Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny (2010)

Genres - History  |   Sub-Genres - Biography  |   Release Date - Oct 29, 2010 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 101 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Richard Trank's documentary on Winston Churchill is an odd film in several ways, although some of the oddities about it can be explained by its origins -- it apparently started life as the first part of a proposed trilogy of biographical films about Churchill that would have carried us from 1930 until his death in 1965, before it was reconceived to stand on its own. As a film limited in its coverage to the years 1930 through 1942, Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny has some fascinating digressions, as well as quite a few peculiar gaps (and several understandable ones which, although in keeping with the sensibilities of the film, also render it somewhat less than complete as an account of its subject). Woven throughout the narrative are places where we learn of Churchill's special bond with the Jewish people, owing to both family history and his early political career; and every so often we get a perspective on events in Churchill's tenure as prime minister from the point-of-view of David Ben-Gurion, the future prime minister of Israel, who was living in England at the time. Special emphasis is also made at several points of Churchill's outspoken denunciations of the persecution of Jews in Germany and the mass executions carried out by the Germans in their expansion to the east.

As the film is a product of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and made with the support of a government body focused on the expansion of Holocaust studies, it's understandable that these moments of emphasis would be there. The goal seems to be to establish a distinctly Jewish perspective on Churchill's career from this period, and in pointing this out no one means to imply that there is anything wrong with this. But it does lead to a narrow focus on the views of its subject -- the reality was that along with his relatively early (and unwavering) support for the nationalist aspirations of the Jews in Palestine, Churchill also held some intensely negative views on similar aspirations on the part of the people of India, views that were sufficiently extreme to make him unpopular within his own political party. These are mentioned nowhere in Trank's movie, and make for a flawed, if not outright dishonest, picture of the man -- unless one wishes to label this movie as a uniquely Jewish (and Zionist) perspective on Churchill. Further, in the matter of his conduct of the war upon becoming prime minister, one can come away from this movie convinced that Churchill made no major errors once he took on that job -- and, to be fair, he was extraordinarily successful in his tenure. The producers have been very careful here to limit their focus to the period from May of 1940 until the opening days of 1942, following Churchill's successful visits to the United States and Canada in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. No mention is made of Churchill's disastrous decision to dispatch the HMS Prince of Wales and the rest of what was known as "Force Z" to Singapore with no air support, which resulted in the sinking of both it and the battlecruiser Repulse on December 10, 1941. And by cutting off the narrative in early 1942, the producers avoid having to mention the Dieppe Raid in August of that year, one of the worst military disasters of Churchill's tenure. The omission of those incidents is understandable, and the early cut-off of the narrative also absolves the producers of having to address the issue of the Allied failure to do more to disrupt the activities of the concentration camps -- the full information on what was taking place there wasn't available until 1943. Such difficult questions and less-than-successful moments are not germane to what is obviously intended as a portrait of a renowned figure in his triumphant years.

It's hard to fathom, however, why so little is said about the full range of Churchill's activities in organizing against Hitler in the early to mid-'30s. There are references to his writings and speeches, on the public side of his persona, and some moving memories by the prime minister's now-deceased grandson Randolph Churchill (who was not yet born at the time of the events referred to). But we now know that Churchill had organized a private intelligence network, separate from that of the British government (whose own intelligence service had effectively been compromised by the Germans as early as 1933) to give him a full perspective on Hitler's plans. Almost from the day the Nazi leader took power, Churchill had a network of journalists, businessmen, and others who regularly traveled throughout Europe and elsewhere reporting to him, both directly and through the offices of Sir Robert Vansittart (the government's Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and a sub rosa Churchill ally), and feeding him information on German government activities. What possible reason there could be for not, at the very least, alluding to these activities is one of the more mysterious elements of this film -- and coupled with the other omissions, it gives this documentary a strangely off-kilter aspect, whether one is a Churchill devotee or a neophyte just learning about a man who could easily have been, as the case here is made, the greatest public figure of the 20th century.

Beyond that, the film is well put together, with a lively pace and steady forward momentum to its narrative, broken occasionally to get in a human element to the great events recounted, such as the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain (with a special focus on the Americans who flew with the Royal Air Force), and the London Blitz. It's especially gratifying to see 93-year-old Vera Lynn on camera, recalling the London bombings -- and her seeming digression ends up fitting perfectly into the structure of the documentary as presented. For all of its virtues, Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny is probably not the place to start finding out about its subject, and is definitely not the place to stop -- but it is a satisfying and enthusiastic, if flawed, portrait that's worth seeing, with perhaps a special relevance for those seeing it from a Jewish perspective.