It's said that Winston Churchill himself asked Carl Foreman to make a movie out of Churchill's "My Early Life." The great man made his request after seeing Foreman's "The Guns of Navarone." Now it may seem strange that the foremost statesman of his time would want his autobiography produced by a man who had just made a straightforward action picture. But then again, maybe not. We live in a time when people tend to do more or less the same thing all of their lives. Churchill did not. He had several careers before he settled into his final role as the World's Greatest Statesman. He spent quite a bit of his life, in fact, being an Eminent Failure. More than once, he committed what looked like political suicide. And his early life was filled with more action than thought. "You are my greatest disappointment," Lord Randolph Churchill rumbles at his son, somewhere around the middle of Foreman's "Young Winston." "I cannot imagine what will become of you." The audience is supposed to dig each other in the ribs at this moment, I suppose; our knowledge of how Churchill really turned out is what gives his early story such a nice irony. But Foreman, who wrote and produced, and his director, Richard Attenborough, don't work the irony too hard. "Young Winston," opening Wednesday at the U.A. Cinema One in Oakbrook, has been conceived as part history, part autobiography and two parts swashbuckling adventure.
To judge by the film, Churchill was not so much a product of the British public school system as a by-product. He wasn't very good at his lessons. He presented disciplinary problems. He was stubborn and obstinate. The child actor who plays Churchill at school nicely catches the last trait and it is amusing to see a junior-sized version of the adult bulldog.
Churchill as a young man is played by Simon Ward, a successful 30-year-old British stage actor whose previous movies have mostly been along the line of Dracula-Sucks-Frankenstein's-Blood. His performance in "Young Winston" has been praised by the London and New York critics for being just enough like the public Churchill to convince us, but not so much an imitation that we're distracted.
Ward visited Chicago recently to talk about the movie, and said the most difficult thing about his role was getting the "correct shading" as the young Churchill grows into a man.
"In the scenes where he's younger, I wanted him to be less distinctive, more like just another young man. But as he grew older," Ward said, "I wanted to show his character and mannerisms gradually developing. You have to remember that even at the end of the movie Churchill is just at the beginning of his career in politics, and the mannerisms, the famous World War II trademarks, were decades ahead of him."
The movie's climactic scene has Churchill making his maiden speech in the House of Commons. This scene ("The most difficult in the movie for me," Ward said) is the only one in which the later, public Churchill obviously begins to emerge. Ward lowers his voice, bends forward slightly from the waist, plants his hand on his hip, thrusts out his lower jaw a little, and allows the bulldog's growl to echo in the voice.
For the rest, the movie concentrates on some of Churchill's early, formative experiences. He was a lonely child, caught between a detached and distant father and a mother who "loved" her son, of course - but from a certain distance, while she reigned in London society. Young Winston himself adored his father, but felt stupid and clumsy by comparison to him.
His early life was spent in a variety of rather reckless occupations, as he followed the flag of the British Empire to some of its more obscure outposts. He was a war correspondent, a young lieutenant, and a military critic, who aroused the wrath of the great Lord Kitchener by presuming to criticize him in a book.
Some of the battles Churchill joined in might have been forgotten by all but the historians if it hadn't been for his presence. There is, for example, the matter of the great cavalry charge against the Dervishes in the battle of Omdurman.
"I doubt if one person in a hundred even knows that war was fought," Ward said. And yet the war does provide the occasion for a thundering cavalry charge, and we hear Churchill's narration as it begins: "This was to be the last full-scale cavalry charge in the history of the British Army."
Robert Shaw plays Lord Randolph, and for the role of Churchill's American-born mother, Foreman and Attenborough cast Anne Bancroft. John Mills has a crusty role as Lord Kitchener, and various other British stage veterans turn up in many vignettes.