Definitive almost to the point of exhaustion, the documentary Churchill's Bodyguard tells the astounding story of England's Prime Minister Winston Churchill's bodyguard, Walter H. Thompson. One may well ask how a ten hour documentary could be stretched to cover just one individual, an individual who's role in history was relatively unknown to historians until very recently. Well, very simply: the documentary is really about Winston Churchill, not Thompson.
Thompson is the tall man standing behind Churchill
Now, that's not entirely fair. Of course, the main focus of the documentary is on Thompson's duties as bodyguard to Churchill. And that focus does take up quite a few minutes of the documentary's running length. But still, much of Churchill's Bodyguard is an exciting recounting of Churchill's life, along with the politics and military actions of the British government during his and Thompson's lifetimes. With the use of Thompson's recently discovered full autobiography, which had been suppressed by the government in the 1950s due to the Official Secrets Act (a whitewashed version was released, with much of the real story cut out), writer/director Jonathan Martin, along with co-director Philip Nugus, have fashioned a complete military and political history of the pre-WWI to post WWII years in England.
Walter H. Thompson, a soldier and police officer from a solid middle class background, and the eccentric, magnificently confident Winston Churchill, born into one of England's most notable families and destined for greatness, would seem an odd couple, and they were. It's difficult to ascertain from the documentary just exactly how close they were. Certainly Churchill looked upon Thompson as a professional who was good at what he did; that's why Churchill repeatedly asked for Thompson whenever he needed security through the ups and downs of his political career. But it's also evident that Churchill probably viewed Thompson much the same way he viewed anyone who worked for him: as a servant. One of Thompson's main jobs -even at the height of various threats that could have easily taken Churchill's life - was to carry Winston's paint box. What does come through strongly is that Churchill was a daredevil his whole life, even to the point of foolhardiness, and Thompson's strict attention to detail, as well as to his duty, saved Churchill's life countless times (almost 20 times directly), and thus directly affected the outcome of history. For this, Thompson will be remembered.
Another aspect of Thompson's autobiography that can't be overlooked, is the coloring of the events recounted there. Throughout the documentary, after particularly exciting passages from Thompson's manuscript are read, the filmmakers are careful to qualify Thompson's remarks with cautions as to the validity of what was said. Of course, written years after the events, it would have been difficult for Thompson not to have expanded some of the exploits that besieged Churchill. Regardless of that, it's an amazing story, and Thompson's role in history, though minor, provides a unique framework for the filmmakers to produce an exciting history of those formative years. Using vintage newsreels and photographs, the filmmakers keep the long documentary moving along at a good clip. There's a wealth of detail in Churchill's Bodyguard, and the filmmakers do an admirable job of keeping it clearly in context.
One of the main drawbacks of Churchill's Bodyguard, however, is a questionable decision to include newly shot recreations of some of the events in the documentary. While I don't have anything against recreations in documentaries (even though I think they clash visually with the newsreel footage usually found in these docs), the filmmakers of Churchill's Bodyguard shoot these particular ones out of focus. When the first one appeared, I checked to see if it was my TV, it was that bad. It's not a cliched gauzy look that directors sometime employ to convey past events - they're clearly out of focus. The newsreels and photographs are razor sharp in the doc, so it's not a matter of transfer. One can only guess why the filmmakers chose to do this, but it is a major distraction.
Here are the 13 episodes of the mammoth documentary, Churchill's Bodyguard:
Walter Meets Winston
From working-class roots, a former telegraph messenger boy comes to guard one of Britain's most flamboyant and controversial politicians. Walter doesn't serve long before he counters the first deadly threat to Churchill -- IRA gunmen lurking on the route to Whitehall.
Lawrence and Walter Save the Day
Walter accompanies Churchill to the Cairo Conference, which shapes the future of the entire Middle East. In their travels, they face rabid, rock-throwing crowds and meet Lawrence of Arabia -- the one man who commands enough respect to shepherd them to safety.
Nearly Killed in New York
Churchill's resistance to self-rule in India makes him a target for terrorists. Under this ominous cloud, he and Walter set off on a lecture tour of the States. But when danger finally strikes, seriously injuring Churchill, it comes from an unexpected and far more mundane quarter.
Indian Nationalist Assassin
Resuming his tour after his convalescence, Churchill wins the hearts of Americans everywhere he goes. Not everyone is so in thrall, however. The Indian secret societies still stalk him and come uncomfortably close to carrying out their deadly plans.
Nazi Sniper Plan
With the Conservative party driven from power, Churchill enters his "wilderness years." Nevertheless, his outspoken opposition to the Nazis earns him Hitler's lasting fear and enmity. In the run up to war, Hitler's assassins attempt a preemptive strike on the English politician who harbors no illusions about Germany and would stand up to the Fuhrer.
Surviving the Blitz
The early days of the war bring some of Churchill's most difficult -- and dangerous -- decisions. As bombs rain down on London, the Prime Minister stubbornly insists on walking the streets among the people, watching air raids from rooftops, and visiting anti-aircraft battalions, with only Walter to protect him from the terror above.
Attack at the Flying Boat Dock
Running a gauntlet of U-Boats in the North Atlantic, Churchill and Walter set sail for America in an unescorted ship to plot Allied strategy with Franklin Roosevelt. Disaster comes closest, however, as the Prime Minister prepares to board a flying boat for the trip home and a crazed gunman lurks nearby.
In 1942, Churchill crisscrosses North Africa and the Middle East and confers with Stalin in Moscow -- logging much of the 200,000 miles he would travel during the war, under constant threat from assassins and Axis aircraft. In one instance in Algiers, General Dwight D. Eisenhower resorts to deception to keep Churchill safe.
Suicide Attack in Tehran
After two Atlantic crossings and two trips across the length of the Mediterranean, Churchill grows increasingly frustrated with Roosevelt and suspicious of Stalin. When the three leaders meet in Tehran in 1943, the Germans launch Operation Longjump - a plot in which elite commandoes parachute into the city, bent on assassination.
The Kiss of Life?
Returning from the Tehran Conference, a sick, exhausted, disheartened Churchill survives his darkest night, with Walter keeping vigil at his bedside. Could Churchill have died of pneumonia that night in Tunisia?
The Sewer Bomb
Only months after the D-Day invasion, the desperate Reich answers with a terrifying new weapon -- V-2 rockets screaming into London. The Stress affects even Churchill's normally unshakeable bodyguard, who spends weeks in a convalescent home. At a conference in Athens, however, the threat comes not from below, as security forces uncover a ton of explosives secreted near Churchill's hotel.
Love Him to Death
V-E Day brings relief to the country but no respite for Walter. Jubliant crowds clamoring to touch their heroic Prime Minister pose almost as great a security risk as Nazi assassins had. Only later does Walter have the opportunity to reflect on his nearly 20-year relationship with the employer who had become his friend.
As mentioned before, the transfer of Churchill's Bodyguard is crystal-clear, but the recreated events are out of focus.
The stereo soundtrack is particularly strong here, and welcome for it.
There's a nice feature on each disc, a Photo Gallery that has text explaining each photo that pertains to that disc's episodes. It's a nice way to review what you just saw.
If you're a fan of documentaries on The History Channel or The Discovery Channel (like I am), you'll enjoy Churchill's Bodyguard. It's a mammoth, engrossing look at a small figure in history who had an enormous impact on world events. Professionally done, with a scope that's admirable for such a seemingly small subject, Churchill's Bodyguard delivers the goods. Recommended.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.