up to the fact that Foreman chose to base his screenplay on Churchill’s 1930 autobiography My Early Life; a book that is bound to contain at least a couple exaggerated retellings of real-world events.
So anyone walking into this film expecting any kind of critique about the less savory elements of the Churchill’s legacy, like his views on race and imperialism, will be sorely disappointed.
But judging it as a film, and not a historical document, Young Winston definitely succeeds more than it fails thanks to some very talented people working in front of and behind the camera.
It may not pack the same visceral punch as any war film directed by David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, but Attenborough still knows the right places to invest his time and money on screen, which would serve him well in future large-scale biopics like Gandhi (1982).
And with over 60 depictions of Churchill existing on film and television, Young Winston at least stands out on a superficial level by focusing on an period of his life outside of World War II.
The entertainment industry constantly acts like modern history only revolves around this one conflict, and any movie that breaks from that trend is a breath of the fresh air.
Corner store companion:
McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits and Tetley Earl Grey Tea (because it is the most British food and drink combination I could think of)
-Release date: July 21, 1972 (UK), Oct. 10, 1972 (US)
-Box office gross: $ 4,687,000 (US)
–Young Winston was nominated for three Oscars at the 1973 Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Simon Ward also won the Most Promising Newcomer (male) award at the 1973 Golden Globes.
-Ward went on to reprise his role as Winston Churchill in the 1994 Turkish television miniseries Kurtulus.
-Malcolm McDowell was originally slated to play the lead in this film, but repeatedly declined the role.
-Outside of portraying Churchill as a young adult, Ward also provides the voice of a middle-aged Churchill who narrates large chunks of this film.
-Besides helming Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough directed several other high-profile biopics later in his career, including Chaplin (1992) and Grey Owl (1999).
-Surprise cameo: Sir Anthony Hopkins makes as short appearance at the end of the film as David Lloyd George, one of Churchill’s more prominent political allies who also served as the UK’s Prime Minister between 1916 and 1922.