Eyes glaring, cigar aslant, Winston Churchill strode with fierceness through World War II, a leader of brash wit who sipped whiskey, wrote speeches in the bathtub and became one of the most towering and complex characters of the last century.
He had a devouring intellect and a voice of gravel and grace. His radio broadcasts, as if a great uncle summoning his family, rallied Britain against German air raids and fear that Europe had tumbled into an inescapable abyss. He was a fusillade of energy and cunning, a man of controversy who with top hat, scowl and cane continues to be idealized, caricatured and immortalized in films and documentaries.
“He’s a ready-made character,” said Paul Reid, who with William Manchester wrote the third volume of the Churchill biography “The Last Lion.” “For scriptwriters he brings every device and trait to the table from youth to old age. He was transcendent and powerful, and many believed he saved Western civilization. Churchill gave you a potential movie every day. He won, he lost, he flip-flopped. He was a maverick and a malcontent.”
Churchill’s pugnacious spirit pervades a number of recent and upcoming films and TV shows, including the war’s early days in director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” which opens later this month; John Lithgow’s sly and clever portrait in the Netflix series “The Crown”; Brian Cox’s riveting self-aware monarchist in “Churchill”; and Gary Oldman’s much-anticipated portrayal in “Darkest Hour,” which opens later this year.
These performances join an honor roll of searing Churchill depictions, notably Albert Finney’s blustery and resolute statesman in “The Gathering Storm” (2002) and Brendan Gleeson’s radiant pillar against tyranny defined in that film’s sequel, “Into the Storm” (2009).
Greatness is the intersection of timing, resolve and personality that at once embodies and transcends its era. Such figures, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were, like Churchill, resilient and flawed but capable of bending history to their passions. Each of them, along with President Lyndon B. Johnson, had outsize personas and inner conflicts that made fascinating subjects for biographers and filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and Ava DuVernay.
His eccentricity and breadth of talent – skilled painter, gifted writer, incisive comic – are that much more pronounced when compared with many of today’s world leaders. In a time of terror, nuclear threats, global warming, ransomware and interconnected financial markets, there appear to be few politicians with the eloquence and grit to change the will of others and summon the courage to confront existential demons. Perhaps trying to channel that charisma, President Trump has restored to the Oval office a bust of Churchill.
“People are yearning for somebody like that,” said Richard Trank, director of the documentary “Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny.” “Churchill was great at capturing people’s imaginations. He came in at the right time and inspired.”
He was that rare character who was both a hero to the right (militaristic and unapologetic against fascism) and the left (an intellectual beloved by the common man). Scores of movies, television series and books have been produced and published about him in recent decades, including Thomas Ricks’ recent tome “Churchill & Orwell,” a meditation on Churchill and British writer George Orwell, author of the political-dystopian novel “1984.”
Churchill was voted in 2002 as the greatest Briton of all time, surpassing Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. He did not succumb to the prophecy of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who wrote to his son that if he did not improve from the idleness of his school days, “you will become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy & futile existence.”
Oldman was quoted in the British press comparing Churchill with other characters he’s played: “They’re all challenging in their own way but Winston was kind of a hard one. It’s a lot to wrap your arms around. Not only the physical, but he is arguably the greatest Brit who ever lived … a kind of iconic figure. It was daunting but once I started to find out who the man was, it was … well, I never enjoyed anything so much in my life."
Not long before war broke out in Europe in 1939, Churchill, one of the few politicians warning of Hitler’s designs, was on the fringes, written off by many as a spent if irascible force. But after a stint as secretary of Navy he became prime minister, having to confront German forces sweeping across the continent and persuading America to shake off its isolationist tendencies and enter the fray. His speeches were rousing, including one in 1940 that channeled Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in “Henry V”:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
The words were at once cinematic and poetic. The Churchill depicted by Lithgow had been victorious in war but was in the waning years of his career, tending to a dying king and witnessing, and shaping, the rise of Queen Elizabeth II. Britain was drifting into a new era defined by redrawn alliances, changing politics and the Cold War. Lithgow, who played the part with scowls and magnanimity, said:
“Churchill is gigantic in history. He’s beloved. He’s got this kaleidoscope of qualities. He almost embodies what’s left of the British empire. I was thrilled and terrified when I was offered the role.”
In a recent essay about how Churchill might have responded to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the Economist wrote: “In a country led by the weak and wobbly, a hulking figure from the past looms larger than ever … Churchill will doubtless be evoked throughout the Brexit negotiations. But the effect may be more poignant than stirring. On hearing that the great statesman had died, Charles de Gaulle, his French counterpart, remarked: ‘Britain is no longer a great power.’ As the country begins haggling for a new place in the world, with no steady hand at the rudder, the truth of that remark will become painfully clear.”
But Churchill was also a man of flaws and a product of his time. He fought depression, which he called “the black dog,” and could be petulant and cutting toward his staff. He was a colonialist appalled by Gandhi’s threatened fast to gain independence for India from Britain: “We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the empire if he died.” Churchill supported using poison gas in certain conflicts and referred to whites of British ancestry as “a stronger race, a higher grade race” than minorities.
“There were so many layers to the onion,” said Churchill biographer Reid. “He was a rousing, orating nationalist for the British Empire. But he believed the populace must be informed and educated to see through cheap rhetoric.” He added: “Churchill was not a religious man but he did abide by St. Paul’s advice to humanity: ‘Prove all things and hold fast to that which is good.’”
He also loved dogs, including two poodles buried at Chartwell, his home in Kent. He was often restless and once walked out bored during a screening of “Citizen Kane,” which starred Orson Welles, whose role as a larger-than-life newspaper publisher echoed some of the prime minister’s traits.
“We have entered an age of storm and tragedy,” he wrote in his 1953 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature. “The power of man has grown in every sphere except over himself. … Rarely in history have brutal facts so dominated thought or has such a widespread, individual virtue found so dim a collective focus.”
There was “nothing about him that was predictable. There were certain excesses about him, the way he spoke,” said filmmaker Trank. “This is a great character to play. There was a period of time when Churchill was pretty much fighting Hitler alone. He was a voice in the wilderness for a while.”
He reveled in his contradictions and was anything but faint-hearted: “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”