'Churchill' Is a Confused Look at Masculinity

Our Greatest Briton portrayed as a sad-lad.
June 29, 2017, 7:15am
Brian Cox as Churchill (Allstar/LIONSGATE)

The film Churchill starts as it means to go on, adrift in a sea of heavy-handed symbolism, literally. In its opening moments we see the Bulldog himself, played by Brian Cox, looking out at the ocean. A gust of wind blows his beloved bowler hat into waves which are awash with blood – the blood of soldiers! If this was not sufficiently, dazzlingly clear, Winston then wheezes, presumably to himself, as he is alone: "So many… young men."


Churchill is filled with moments like this one, moments of such overt sentimentality that they seem on the verge of being played for laughs. So they appeared to me anyway, though it is easy to forget the utterly sincere reverence Churchill is regarded with in England if you are not from here. It covers the lead-up to D-Day, an ageing, weakened Churchill in bitter disagreement with Eisenhower (John Slattery) and General Montgomery (Julian Wadham) about how Operation Overlord should proceed. The post-Blitz glow has faded for Churchill, his authority diminished, jowls vibrating a little less ferociously. Alongside the military wrangling, we see him tussle with his frustrated wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson), whose main purpose is to apply powder in an irritated fashion and give her husband a bloody good talking to when he's being silly. Then there is the film's least forgivable flourish, an invented secretary named Helen (Ella Powell) with enormous eyes who looks like a drawing from a war effort poster come to life. Upon meeting her new boss, she quivers in ecstatic awe and breathes: "You're the one… The one who's going to get us through all this." Helen has a sweetheart on one of the D-Day boats, a sweetheart whose name, with thudding inevitability, is Arthur.

Churchill struggles to find some poignancy in the abject physical and mental failings of a man past his peak, attempts to imply with his pitiable stumbling and fluffing and muttering that he has some moral dignity lacking in the Americans; that the reduction of his exterior necessarily enriches the nobility of his interior.


So while the premise that Churchill had grave operational reservations about D-Day – which are treated with a great deal of creative licence here – the real story is the film's confused portrayal of the man's shifting relationship to masculinity.

The trailer for 'Churchill'

Churchill's masculinity is challenged by the advances of modern warfare he has failed to get to grips with; by his age; and by the comparatively flashy Americans. At one point, in one of the film's many, many smoky boardroom showdowns, Eisenhower offers him a cigarette; in response he huffs determinedly on a cigar while cocking an eyebrow in a bit of Freudian patter so conspicuous Kenneth Williams would have turned it down in disgust. The message is clear: he has lost his masculine edge and is scrambling to recover.

This point is further laboured when he exits the meeting, tilts forward like some great grieving walrus and stumbles. A female cadet rushes to help him, in response to which he shouts: "I'm FINE" and shuffles off to pound back another few whiskies and fall asleep in a pile of maps as, I assume, all great political leaders do.

There is a point here, I think – I think so. It's something about masculinity and war and power and folly. It's just that I don't think anyone bothered to figure out what it was before making this admittedly stylish but completely inane film. The point seems to be that Churchill lost a kind of Bad Masculinity with age: a brash, cocks-out, Yank attitude, where you press a button and launch a load of rockets without a second thought. But he gained Good Masculinity where you… do the same thing but worry about it more? You kill thousands of people but have to drink to drown out their screams?


The film's real and only strength is inadvertent; it's a hyper-realised display of a peculiarly British masculinity. It's a masculinity which is the unfortunate expression of a person so systemically repressed that their feelings end up forcing themselves out through strange and unpredictable crevices. They implode and go beyond what could be called femininity or emotiveness, and into a truly unhinged sort of mawkishness.

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It's the masculinity of the Twitter bio that reads "Tony. British and proud. REFUGEE SCUM OUT. Loving dad to my princess Lucy (4)", a masculinity that is moved to rageful tears if the Queen is belittled by a newspaper columnist. It is exhibited nowhere so easily as in relation to war, of course. And it is this masculinity that characterises Churchill, cloying but no less violent for it, laden with an overbearing and musty sweetness that you realise, once it sits there in the back of your throat a while, is the sweet stink of decay. It's a masculinity that needs its overpowering pure sentiment to sit alongside and mitigate acts and beliefs of the most appalling kind.

The British fetishisation of Churchill, and World War II in general, is a remarkably powerful and persistent narrative because it is necessary to counteract the horror of British history. It tells the story of a brave island sacrificing itself for global decency and justice. The word "Empire" is commonly omitted in modern WWII commemorations. The nations who supplied manpower without which the war would not have been won are described as "Commonwealth" now, notwithstanding there was no such thing at the time. By the end of the war, 2.5 million Indian Army volunteers had fought, who are rarely if ever remembered with the same pomp. The powerful stink surrounding WWII commemorations and perceptions must exist, because without it all the ethical squalor of the empire would come squirming out.

That the film Churchill neglects to address any of this is unsurprising. But it's repellent that it grants itself an air of intellectual gravity for paying the most superficial lip service to moral ambivalence. It's the kind of film which expects to be taken seriously, to be regarded as intelligent, merely because it declares itself to be so over and over again, battering us into submission and collective delusion, as the poppies and the cigar and the bowler hat, too, have done for decades.