Churchill and Movie Mogul Alexander Korda, by John Fleet

Churchill and Movie Mogul Alexander Korda, by John Fleet

John Fleet is a film­mak­er who has pro­duced an excel­lent doc­u­men­tary on Win­ston Churchill and Alexan­der Kor­da. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion in movie mak­ing, though not wide­ly known, was sub­stan­tial. A trail­er for “Churchill and the Movie Mogul” may viewed online. For the full lec­ture, includ­ing Q&A—or the option of read­ing a tran­script—click here.

A Treat Instead of a Treatment

We always begin watch­ing any new film about Churchill with trep­i­da­tion. After the skewed por­traits in the tele­vi­sion series The Crownthe fake his­to­ry about post­war India in Viceroy’s House, and the absur­di­ties of Churchill played by Bri­an Cox, we are fear­ful of hav­ing sit through anoth­er slap­dash, ill-researched por­trait. With cer­tain excep­tions, Churchill doc­u­men­taries have gone from faith­ful report­ing to imag­i­nary fan­ta­siz­ing. It’s not unique to Churchill. It’s “The Trou­ble with the Movies.”

Hap­pi­ly, as John Fleet’s pro­duc­tion unfold­ed, we can relax with this one. It is an hon­est look at a lit­tle-known aspect of Churchill, his career as a screen­writer. There are no fash­ion­ably dis­hon­est cri­tiques, so pop­u­lar in the media today. Fleet delves deeply into the best sources, inter­view­ing the right peo­ple, who know what they’ve talk­ing about. We hope John is suc­cess­ful in its pro­duc­tion. “Churchill and the Movie Mogul” is a treat, instead of a treatment.

Churchill and Korda, by John Fleet (Excerpts)

Here­with brief excerpts from Mr. Fleet’s remarks at the Hills­dale Con­fer­ence, “Churchill and the Movies” in March 2019. The last of four 2018-19 sem­i­nars by the Cen­ter for Con­struc­tive Alter­na­tives. For a video or tran­script (the lat­ter is the orig­i­nal text with added pas­sages), click here.

You might ask though, why should these two men be brought togeth­er? Well, first and fore­most, they shared love of his­to­ry, and more impor­tant­ly the par­al­lels that can be drawn from it.  The Pri­vate Life of Hen­ry VIII was a com­e­dy film but it didn’t miss an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a con­tem­po­rary par­al­lel. In one scene, King Hen­ry VIII turns to his advi­sor, Thomas Cromwell, and says that “if those French and Ger­mans don’t stop cut­ting each other’s throats what’s to stop ‘em cut­ting ours…”.

The first sig­nifi­ant project that Kor­da asks Churchill to work on is a doc­u­men­tary-dra­ma about the last twen­ty-five years of the reign of the monarch, George V, to coin­cide with his upcom­ing jubilee cel­e­bra­tion. Churchill thought this was fan­tas­tic and he said to Kor­da, “I will side-track every­thing else.” He was already very far behind on the next vol­ume of his biog­ra­phy of Marl­bor­ough at that stage.

But Churchill saw this film as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to deliv­er, what he described as a “seri­ous, mas­sive appre­ci­a­tion of Eng­land and her Empire.” And with­in a week or ten days, he had writ­ten an epic screen­play. I must pref­ace this by say­ing that the film, sad­ly, was nev­er made, but I would like to take a moment just to explore its under­ly­ing pol­i­tics, which I think are very revealing.

“An Idea of Britain”

Kor­da and Churchill remain in con­tact now through­out the decade…. What Churchill becomes for Kor­da in a sense now is a his­tor­i­cal advi­sor and what’s reveal­ing is that his next big hit is anoth­er peri­od epic, called Fire Over Eng­land. This film depicts Hen­ry VIII’s daugh­ter, Queen Eliz­a­beth I, and her fight against the Span­ish Arma­da. It is anoth­er excel­lent bit of England-building.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter, Queen Eliz­a­beth, is no com­e­dy fig­ure like her father, Hen­ry. She is a pow­er­ful and inspir­ing war leader.  And she is pre­sent­ed as the embod­i­ment of Britain, played by Flo­ra Rob­son. She even says at one point “I am Eng­land.” in a won­der­ful bit of screen­play dia­logue. The film then con­ve­nient­ly presents Eng­land as the under­dog. It’s seen as this small island stand­ing alone against an aggres­sive dic­ta­tor, who in this case was King Philip of Spain—who is stand­ing in for Hitler at this point. It was made in 1937. So, this is anoth­er bit of Eng­land-build­ing that Kor­da made.

* * *

After the war, Churchill and Kor­da remained in touch. Kor­da gave Churchill the gift of a home cin­e­ma at his house at Chartwell—as a sign of his admi­ra­tion. And they would spend evenings togeth­er smok­ing cig­ars, drink­ing brandy and watch­ing movies. There are vary­ing reports but I think Churchill notched up sev­en­teen view­ings of That Hamil­ton Woman in all.

The two remained friends for the rest of their lives and when Churchill was being inun­dat­ed with offers for film projects from all over the world, he decid­ed that what he would real­ly like to do was to make a film with Kor­da. They start­ed a plan to make a doc­u­men­tary about his life, but sad­ly only the first page of the out­line sur­vives, as Kor­da died a few months lat­er. But I can tell you this, the film was to begin with his ances­tor Marlborough.

And so ends the sto­ry of these two men, who in a unique­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, cin­e­mat­ic sense – impart­ed to us an “idea of Britain” – and by exten­sion, the west­ern world, at an extreme­ly impor­tant time.

So, I take my hat off to them in deep grat­i­tude and hope that their lega­cy and the lessons that they impart­ed to us will con­tin­ue to endure.

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