"Young Winston" released in 1972 was a no expense spared, beautifully mounted, all star, "thinking man's epic" recounting the childhood and early manhood of one of history's great statesmen, Winston Churchill. It was among the last in a long honorable line of historical epics whose golden era began with Robert Rossen's "Alexander the Great" (1956) followed by "A Night to Remember" (1958) and "Spartacus" (1960) and for many reached a zenith with David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962). The era continued with "The Longest Day" (1962) "Cleopatra" (1963) "Zulu" (1965) "Khartoum" (1966) "Is Paris Burning?" (1966) "Charge of the Light Brigade" (1968) "The Battle of Britain" (1969) "Cromwell" (1970) "Tora, Tora, Tora" (1970) "Patton" (1970) "Waterloo" (1970) "The Red Tent" (1971) and "Nicholas and Alexandra" (1971). It was Richard Attenborough's follow up to his spectacular film version of the stage hit, "Oh! What a Lovely War". He would follow up "Young Winston" with the equally spectacular "A Bridge Too Far" (1977). Attenborough was at home mixing the grand with the biographical, and in addition to "Young Winston" he made an epic film on "Gandhi", (1982) for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, with the film winning for Best Picture and Ben Kingsley for Best Actor. This he followed with a somewhat less successful film, "Cry Freedom" (1987) notable mostly for Denzel Washington's charismatic portrayal of Steve Biko, and an even less successful film followed this on the life of "Chaplin" (1992) again, notable for the remarkable performance by Robert Downey Jr. in the lead. The following year Attenborough returned to form-sans epic aspirations-with another adaptation of a stage hit, "Shadowlands" with Anthony Hopkins wonderful as C.S. Lewis.
Among Attenborough's chief attributes is being especially good at getting great performances. This is not unusual since he is himself a marvelous actor and coming from a theatrical background he knows dramatic material when he sees it. He also has a fine eye for period detail. "Young Winston" excels in all these departments. Carl Forman's screenplay, adapted from Churchill's memoirs is a veritable Boy's Own Adventure yarn. Charmingly narrated by an unseen older Churchill, (an uncanny vocal performance by Simon Ward) recounting his early life, it moves sprightly along following the young Churchill from childhood to boarding school, his travails with his parents, to his escapades in the Sudan as soldier and the Boer War as war correspondent and climaxing with his winning his father's seat in Parliament. And it is Churchill's need to win his father's love and approval that thematically dominates the film. Lord Randolph Churchill was by all accounts an imposing figure and the part is well served by Robert Shaw in what is certainly one of his finest performances. The scene where Shaw, coping with the ravaging onset of syphilis, attempts to express his love for his son, is in the opinion of this commentator, the finest piece of acting he ever did. Shaw was never a vulnerable actor, and this is one of the very few times we glimpse a tender side to his personality. It is an extremely moving scene, beautifully played. Anne Bancroft as Jenny Churchill captures all the vivacious charm and steely fortitude as his mother, the other dominating influence in his early life.
Attenborough wisely choose to go with an unknown for the pivotal role of Churchill. It was a fortuitous decision that brought spectacular results. Simply said, Simon Ward is Churchill. Not only does he look like young Winston, he is by turns sensitive, haughty, dashing, and always winsome. His embodiment of Churchill's physical gestures and vocal intonation are truly amazing. In what seems to be traditional for the historical epic, the supporting cast is first rate. Along with Shaw and Bancroft, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Pat Heywood, Ian Holm, Patrick Magee, Anthony Hopkins, Edward Woodward, Laurence Naismith, Robert Hardy, and Colin Blakely all have effective cameos. Hawkins is especially good as Mr. Welldon, Headmaster at Harrow. in a subtle comic turn and without saying a word Hawkins uses his very expressive face to register his total perplexity as to how to grade a blank piece of paper young Churchill has turned in. Equally good is John Mills. Mills made a cottage industry at playing stiff upper lip types, such as Scott of the Antarctic. As Lord Kitchener he is at his most stiff upper lipped. He is perfect as the Great Man with the steely blue eyes, (Kitchener's face was used for the British equivalent of the Uncle Sam, "I Want You!" recruiting poster in WWI) who personified the Victorian soldier hero. "Young Winston" is a grand, rousing historical epic beautifully capturing the pageantry of Britannia at the height of Empire while never losing sight of the young man who one day would become one of her greatest sons. Rule Britannia!
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