Churchill: The Hollywood Years Review
Written and directed by Peter Richardson of Comic Strip Presents and Stella Street fame, there’s already a big clue towards what kind of film you’re going to be watching if you sit down to Churchill: the Hollywood Years. The title is also a huge hint, of course, gently poking fun at Hollywood’s way of appropriating heroes and making them American (as with the controversy over U-571, which definitely helped germinate this comedic offering).
The basic concept is that the Churchill we’re all used to seeing from pictures and old newsreels wasn't actually the historically-admired statesman of the war years, but instead merely a figurehead played by an actor named Roy Bubbles. The real Churchill was an all-American action hero who came over and saved Britain from the Nazis single-handedly while falling in love with Princess Elizabeth. The film starts with a son trying to discover the truth about his father, and the tale unfolds from there. (Lieutenant) Winston Churchill becomes a soldier of the US Marines, yet nevertheless sporting the trademark cigar, soundbites, and so on…
Once we’re past the meta-plot, the story specifically regards Hitler’s attempt to take over Britain, aided by sleazy Lord W’ruff (Leslie Phillips). When Churchill and Eisenhower (Romany Malco) turn up in London with the Enigma machine in order to help Britain win the war, it puts a bit of a spanner in Lord W’ruff’s plans. The fact that Princess Elizabeth falls head over heels for Churchill only complicates matters more, particularly when she invites him to a Palace Ball and he gets to see firsthand what W’ruff has planned. Meanwhile, Hitler tries to get the King (Harry Enfield) on his side and then comes up with a plan to marry Elizabeth himself, thus giving him a legitimate right to the throne. Churchill has to fight his way back to the Palace to save the woman he loves from a fate worse than death... and of course to save Britain from the Nazis as part of the deal!
It’s silly, yes, but it made me laugh a lot and there’s some great references to other films to watch out for, such as Top Gun, Brief Encounter, The Color of Money, the Indiana Jones trilogy and Titanic. It’s also got a superb cast from the ranks of well-loved British comedians... Harry Enfield, Vic and Bob, Phil Cornwell, Leslie Phillips, Steve Pembleton and Rik Mayall, to name but a few! Rounding out the ensemble with Christian Slater playing Churchill, Antony Sher as Hitler, Miranda Richardson as Eva Braun and Neve Campbell as Princess Elizabeth, you just know that if the script is even half-OK, the film will be great fun to watch.
And fun it is. Obviously it doesn’t take anything about itself seriously; it can’t really with the initial premise, but it also doesn’t lose track of a storyline solely to try and get a laugh. It’s quite a fast-moving film, with elements of action and romance dotted between the comedy. And the Comic Strip touch can definitely be felt, though it’s a lot more glossy than Comic Strip shows ever were – which is a good job really, as times have changed and we expect a little more in the cinema than we would on TV at home. There’s lots of amusing touches which make the film more enjoyable, from Churchill’s sidekick being called 'Denzel' Eisenhower, to the fun and games down the road lovingly named after Dick Van Dyke – where all the cheerful cockneys hang out in London, don’t you know? Comedy is present throughout and works more often than not.
The cast are superb, with the only downside of such a sea of famous faces being that there’s a definite loss of willing suspension of disbelief – but in this case the disbelief is handed to you on a plate, so that matters a lot less. Everyone is superb, from Neve Campbell’s quickly-learned RP English accent with a definite ‘queenie’ touch, to Leslie Phillips’ sly Lord determined to install the Nazis in Buckingham Palace. Antony Sher does a great job as Hitler and admits he was a little worried about being the straight man to an entire cast of comedians. And of course Christian Slater does his job well as the archetypal American action hero – it’s good to see him doing comedy, too.
It’s hard to know how else to describe Churchill: The Hollywood Years, which must have sounded incredibly bizarre when the script was being touted around. Some of the actors (most noticeably Slater and Sher) actually comment that they weren’t sure what the tone would be until they arrived on set and got to see the bevy of comedians at work under Peter Richardson. The end product is a genuinely humorous film that manages to have a couple of layers working for it – the basic story is funny, and the satirical overplot of Hollywood glossing up history to make good films also holds throughout. It’s never going to be a deep and meaningful film – but it’s a hell of a good laugh.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and the transfer, as you might expect, is pretty crisp and clear. There’s a little softness in some shots, but this may have been more for style than anything else. The colours are rich, true and vivid throughout and though many of the scenes are indoors, darkness is never a problem.
Sound is Dolby Digital 5.1 and gives the speakers a fair workout, if nothing spectacular. The directionality is mostly used in action sequences, but when it does come into play it’s with good effect. The dialogue is clear throughout, despite all the interesting accents and under-breath comments made through the film (which were often ad-libs apparently, but what else would you expect with this kind of cast).
Menus & Extras
The menus are partially animated and nicely-conceived, definitely better than I had expected. They also employ appropriate clips from the film for the transitions, while maintaining good menu access times throughout. There’s also an impressive bevy of special features, especially considering the length and advertising profile of this film when originally released in the cinema.
First of all there’s the feature-length audio commentary with Peter Richardson and Christian Slater. It’s somewhat informative and amusing, but primarily anecdotal. Christian Slater even gets to learn stuff during it, which is quite funny. The pair obviously have fond memories of the film, especially Slater as he has something good to say about every member of the cast! One of the more interesting bits comes when Richardson is explaining how Rik Mayall was originally lined up to play Hitler, and also saying once and for all that he isn’t related to Miranda Richardson.
Behind the Scenes blends vox pops from the cast with clips from the film, some of which didn’t make the final cut. Again it’s a gallery of people saying how much they enjoyed working with each other and on the film in general. Comments are actually interesting more often than not, and it’s not a very Hollywood ‘behind the scenes’ affair; there’s a bit more to it than that. The clips are well-placed and the use of deleted ones makes it a more interesting watch straight after the main feature. It lasts just under 15 minutes.
A bit longer, Churchill: the Amazing True Story is a mockumentary about the search for the real Winston Churchill. Extra in-character interviews were filmed just for this feature, and they really help it out – it’s funny and well-done and very enjoyable. Definitely worth a watch even if you usually generally skip DVD extras, this is more an accompaniment to the main film than many special features you find. It also shows that they could have made the whole film in mockumentary style – but if they did, they’d have lost some of the ‘Hollywood’ gloss, so it would have ended up quite a different beast altogether.
The rest of the extras are pretty standard fare: outtakes, deleted scenes, TV spots and the ubiquitous theatrical trailer. There’s also an alternative opening and ending which feature Ronni Ancona as a Hollywood exec trying to glam up the Churchill story. It works as well as the ‘looking for my father’ meta-plot that ended up being used, but it sets a different and not altogether successful tone for the film, so I’m glad they didn’t go with it in the end.
I found Churchill: the Hollywood Years to be an amusing British film, full of talented comedians and actors brought together with a punchy script and good direction. There’s definitely bits that work better than others, but overall, it’s pretty much what it says it is, a fun look at alternate histories and how things often get tweaked for entertainment purposes. It seemed fairly low-profile in the cinemas, but hopefully the DVD will allow a wider audience to catch this film with a nice, rounded set of extras that only add to the enjoyment.
Last updated: 21/06/2018 19:53:08