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Film / Young Winston

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A young man in a hurry.

1972 Biopic of Winston Churchill, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Simon Ward as Winston himself, Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft as his parents Randolph and Jennie Churchill, and an All-Star Cast as various other figures in Churchill's life.

The film focuses on Churchill's early life as a boy, and later as a young cavalry officer in India, Sudan, and the Second Boer War, culminating with his election as a Conservative Member of Parliament in 1900. Based on his 1930 memoir My Early Life, it is very much shown from Churchill's own perspective as a slightly older man (Simon Ward also narrates the film, using a version of Churchill's distinctive older-man voice). Attenborough occasionally uses the device of offscreen interviewers to get a bit more out of his subjects, but basically, this is the story of Churchill's early career as he himself would have liked it to be told.

The film is notable for its 157-minute length (it has an Intermission halfway through) and its aforementioned all-star cast, which includes such actors as Anthony Hopkins, as Churchill's friend and rival David Lloyd George; Patrick Magee, as his army commander Sir Bindon Blood; Edward Woodward, as his former army colleague Aylmer Haldane; Ian Holm, as the editor of the Times; John Mills, as Lord Kitchener; and Robert Hardy, as the headmaster of Churchill's first prep school. (Hardy would go on to play Churchill himself on several occasions, most famously in the 1981 miniseries Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.)

Tropes present in this film include:

  • Accidental Misnaming: One of Churchill's commanders repeatedly address him as "Chapman", even after Churchill's corrected him.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: At the end of the movie, Lloyd George says to Churchill that he looks forward to Churchill one day joining the Liberal party. Churchill replies that he's a born Conservative. In context, this goes nowhere but in real life, four years after that scene, Churchill did indeed leave the Conservatives for the Liberals and stayed with them for 18 years.
  • Becoming the Boast: Churchill is convinced from early on that he's destined for great things, but to begin with, everyone else regards him as nothing but the glory-seeking war correspondent son of a failing politician. As the film goes on, he finds himself taking part in the legendary cavalry charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman, and then he escapes from a Boer POW camp and gets elected MP for Oldham at the very young age of 25. Simon Ward's characterisation evolves, with him gradually adopting the familiar Churchillian pout and habit of standing with his fists on the back of his pelvis.
  • Born Lucky: Churchill. Having been taken prisoner by the Boers, he finds that two of his fellow prisoners are planning an escape. He decides to go with them, and unlike them, he escapes successfully, hiding himself aboard a train. He then decides to jump off the moving train, risking serious injury, but is unhurt. He sets off on foot across the South African landscape until, desperately in need of food, drink and shelter, he knocks on someone's door and asks for help, claiming to be a doctor. A man lets him in and holds him at gunpoint, telling him to tell the truth about who he really is. Churchill admits his identity, and the man tells him he's lucky—he himself is English, and will be happy to shelter Churchill from the Boers who are looking for him. He hides Churchill in the coal mine he runs, with the help of a couple of other Englishmen, one of whom is from Oldham, where Churchill unsuccessfully ran for election as MP. Churchill escapes being caught, then hides on another train and escapes to neutral territory. He goes back to Oldham and is hailed as an escaped hero. He then says that he wants to deliver a message from the Oldham man, who said to tell his wife that he loves her. Cue someone in the audience shouting "She's in the balcony!" The woman waves gratefully, to massed cheers. This time, Churchill gets elected. This was all Truth in Television.
  • Broken Ace: The film treats Randolph Churchill as this, because that's how Winston perceived him. Just how much of an ace Randolph Churchill really was is debatable, however.
  • Darker and Edgier: My Early Life, the book on which the film is based, is noted for its tone of light self-mockery throughout, but the film is a good deal more serious and less ironic.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Invoked by the offscreen interviewer when questioning Jennie about Randolph's mysterious illness.
  • The Dreaded: Played for laughs with Kitchener, who Churchill is ordered to give a message to. Churchill spends the entire journey to Kitchener dreading what Kitchener will say to him, but once he's delivered the message, Kitchener merely requests one brief clarification, then ignores him completely.
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight: In the cavalry charge at Omdurman, Churchill clearly recognises that this trope is in play: he first charges with his sword drawn, then just before he gets into the ruck he sheaths it, pulls out his far more sensible Mauser pistol and starts shooting the Sudanese troops who've been shooting back all along.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Churchill does spend an awful lot of this film fighting brown-skinned people whose motives are never explained and who are never given any characterisation.note 
  • Real-Person Epilogue: The film ends with newsreel footage of the aged Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day, with King George VI and the rest of the royal family.
  • The Speechless: Randolph Churchill becomes this due to his illness, while giving a speech in the Houses of Parliament, to the mortification of everyone watching.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Randolph Churchill, to Winston. He never actually says it.
  • Young Future Famous People: Churchill himself, obviously: the film is about how he earned his fame in the first place. Also a 25-year-old Anthony Hopkins as future prime minister David Lloyd George.