Review by Mark Wiechman

Narrator:  Martin Gilbert
Audio:  Dolby 2.0
Video:  B & W, Color Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  A & E Home Video
Features:  Quotations
Length:  300 Minutes
Release date:  August 26, 2003

“Let us…brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: ‘This was their finest hour.'

Film ***

Sir Winston Spencer Churchill was indeed, as William Manchester titled his biography, the Last Lion.  After a meteoric early career, he was merely a Member of Parliament with no part in the cabinet, and he spent years in the political wilderness like John the Baptist warning Europe to change her ways.  But instead of the Messiah, he warned of the coming of evil itself in the guise of Adolf Hitler.  He was privy to secret intelligence delivered directly to his Chartwell estate.  No one listened until Europe fell under the swastika and all seemed lost.   Only then was he asked to become Prime Minister.  This documentary reveals that it was his determined actions and immortal words which rallied an already despairing Britain to action.   Without his words, it is no exaggeration to say that Europe would have been lost by 1942 and world history would be entirely different with Hitler launching attacks on America from British airfields.

Written and presented by the excellent and official Churchillian biographer Martin Gilbert, all of these facts and more can be learned in the excellent documentary set Winston Churchill. Especially interesting and well-documented in several parts of the collection is the insight into the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt.  Also, the chapter selections are handy and well-spaced and make it easy to go back to a favorite part or to pick up where you left off if you have to put it aside.

There are actually three complete programs:  Disc One has "The Complete Churchill" and Disc Two has "Churchill and the Cabinet War Rooms" and "FDR: The War Years." 

History is full of men and women who were destined for mediocrity and then surprised the world by leading it down long roads to victory or loss, often much of each. Winston Churchill was an incorrigible young brat and mediocre student who educated himself while away at war and became a lecturer, author, and the leader of Britain in their finest hour.  His letters to his mother while a young man show a vulnerable boy longing for some word from his mother that he never received, yet he grew to be an emotional warrior who loved to be in the thick of the action and never lost his nerve. 

He saw war and struggle as his destiny.  His stubbornness grew into manly courage which steeled the Allies against the greatest evil in modern times.  He changed political parties more times than I can keep track of, and while he rose rapidly to become a young cabinet minister and then chancellor of the exchequer, he also pushed for the disastrous Gallipoli military campaign in World War I which ended the lives of 100,000 troops and thus nearly ended his career.  While it was not entirely his fault, to this day he is despised by the descendents of those killed in action.

In some ways he was a visionary and a prophet yet for the most part he was not really of his time at all.   Like Teddy Roosevelt, he was an aristocrat who was fascinated by war and literature as well.  Like TR he was really a man of the 19th century who led his nation through difficult years of the 20th century even though he was in some ways an accidental leader.  And like TR he was very emotional without letting his emotions rule him.  Shortly after the war with Germany was over, he was voted out of office.   The British people effectively said thanks for saving the world, now go away. 

His marriage was as successful as his leadership in the war and is discussed in a compassionate way in this documentary.  I was somewhat disappointed that his written works were barely discussed, nor is much said about his innovative ideas such as the modern tank.   But then the documentary might have been ten hours instead of  five and one-half, so that is forgivable.

Picture ***1/2

Nothing special, entirely older footage spliced together, and it actually moves more quickly than I prefer, but the flow is excellent and not jumpy at all.  No big complaints in the presentation, though a bit dull compared with The Last Days of the Civil War:  April 1865 from the same studio (see my review of that fine film).

Audio *

While I admit that sometimes I have trouble understanding accents, the guest interviewees are all easy to understand despite their appearance in very old footage and heavy aristocratic English accents. Yet the narrator himself sounds like he is underwater, and he reminds me of a poor radio announcer or amateur actor whose dynamic range is so unpredictable that I either have my system screaming or whispering.   I blame the engineer, not the narrator.  Compression and equalization can fix this.  Audio overall is surprisingly poor from a studio known for good production.

Features **

Nothing other than a series of immortal Churchill quotations contained on Disc One.


Winston would be proud.  His fascinating life is served in a mostly excellent 2-disc box set which will entertain anyone and still teach a history buff a new thing or two.