Churchill: The Hollywood Years

(Dir. Peter Richardson 2004)

I had been looking forward to this film a great deal, and was very disappointed.

Many years before, the director had made Strike for British television. This was a Hollywood treatment of the 1980's miners' strike, in which Arthur Scargill, a man who in reality was a ugly tubby balding Yorkshireman, was played by Al Pacino, and his wife played by Meryl Streep. The piece was a great success. In its climactic sequence, Scargill had to rescue a little girl trapped in a mine, before riding a motorbike across country to the Houses of Parliament, to make a speech that would utterly win over all the Commons and save the day.

When I saw the poster for this film, my appetite was honed. Christian Slater was cast as Churchill, and the rest of the cast included half the top comedians working on the British screen today. The basic idea for the film was excellent. This was a film about Churchill during War War Two, in which the traditional Hollywood disregard for facts or the feelings of states outside America would be lampooned. This is clearly a rich vein for comedy.

Sure enough, Churchill in the film is an American G.I. who comes over to Britain to find the British incapable and unwilling to defend themselves, and he saves the day, winning the heart of Elizabeth Windsor along the way. How on Earth could this go wrong?

I suspect that producers were involved. For one thing, it explains itself, as though some producers feared that Americans wouldn't get the joke. It starts with a bit of newsreel footage of Churchill, and says that it used to be thought that Churchill was English (the fact that the real Churchill had some American ancestry spoils this a bit, but never mind), and then we learn that Churchill as we know him to look was an actor. No! This isn't the way to do it! They should have just started the story without this preamble. Churchill is famous enough for people to know that something is wrong when they see him depicted as a cocky slouching G.I., and the suggestion that Churchill as we knew him did exist but that he was a front man is to destroy the whole joke of Hollywood's getting it wrong.

The great joke, the one that would make this comedy different from others, was that it was the way Hollywood would depict Churchill - in much the same way as it depicts everything else: with no regard whatsoever for historical accuracy, but with boosts to American pride at every turn, and countless corny clich├ęs. The film should have stuck to its own internal logic, but instead it tried to use several contrary styles of humour. At times it was a bit like American comedies like Airplane! - where not only we the audience, but the characters too witness obvious silliness. The film should have been funny to the audience, but not to the characters. The actors we saw on screen should have looked like actors appearing in an American movie, and trying their best with the script and direction given. Of course the film is a comedy, but it would have been far funnier had it even for a moment tried to get across the pretence that the actors in it thought that they were making a reasonably serious film. Other sections of the film turned into British Carry On-style humour, which was dated at best, and seldom at all funny, full of sea-side postcard innuendo and camp posturing.

A lot of acting talent was wasted in this film. Very able people looked embarrassingly mediocre. There were a couple of good gags, such as the London Cockney Irish, and the Queen's gold-plated sten gun, but almost everything fell flat. To work, a film has to decide what its comic style is, and stick to it. Had the whole thing been like a Carry On, or an Airplane, then perhaps it would have pleased some people, but as it is, it pleases, I would judge, no one. It is painful to see actors trying so hard to play for laughs. The Carry On -like elements involved the actors having to behave in over-the-top juvenile ways, and we the audience could never believe that any actor doing this could possibly believe that he was in a proper film. Instead, we just watched people being silly. During the end credits, there are out-takes, showing the cast having a great time. Given that a typical audience member would not have been having a good time watching the film, it was a mistake to put these in. Not only do they further destroy the illusion that the film was trying (or should have been trying) to put across, but no audience member will ever take kindly to the idea that the people who worked on the film and got paid to make it had a better time than he who paid to see it.

So, my guess is that some Hollywood producers asked for more kinds of humour to be added, mistakenly thinking that this would make the film funnier and with a wider appeal. If so, this would go to show how spectacularly wrong some producers can be.

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