What two things do Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Hardy, Gary Oldman and Timothy Spall have in common? The easy answer is that each has starred in the Harry Potter movies: Gambon as Dumbledore, Gleeson as Mad Eye Moody, Hardy as Cornelius Fudge, Oldman as Sirius Black, and Spall as Peter Pettigrew. The more elusive answer is that each of these fine actors has also portrayed Great Britain’s indomitable Winston Churchill.
Churchill is one of the great statesmen of history—and one of its great characters as well. Revered in America for his wartime leadership of Great Britain, he is seen more fully—and more critically– by the British who watched him “grow up.” While we Americans tend to focus on his inspiring eloquence and bulldog-like tenacity in the face of Nazi tyranny, the British also remember the impetuous younger man who jumped from one political party to another, often with the appearance of seeking professional gain.
I’ve read several books on Churchill, including William Manchester’s masterful three volume work The Last Lion. The first two volumes read like novels, so full was Churchill’s life from his heroic triumphs as a young man to his personal tragedies and professional missteps. So, I was immediately intrigued when I recently learned that Gary Oldman is portraying Churchill in a new movie to be released this November. Darkest Hour tells of Great Britain’s struggle as its army was surrounded at Dunkirk and King George VI reluctantly invited Churchill to form a new wartime government.
Oldman is an accomplished actor, one of those who can submerge himself in a character to the extent that you forget he’s inside. From Dracula to a Russian terrorist (Air Force One), Jim Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy to Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, Oldman has the range to bring any character to life and enable him to stand on his own.
As I watched the trailer for Darkest Hour—and enjoyed the glimpses of Oldman’s portrayal– I began wondering how many other actors have played Churchill. Of course these days, we can find the answer to nearly any question on the internet. According to one site, 192 different actors have played the part in film and television!
One of the best of these is Robert Hardy who starred in Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, a 1981 television mini-series. I had already been a fan of Hardy’s from his role as Siegfried Farnon in the BBC television adaptation of James Heriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. The Wilderness Years covers the period of Churchill’s political exile as he sounds the alarm about the growing Nazi menace but lacks the ability to do much about it. Hardy’s portrayal is alternately vehement and poignant.
Albert Finney was a convincing Churchill in 2002’s The Gathering Storm, again covering the period of German rearmament in the mid to late 1930s.
More recently, John Lithgow played Churchill as a doddering 80-year-old in the excellent Netflix series The Crown. Lithgow was nominated for an Emmy, although I couldn’t quite get over having an American playing the part. The series included the period surrounding Churchill’s stroke while he was serving his second stint as prime minister in the 1950s. Lithgow is likely the only actor to have portrayed both Churchill and FDR (World War II: When Lions Roared).
The stroke and its immediate aftermath are examined in greater detail in Churchill’s Secret with Michael Gambon as the prime minister. Gambon exudes the frustration of a man regarded for his command of language but who can now barely speak.
Recently, I watched Young Winston with Simon Ward in the title role. An overlong and disjointed screenplay detracted little from Ward’s excellent performance as the insecure but ultimately dashing young adventurer. The film is a good reminder that Churchill was a man of action and physical courage who had performed bravely under enemy fire.
Timothy Spall (The King’s Speech), Richard Burton (The Gathering Storm-1974), Brendon Gleeson (Into the Storm), and Timothy West (Churchill and the Generals) are also among the 192 who have portrayed Great Britain’s wartime leader.
Who’s your favorite?
Darkest Hour, Focus Features, US release date November 22, 2017, 125 minutes