I would like to dedicate this particular blog post and my first review to my parents, who went out of their way to get me the subject of this review, despite its obscurity. I love you both.
The film I am reviewing is called The Young Mr. Pitt, a 1942 biopic of William Pitt the Younger, the youngest Prime Minister (when he became Prime Minister in 1783, he was only 24) in British history, with Robert Donat in the titular role. The film is primarily about Pitt’s time as Prime Minister with particular reference his leadership of Great Britain during the war with Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France. The film was made at the height of the Second World War, primarily as propaganda for the British by reminding them of war similar to the one they were waging then. With that in mind, it makes reviewing this film doubly interesting, not only for seeing how it holds up in terms of historical accuracy, but also for what it can tell us about propaganda during this period.
Since the production company was 20th Century Fox, it is likely it was intended to be released in Britain’s ally, the United States. Accordingly, in order to gain the sympathy of an American audience, the first scene of the film features William Pitt the Elder, the father of the protagonist passionately telling the House of Lords the military campaign that is about to be launched to reconquer the rebellious American colonies is not only immoral, but has little to no chance of success. Much of his speech about the similarities between the British and the Americans could have been lifted from Churchill’s own oratory about the ‘Anglo-Saxon peoples’.
It is rather clear when more modern values are depicted somewhat anachronistically in the film. These include references to Pitt the Elder’s title ‘the Great Commoner’, while the fact he later accepted a peerage from the King, despite his populist beginnings is brushed over on the grounds of financial necessity (which in fairness to Pitt senior, his family certainly required). Likewise, the circumstances under which Pitt became Prime Minister, are airbrushed to a certain degree. The fact that Pitt played a role in the constitutionally questionable downfall of the Fox-North Coalition, are unmentioned (though in fairness to the film-makers, the research that proved Pitt’s role were not published until the 1960s). Furthermore, while much is made of Pitt’s antebellum reforms and his close friendship with the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, some of Pitt’s more controversial wartime measures, such as the temporary suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the prosecutions of perceived radical sympathisers with the French revolutionaries on charges of treason are ignored, just as the circumstances involving Pitt’s downfall, namely following a French-backed rebellion against British rule in Ireland, Pitt decided to unite the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, (believing, perhaps with some justification, that the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ that dominated the then semi-independent Irish Parliament were incapable of ruling Ireland) and to make said union more palatable to the majority of the Irish intended to grant Catholics the right to sit in the new Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. However King George III vetoed this on the grounds that it would violate his coronation oath, and Pitt resigned in protest. None of this is featured in the film, Pitt merely mentions that having failed to convince the King of a new policy, he has no choice but to resign. On a more personal note, Pitt’s failed courtship of Eleanor Eden is a major subplot of the film, and Pitt’s decision not to marry her, due to ‘irreconcilable obstacles’ is shown as a selfless act of self-sacrifice due to a desire to put his duty to England first. It is interesting to note that some modern historians have implied that there were different reasons for Pitt’s refusal to pursue his relationship with Eleanor, and that his feelings towards his friends such as George Canning and William Wilberforce were far more than simple friendship. Be that as it may, it is likely that the romantic subplot was mainly included due to the popularity of romantic films at this time.
It is also notable that one of the primary events during Pitt’s premiership, the ‘strange behaviour’ (currently believed to be either porphyria or manic depression) of King George is also omitted, though this is probably less due to differing values and more of an intention on the film-makers part to concentrate on the wars. It is however notable that the King throughout the film is portrayed by Raymond Lovell as being highly eccentric, meeting William Pitt over a bowl of turnips, and rather tactless, informing Lord Temple that as a potential Prime Minister the Duke of Portland is completely incompetent, considers Temple and then tells him to his face he is worse than Portland. The film does have several humorous moments, such as during the general election sequence in which eggs are sold cheap so voters can demonstrate their displeasure with any candidate, as well as politicians voting for themselves. As is often the case in historical films, historical in-jokes are made, with the Admiralty complaining about Pitt’s decision to give Horatio Nelson command of the fleet, arguing he has no chance of defeating the French fleet transporting Napoleon to Egypt.
Most of the early part of Pitt’s tenure as Prime Minister is mostly brushed over, likely because Pitt’s economic reforms were unlikely to have been of interest to the audience. The majority of the film is given over to Pitt’s role in the war against France. In this a number of parallels can be drawn between the ongoing struggle against Nazi Germany. Pitt is depicted as originally seeking peace with France, but later conceding that peace with Napoleon is impossible. His primary political opponent, Charles James Fox and his later successor, Henry Addison are portrayed as desiring to appease the French and negotiate a truce, regardless of the costs, much like the popular perception of Neville Chamberlain. Pitt however leads the country through war and spends every waking moment working out how to defeat the French, despite his own health and financial problems. The film portrays the French as the aggressors, with their invasion of the Low Countries and their declaration of war on Britain forcing Pitt’s hand. Naturally, the parallels with Nazi Germany are easier to spot, Talleyrand, the French diplomat is shown wearing dark clothing, speaking with an accent that is far more German than French, and offering Pitt the prospect of Britain dominating the world. Pitt nevertheless resists French attempts to dominate Europe, but finally resigns due to near exhaustion. His successor negotiates a brief truce, but when that collapses, and Napoleon threatens to invade England, Pitt’s policy is vindicated and he returns to power once more. The climactic Battle of Trafalgar which destroyed any chance of a French invasion is not seen on camera, probably for budgetary reasons, though it is perhaps fitting that since the film has been devoted to Pitt’s trials and tribulations (Lord Nelson had already been a subject of a biopic the previous year, That Hamilton Woman). In any case the film ends during a celebratory banquet at the Guildhall, where Pitt, upon being toasted by the Lord Mayor of London as ‘the saviour of Europe’ declares that while he appreciates the honour, Europe will not be saved by a single person and that ‘England has saved herself, and will as I trust save Europe by her example.’ This would be Pitt’s final public dinner, he would die soon after, having learned of Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz, declaring, depending on the source either ‘my country, how I leave my country’, or ‘I think I could eat another of Bellamy’s veal pies’. In any case, Pitt’s death is avoided, though his doctor does tell Wilberforce that if he goes to the banquet ‘he’s a dead man’, presumably not to end on too depressing a note.
In summary, the film is an excellent example of how British propaganda films during the Second World War used history to find parallels with the ongoing conflict, and how it depicts the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century can tell us just as much about 1940s Britain as the Georgian era. The film itself is highly entertaining, with a somewhat irreverent attitude towards history (during one of Pitt’s speeches to Parliament, several of his listeners attempt unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn), but a good yarn none the less, though one assumes Charles de Gaulle was not invited to its premier.