Churchill and “Gone With The Wind”

Churchill and “Gone With The Wind”

I am a long­time Gone With The Wind col­lec­tor and researcher, and give pre­sen­ta­tions at GWTW events. I’ve also been the GWTW Answer Lady on sev­er­al web­sites. I was recent­ly asked whether Churchill and Roo­sevelt had read Gone With The Wind. I found that FDR read quite a bit of the nov­el, but I couldn’t come up with any­thing about Churchill. I hope you don’t mind me toss­ing you this ques­tion. Maybe you’ve run across a men­tion of it. I assume that Churchill did see the film as FDR did on 26 Decem­ber 1939, after the movie opened in Wash­ing­ton. GWTW opened in Lon­don on 18 April 1940.  —K.M., Roy­al Oak, Michigan

On the con­trary, your ques­tion sent me on an inter­est­ing dive through the archives to learn about my favorite char­ac­ter and my favorite novel.

Leslie Howard as Ash­ley Wilkes

Before we get start­ed, a side note: Leslie Howard, who played Ash­ley Wilkes in GWTW, had a busi­ness man­ag­er, Alfred Chen­halls, who close­ly resem­bled Churchill, affect­ing sim­i­lar cloth­ing and a hom­burg hat.

Ger­man spies in Lis­bon, observ­ing Chen­halls and Howard board­ing a flight to Lon­don, mis­took them for Churchill and his body­guard. They informed the Luft­waffe, who shot down the plane. Poor Ash­ley Wilkes, ever the loser!

Churchill wrote of the inci­dent: “The bru­tal­i­ty of the Ger­mans was only matched by the stu­pid­i­ty of their agents.”

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THE BOOK

In the late 1930s every­body was read­ing it, from my moth­er to Neville Cham­ber­lain. (His biog­ra­ph­er Kei­th Feil­ing tells us that Cham­ber­lain was “tak­ing delight” in it as the Czech cri­sis devel­oped in spring 1938.) Churchill was read­ing it as he wrote the Amer­i­can Civ­il War chap­ters of his His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples (not pub­lished until after the war). Thanks to Mar­tin Gilbert’s biog­ra­phy we know quite a lot:

Win­ston S. Churchill to Brigadier-Gen­er­al Sir James Edmonds, a Civ­il War author­i­ty (Churchill papers: 8/626), 24 March 1939:

When one comes to look at it en bloc, the Con­fed­er­ates nev­er had any chance at all. It was only a ques­tion of the North get­ting under way and the amount of time required to destroy, if nec­es­sary, every liv­ing soul in the Con­fed­er­ate states. The dra­mat­ic point is the won­der­ful resis­tance which they made.

Churchill was fear­ing a new war in Europe at this time:

Have you read Gone With The Wind? It is a ter­rif­ic book, but I expect you are too pressed with your work to read….I hope you are as san­guine as you used to be about no war and our not get­ting scragged.

Edmonds quick­ly replied, still con­fi­dent of no war in the future:

I have read Gone With The Wind, also Action at Aquia (deal­ing with the dev­as­ta­tion of the Shenan­doah val­ley) and most nov­els on the war includ­ing your namesake’s The Cri­sis [Civ­il War nov­el by the Amer­i­can Win­ston Churchill]…..Yes, I am still san­guine. Hitler won’t fight with­out an Ally and Mus­soli­ni is “not for it.”

—Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, Com­pan­ion Vol­ume V, Part 3, Doc­u­ments: The Com­ing of War 1936-1939 (Lon­don: Heine­mann, 1982), 1406, 1413.

It would be inter­est­ing to re-read Churchill’s Civ­il War chap­ters in A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples in the knowl­edge that he was read­ing GWTW at the time he wrote them. Nor­man Rose writes:

A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples is gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged to be the least sat­is­fac­to­ry of [Churchill’s] books. It reads as a kind of pas­tiche that pro­claims his “sec­u­lar [Whig] faith,” its finest sec­tion (writ­ten as he read Gone With The Wind) telling the sto­ry of the Amer­i­can Civ­il War….[but] the fact that Churchill was not a trained his­to­ri­an had its mer­its. As every schol­ar knows, in research it is nec­es­sary to be dogged in pur­suit of sources, but also ruth­less in sens­ing when to stop and to start writing.

—Nor­man Rose, Churchill: An Unruly Life (New York: Simon & Schus­ter, 1994), 211

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THE FILM

Gable and Leigh at their height (www.altfg.com)

Churchill was clear­ly bowled over when he saw the film pro­duc­tion. Wit­nesss the John Colville diary (Colville papers) 15 Decem­ber 1940, Ditch­ley Park, Oxford:

We saw Gone With The Wind which last­ed till 2.00 a.m. I thought the pho­tog­ra­phy superb. The PM said he was “pul­verised by the strength of their feel­ings and emotions.”

—Mar­tin Gilbert, The Churchill War Papers, vol. 2, Nev­er Sur­ren­der, May 1940-Decem­ber 1940] (Lon­don: Heine­mann, 1994), 1241.

And in his main bio­graph­ic vol­ume Sir Mar­tin writes:

On Sun­day Decem­ber 15, at Che­quers, after watch­ing the film Gone With The Wind, he had sat from two until three in the morn­ing dis­cussing the cam­paign in North Africa with Eden. As they talked, the total num­ber of Ital­ian pris­on­ers of war cap­tured by Wavell’s army reached 35,000.

—Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941 (Lon­don: Heine­mann, 1983), 946.

It has been report­ed, though I have not run down the source, that Churchill once met Vivien Leigh—and was ren­dered speech­less (rare for him) by her beau­ty. Appar­ent­ly this stemmed not from her role as Scar­lett O’Hara, but as Nelson’s “Lady Hamil­ton” (“That Hamil­ton Woman”)—beyond doubt his favorite film. Nor­man Rose adds:

Late night films, dis­tract­ing “the mind away from oth­er things,” were “a won­der­ful form of enter­tain­ment” that he did not for­sake. He walked out of a “sen­ti­men­tal” Mick­ey Rooney pic­ture, but stayed for Bette Davis’s splen­did tragedy, Dark Vic­to­ry, and was “pul­ver­ized” by the emo­tion­al inten­si­ty gen­er­at­ed by Rhett But­ler (Clark Gable) and Scar­lett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone With The Wind. Once, at a show­ing of Oliv­er Twist, when Bill Sykes was coax­ing his dog to the edge of the riv­er to drown it, Churchill thought­ful­ly cov­ered the eyes of his beloved poo­dle, Rufus, who sat on his lap.

Unruly Life, 283

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IN THE CANON

Mar­garet Mitchell’s won­der­ful title inspired Churchill to use it twice. In his World War II mem­oirs he summed up the results of Appease­ment:

Look back and see what we had suc­ces­sive­ly accept­ed or thrown away: a Ger­many dis­armed by solemn treaty; a Ger­many rearmed in vio­la­tion of a solemn treaty; air supe­ri­or­i­ty or even air par­i­ty cast away; the Rhineland forcibly occu­pied and the Siegfried Line built or build­ing; the Berlin-Rome Axis estab­lished; Aus­tria devoured and digest­ed by the Reich; Czecho­slo­va­kia desert­ed and ruined by the Munich Pact, its fortress line in Ger­man hands, its mighty arse­nal of Sko­da hence­for­ward mak­ing muni­tions for the Ger­man armies; Pres­i­dent Roosevelt’s effort to sta­bilise or bring to a head the Euro­pean sit­u­a­tion by the inter­ven­tion of the Unit­ed States waved aside with one hand, and Sovi­et Russia’s undoubt­ed will­ing­ness to join the West­ern Pow­ers and go all lengths to save Czecho­slo­va­kia ignored on the oth­er; the ser­vices of thir­ty-five Czech divi­sions against the still unripened Ger­many Army cast away, when Great Britain could her­self sup­ply only two to strength­en the front in France; all gone with the wind.

—Win­ston S. Churchill, The Sec­ond World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1953), 271

But it was the march toward Munich in 1938 that saw Churchill’s most effec­tive use of the title:

For five years I have talked to the House on these matters—not with very great suc­cess. I have watched this famous island descend­ing incon­ti­nent­ly, feck­less­ly, the stair­way which leads to a dark gulf. It is a fine broad stair­way at the begin­ning, but after a bit the car­pet ends. A lit­tle far­ther on there are only flag­stones, and a lit­tle far­ther on still these break beneath your feet…. if mor­tal cat­a­stro­phe should over­take the British Nation and the British Empire, his­to­ri­ans a thou­sand years hence will still be baf­fled by the mys­tery of our affairs. They will nev­er under­stand how it was that a vic­to­ri­ous nation, with every­thing in hand, suf­fered them­selves to be brought low, and to cast away all that they had gained by mea­sure­less sac­ri­fice and absolute vic­to­ry —gone with the wind!

—Win­ston S. Churchill, Arms and the Covenant (Lon­don: Har­rap, 1938), 465: “The Danube Basin,” House of Com­mons, 4 March 1938.

2 thoughts on “Churchill and “Gone With The Wind”

  1. I am extreme­ly impressed with your writ­ing skills and also
    with the lay­out on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you cus­tomize it yourself?
    Any­way keep up the nice qual­i­ty writ­ing, it is rare to see a great blog like this
    one nowadays.

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