Why isn’t Churchill an unqualified hero for standing up to Nazi tyranny?

Strange that some Brits continue to attack one of our country’s greatest historical figures. Compare and contrast with Bulgaria where, for example, Vasil Levski is an unbridled superstar. Nobody in Bulgaria would dare decry him. So how come we have reached the point in the UK whereby Churchill, Britain’s superstar, is seen by some as a fascist?

I was reminded of this while watching the latest, and very impressive, Churchill movie, Darkest Hour. Wearing my other hat, as a theatrical biographer, I’ve been privileged to revisit the many depictions of Winston. Richard Burton was perhaps the most famous actor to portray Churchill. Then there was Robert Hardy who played him on screen and even in a stage musical.

Other recent impersonators include Albert Finney (the subject of one of my biographies) who offered a superb portrayal in a TV version called The Gathering Storm. Following Finney, we’ve had Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, Ian McNeice, John Lithgow and Michael Gambon, to name just a few. Yet none quite usurped Finney and Hardy – at least in the public’s imagination.

Until now that is  . . . because Gary Oldman would now seem to be a shoo-in for the Oscar. Prosthetics and a fat suit make him look the spitting image of Churchill. In fact, you would never have guessed it was Oldman at all if you didn’t know! It’s a truly remarkable transformation, in which he captures the distinctive Churchillian nuances, the lingering emphases for dramatic effect, the brandy-soaked, thundering, smoky sibilant drawl.

Darkest Hour takes us back to May 1940 when Britain’s situation appeared hopeless. Belgium and France had been overrun, British troops had retreated to Dunkirk and a German invasion seemed imminent. Remember that America was not yet in the war. A key scene has Churchill phoning Roosevelt to plea for ships and having to be gently reminded of American neutrality.

Can you reason with a tiger?

The movie itself is also very enjoyable – authentic in its recreation of setting and atmosphere – but not quite as great as the central performance. First, it shoots itself in the foot by including a fictitious scene whereby Churchill, riddled with self-doubt about the cause, travels by underground. On the tube he meets ‘ordinary people’ who stiffen his resolve. No such incident ever occurred and the argument that this scene is a kind of amalgam of Churchill’s encounters with the great British public, and therefore justified, won’t wash.

Also, the supporting players are not as good as Oldman. Both Halifax and the King compete to ‘stwangle’ their r’s. But neither really springs to life. One key scene – and perhaps rightly feted in the trailer as a defining moment – has Churchill exploding after Halifax, one of the principle pre-war appeasers, urges a negotiated settlement. And this is after Churchill’s appointment as prime minister. “You can’t reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” screams Winston. (That’s such a great line that I like to think he really said it!)  The others just look at him, straight-backed and impassive. But you never feel that anyone is really at home. Only Ronald Pickup does a good job as Chamberlain.

Having to agree with George Galloway is painful

Oldman will almost certainly get his Oscar in March. But what does Churchill get? The far Left continue to vilify him. Protesters storm in to a Churchill-themed cafe in London to read out speeches that supposedly betray him as a virulent racist. Any movie biopic of Churchill’s whole life would have to confront some of his mistakes. And, of course, the chances are that during a very long career he would get some calls wrong – as all politicians do.

But Churchill’s reputation as one of Britain’s greatest – if not the greatest statesman – does not, of course, rest on his attitude to striking miners, or to India, or to Islam. It’s really very simple, you see, and although it pains me ever to agree with George Galloway (vociferous far Left politician and therefore an unlikely ally of Churchill) I have to. (I cite Galloway because the anti-Zionist far Left seldom has a good word to say about Churchill and so Galloway is an exception on this.)

Winston’s status comes from exactly what we see in Darkest Hour. Were it not for Churchill we’d all be speaking German and marching the goosestep. The swastika would be flying over Buckingham Palace and Parliament. And I certainly wouldn’t be writing this! His single stance on this issue – during what was indeed Britain darkest hour – expiates him of his other ‘sins’.

The historical revisionism surrounding Churchill has been ongoing for decades. It usually emanates from the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Neo-Nazis like David Irving have depicted him as an alcoholic Zionist. The late Alan Clark (whose private musings on Hitler were worryingly affectionate) even aired his view on TV that Churchill should have negotiated with Hitler to avoid war.

The Left, however, approach Churchill from the opposite viewpoint. He was, so they believe, a reactionary, a colonialist, an enemy of the working class and a secret admirer of Nazi Germany. According to this view Churchill only changed tack because he saw Hitler as a greater thug than himself, or viewed him as a threat to Britain’s empire. And, of course, Churchill was a Conservative MP. That alone merits execution! (It was not always the case, however, that the Left hated Churchill. The late Tony Benn, commenting on Churchill’s 1965 funeral in his diaries, described him as ‘one of Britain’s greatest Englishmen’.)

Bulgaria’s WW2 revisionism

History offers examples of revisionism of some kind in many countries. The Second World War remains a complex subject prone to diverse interpretations in Bulgaria. King Boris, for perhaps obvious reasons, was seen as a representative of monarcho-fascism by the communists. His role in the war is still contentious.

As for Churchill himself, he was viewed relatively favourably in communist Bulgaria. But during that period Bulgarians were taught that Hitler was defeated single-handedly by the Russians. The infamous Hitler-Stalin pact was erased from history and never mentioned until the late Eighties.

But – going back to Levski – no one would dare to desecrate the memory of Bulgaria’s greatest hero. And for all his faults Churchill was a hero too. So I’m glad there’s been a spate of movies about Churchill. He will not, after all, be perceived as irrevocably linked to an advert for car insurance. He should be remembered as a magnificent war leader.