Churchill on film: the challenges of portraying a Second World War icon

As the clocked ticked down to D-Day, doubts about the operation crept into Churchill's mind. Arriving in UK cinemas on 16 June, new film Churchill explores the crucial days leading up to the Normandy landings through the eyes of the wartime prime minister. Ahead of the film’s release, we spoke to historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann about Churchill's concerns about D-Day and the challenges of bringing such an iconic yet controversial figure to the big screen…

Brian Cox as the titular character in 'Churchill', released 16 June. (Lionsgate)
 
Q: The film follows Churchill’s decision-making process leading up to the launch of the D-Day landings. Where do we pick up the story? 
 
Alex von Tunzelmann: The film begins in 1944, very close to D-Day. The operation – known as “Overlord” – is already set up and it’s time for the final briefing. In real life, this happened on the 15 May at St Paul’s School in London. It was an extraordinary meeting – all of the big figures were there, including King George VI and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower [the future US president was serving as Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force at this time]. 
 
Churchill stood up at the meeting and said, “Gentlemen I am hardening to this exercise. I repeat: I am now hardening to this exercise.” This statement shocked Eisenhower as he thought this meant that Churchill hadn’t supported D-Day all along. That was the jumping off point dramatically for the film – the idea that even just three weeks before the operation Churchill had serious doubts about it. 
 
Q: What sources did you draw on to build up a picture of Churchill at this time?
 
A: There are so many to choose from, but my preference was for close-up, first-hand material.
 
Many of Churchill’s secretaries wrote memoirs after they retired and a lot of them record similar things. What they all say is that he had this extraordinarily mercurial temper – he could absolutely lose his rag and be quite appallingly rude. Helen, the secretary in the film, is a composite of several of these women. Many of the things that happen to her come from real instances, such as Churchill repeatedly bellowing “Give me clop!” at her – by which he meant a hole punch.
 
My favourite source was probably the diaries of field marshal Alan Brooke, who appears in the film. These diaries were incredibly candid; they are a fantastically unvarnished account of what those weeks were like. Brooke was working very closely with Churchill at this point and he had a hard time. In early 1944 he repeatedly uses the word “impossible” to describe the prime minister, and suggests he was becoming increasingly difficult; losing his energy and becoming obstructive. He described working with Churchill as “awful”. Yet at the same time, Brooke also had great affection for him: he wrote that Churchill had an extraordinary charisma and ability to inspire people. His diaries contain a real mixture of affection and irritation. 
 
No one who worked for Churchill denied that he could be an incredibly difficult man. But he could also be incredibly kind and thoughtful. I wanted to show both those sides of his personality.
 
Field Marshal Alan Brooke. Brooke’s diaries provide a “fantastically unvarnished account” of the weeks leading up to D-Day, says Alex von Tunzelmann. (Getty Images)
 
Q: By the time of D-Day, Churchill was creeping into his 70s – was he past his prime?
 
A: In 1940–41 Churchill was a towering figure. He was Britain’s biggest hero for defying Hitler and leading the nation through the Blitz. Today, our idea of Churchill is very much based on that moment in time. The amazing speeches he made then – such as “We will fight on the beaches” in June 1940 following the evacuations at Dunkirk – are what stick in our mind. 
 
But by 1944 it was a different picture; a lot of Churchill’s colleagues thought he might be losing his grip and perhaps shouldn't be leading the Conservatives into another election if the war ended. In his memoirs, Churchill’s doctor Lord Moran recorded that Churchill was starting to some of lose his strength and energy by 1944. As the Allies were beginning to win the war, Churchill personally was beginning to fail. He was clearly pretty determined to fight the ageing process, but it’s extraordinary what war can take out of you. I found that a very interesting idea, dramatically. 
 
Q: Why was launching Operation Overlord (D-Day landings) such a momentous decision? 
 
A: It was a massive moment; the whole of western Europe was at stake. Nobody really knew whether D-Day would succeed, and it required a huge amount of men and materials. So it was an enormous gamble, a one-shot chance. If Operation Overlord had failed, the allies would have been in serious trouble. It wasn't only Churchill who had doubts. They were all pretty terrified about what would happen if it didn't work out; Brooke wrote that he wished to God that the whole thing was over. 
 
There was also a real time pressure on the operation. The day they launched was more or less the last day that they could have launched. If the tides and the weather changed it would have become impossible to land the troops. Meanwhile the Germans were consolidating their positions in northern France. Given more time, German commanders certainly might have worked out that there were decoys on the coast of southern England rather than real troops. So the Allies had a very narrow window of time. 
 

Eisenhower speaks to paratroopers ahead of the D-Day Landings. The American military commander was a key figure in planning the operation. (Getty Images)
 
Q: The film is keen to acknowledge that although these military decisions were being made in meeting rooms, they had a real human cost. What do we know about Churchill’s concerns about the soldiers involved? 
 
A: Something that really fascinated me was Churchill’s reaction to Gallipoli during the First World War. Churchill was one of those responsible for the disastrous campaign. After it failed, with great human cost, he left politics and signed up to fight on the western front. This was an amazing reaction – it was almost an act of redemption. I can’t imagine many politicians doing that today. 
 

So I wondered if something similar was going on with Operation Overlord. Despite being nearly 70, Churchill hatched a plan with King George VI to sail aboard one of the boats on D-Day. Again it seems that Churchill was trying to put himself in the line of fire alongside the ordinary fighting men. Of course, this would have been incredibly dangerous. It sounds completely mad but they really did make this plan. The king wrote Churchill a letter on 2 June – just four days before the ships were launched – saying he couldn’t go. In the film we’ve dramatised that letter into to a face-to-face meeting, but the content of what the king says is very strongly based on the real thing. 
 

Soldiers disembarking from a landing barge during Operation Overlord. At one stage, Churchill planned to travel to Normandy with the troops, says Alex von Tunzelmann. (Getty Images)
 
Q: Were Churchill’s terrible experiences at Gallipoli and concerns about the human cost of Operation Overlord the main reasons why he was reluctant to support it?
 
A: They were certainly part of the reason, but I also think that Churchill favoured other options militarily. He used to talk constantly about slicing up into the soft underbelly of Europe. Rome was taken at the same time that Operation Overlord was launching and Churchill was particularly invested in the Italian campaign. 
 
D-Day wasn't the only military plan that made sense – another one could have had an even better result, we just don’t know. 
 
Q: Churchill is often idolised as a Great British icon, and some people are arguably reluctant to recognise his flaws – why do you think this might be?
 
A: I’m reluctant to diagnose any historical figure, but it seems pretty obvious from Churchill’s diaries that he went through some serious depressive episodes at this point in his life. At the time he was writing there wasn’t really a vocabulary to talk about mental health in, but he wrote very beautifully and movingly about it as his ‘black dog’, or like a picture with the colour drained out. Some people have been shocked to see Churchill presented in this way in the film and consider it disrespectful. I don't consider it disrespectful – partly because a lot of it is true.
 
If anything, recognising that Churchill struggled with his mental health at certain points only makes his achievements all the more extraordinary. I don’t think that depression is a bad thing to admit to at all, but unfortunately I think there are still people who react very strongly against. I hope now we’re moving on and we can have a very different conversation about it. 
 

Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson as Winston and Clementine Churchill, in the 2017 film 'Churchill'. (Lionsgate)
 
Q: Churchill had an incredible way with words. As a screenwriter, was that a gift or a challenge?
 
A: His words are still under copyright so it was more of a challenge; you have to try to sound like Churchill without actually ripping him off. And you're trying to sound like someone who won a Nobel Prize for literature, so you're inevitably setting yourself up for a challenge. 
 
Plus, screenwriting is very different to simply reproducing someone’s language. For example, I made long lists of Churchill’s verbal quirks, and one thing he often used to say if he wanted something was “pray”, as in “pray, get me the file”. You can’t really have someone say that in a film now because it just sounds pretentious and false. It trips the viewer up. You have to find a language that sounds sort of Churchillian, but not like parody – it’s a really difficult balancing act. 
 
Q: What are some of the challenges of adapting history for the big screen?
 
A: There are always competing demands from the filmmakers and there’s always a balance to strike. Feature films aren’t documentaries – the point is not to recreate history exactly but to tell a story, which is always a little bit about the present as well as about the past. 
 
To get an inside view of events, you have to make a few things up. I’m more than happy to admit to the changes we made for the film. For example, we wanted to create a real sense of a ticking clock, so one thing we have done is to compress the timeline of events. 
 
As a historian turned screenwriter, I do feel a bit like gamekeeper turned poacher. But it’s a very different job – you have to do something very different with the history. 
 
Q: This summer sees the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and Second World War dramas Their Finest and Anthropoid also recently appeared in cinemas. Do you think there is a particular appetite for Second World War stories at the moment? If so, why?
 
A: I think there is always an interest in the Second World War. It’s such a foundation for British national identity that we return to it again and again. In times of trouble, it’s what we reach for. One of the reasons I think we identify with the Second World War is that it's a very a clear story in which we, the British, were the good guys. There are plenty of individual stories of heroism and it was an era of amazing characters. 
 
Churchill in particular had such an amazingly rich life with so many different stories in it that historians and screenwriters are spoilt for choice. Plus he’s controversial, so I’m sure we can keep fighting about him for a very long time.
 
Alex von Tunzelmann is a historian and screenwriter. Churchill is released in UK cinemas on 16 June.
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