"Churchill and the Generals," a docudrama airing at 8 tonight on everything else.
This BBC-LeVein International co-production apparently intends to be a no-holds-barred account of the political clashes among top Allied leaders of World War II, with special attention to a warts-and-all portrait of Winston Churchill.
This effect is achieved by giving Timothy West, as Churchill, three prominent warts, along with the cigar and indomitable air issued from the prop room. The rest of the cast -- Arthur Hill as Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Cotton as Gen, George C. Marshall, Richard Dysart as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Brook as King George, Ian Richardson as Gen. Bernard Montgomery, etc. -- seem to imagine themselves giving simultaneous "one-man" shows on the same stage.
Guided by a premise that appears to be "What if World War II were conducted by memoranda?" the cast is then required to enact the crises between 1940 and 1945 as exchanges of stentorian wireless messages, interrupted only by summit conferences and calls-to-arms held on one increasingly familiar strip of beach that serves variously as Tobruck, Casablanca. Dunkirk and Brighton.
"Winston Churchill was miserable unless he was in charge of things," intones Eric Sevareid by way of introduction. But the implication thereafter is that, when Winston Churchill was put in charge, everybody else was miserable.
After going on about how "the conduct of this war might very will improve if several of our generals were shot," Sir Winston sacks the taciturn but courageous general Sir Archibald Wavell for failing to obtain swift victories in Egypt. Then he juggles the rest of his general staff like oranges, while advisers such as Gen. Alan Brooke, the hero of Dunkirk, grimace but love him anyway.
While Churchill bullies and browbeats his generals, and the Parliament has occasional thoughts about replacing him, the Americans are slowly drawn into the battle. But it is still a battle of memos and conference tables, and stentorian posturing intercut now and then with black-and-white footage of howitzers firing at night.
The fresh-faced wave of Americans and their dollars, typified by Eisenhower (who chews out Gen. Montgomery for obtaining an aircraft for personal use), steals much of Churchill's fire. He is losing control, he is being forgotten, he is truculent and childish and ill. By the time Normandy is successfully invaded, this Churchill has to be reminded that England still loves him, warts and all.
Maybe this is a passable rendering of an adequate interpretation of a certain aspect of one leader's wartime moods and prerogatives, and maybe it is crooked as a corkscrew.
Veracity is not really the issue when it comes to "Church and the Generals," for it will engage the attention of very few. What ought to be the issue is the periodic reoccurrence to this sort of television puppet show, in which actors dress up like presidents and prime ministers and field marshals to mouth documented snippets of fact in crazy-quilt contexts.