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A&E Home Video presents
Winston Churchill (1992/1994/1995)

"Winston related to young people, and I think in war particularly he was terribly conscious that he was the person that was instigating them going to their deaths, possibly. And I think this bothered him enormously."
- Pamela Harriman, Churchill's daughter-in-law

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: August 27, 2003

Stars: Peter Graves, Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John James Evans, James Faulkner, John Charles Daly
Other Stars: Elliott Roosevelt, Casper Weinberger, Lord Home, Bob Hope, Lady Soames, Pamela Harriman, Jean Reynaud, Ruth Benedict
Director: Marisa Applugliese, Andrew Johnston, John Alan Kane

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (war combat footage)
Run Time: 05h:31m:48s
Release Date: August 26, 2003
UPC: 733961709780
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B A-B-B- D

DVD Review

Of all the lives of people of the 20th century, few are as influential and memorable as was that of Winston Churchill, prime minister of England during World War II. This set collects four episodes of A&E's Biography series relating to Churchill, plus two other documentaries on a second disc. The first four are written and hosted by Churchill's official biographer, Martin Gilbert, together comprising a full-scale biography of the man and his times. The second disc contains two additional programs that take a look at two different aspects of Churchill during World War II.

Episode 1 breezes through the first 65 years of Churchill's life, spanning the Boer War, World War I, the Depression and the onset of World War II. The program does slow down a bit to discuss his career as First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, and his responsibility for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Since this event had a hugely important influence on his later conduct of the Second World War, it's good that some emphasis is given to it, but other portions of his career that are equally important, such as his exile as an anachronism within the Conservative party during the 1930s are given very short shrift. The result is fairly unsatisfying and dodges some of the most interesting years of Churchill's 60-year Parliamentary career.

Episodes 2 and 3 examine Churchill's war ministry, ground that has been endlessly trod through countless History Channel programs. While one can hardly discuss Churchill without touching on the progress of the war, a bit too much time is spent on the military history rather than Churchill's career or the impact of the course of the war on his outlook. The highlights of these episodes are the interview segments from the 1970s with the multitude of secretaries that he maintained throughout the war, often keeping three or four of them at a time busy around the clock, but despite the heavy workload they all remember Churchill with great admiration if not exactly fondness. There is also plenty of footage of Churchill making the great and memorable speeches, both in Britain and America. The program does not, however, shy away from Churchill's participation in frankly giving away much of Eastern Europe to Stalin and thus sowing the seeds for 45 years of Cold War. Another dissenting voice is raised by noted anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who was an America Firster who wanted nothing to do with the war or assisting Britain.

The last episode on the first disc concerns Churchill's final 20 years, beginning with his humiliating electoral trouncing immediately after V-E Day. Here, in his first retirement, the program finally is able to slow down to talk about his character and discuss one of his defining personality characteristics: his fierce bouts with depression (or as he called it, his Black Dog). Had that been addressed earlier on in the series, it would have given the program as a whole more emotional resonance by putting his achievements into the perspective of suffering with mental illness. This last Biography segment also goes a bit into his deteriorating relations with Anthony Eden and his scandalous last years with Wendy Reves, which both put a less hagiographic spin on the series than it had previously carried.

Churchill and the Cabinet War Rooms is a 1995 British production of the Imperial War Museum and the History Channel that uses radio speeches and reenactments (with actor John James Evans as Churchill) to provide a look at the minister during the war. There are some interesting technical tidbits here about the underground bunker war rooms themselves, but the information generally tends to duplicate the material in the first disc.

The last program hardly fits with the other documentaries beyond its WWII connection. FDR: The War Years is another Biography episode, dating from 1994. Churchill only appears as a most tangential character here, but at least a different perspective is provided on material that is discussed elsewhere. A ton of footage of FDR speaking (more than I've ever seen in one place) helps make it clear how he was able to rally the country around him, both in keeping America out of the war, and after Churchill's appeals, bringing America into the war. Despite the title, the attack on Pearl Harbor doesn't occur until the program is half over, leaving little time for the topic proper. But again, running time limitations preclude much of a serious discussion.

If one takes the Martin Gilbert set as the feature, however, and treats the other two programs as extras, the package as a whole is a satisfactory presentation. It's not exactly an in-depth presentation (and hardly can be, in the space of five and one-half hours), but will make a fine introduction for most people.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Since much of the material is here is either 1940s newsreel footage or 1970s videotaped interviews, there are obvious limits to the picture quality. For the most part, they are transferred as well as can be expected. The videotape segments are very soft, most likely due to the limitations of the equipment used at the time. On the whole, it's reasonably good considering the source elements. The 1990s footage of Martin Gilbert generally looks fine as well. The War Room documentary suffers from severe PAL-NTSC ghosting, however, which some viewers may find annoying. The FDR documentary, by contrast, looks very nice, with minimal artifacting.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Despite the packaging claims of stereo sound, these discs bear 2.0 mono tracks only. The narration from Gilbert is clear and clean. Period clips are predictably noisy, but again are passable considering their age. For a mono track there is decent presence and depth of range.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 45 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Quotations
Extras Review: The sole extras (unless you count the entire second disc as extras, which the packaging does not) are six screens of quotations from Churchill's speeches and examples of his witticisms. The chaptering is adequate.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Although there's enough fascinating material on Churchill to fill an entire college course (and I took one, taught by biographer Maxwell Schoenfeld), this set does an admirable job of condensing the story into about four hours. The other two programs are less focused but still help provide two different perspectives on Churchill's conduct of the Second World War. The primary shortcoming is that four hours is far too short a time to spend on this fascinating man and his undeniable impact on our world.


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