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Chartwell Bulletin Interviews ‘Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny’ Director Rick Trank

Many Chartwell Bulletin readers have seen the outstanding new documentary “Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny” as it played in theaters throughout the United States earlier this year.

The film, produced the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films division and narrated by Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley, focuses on Churchill’s years in the political wilderness, his early opposition to Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and his support for Jews under threat by the Nazi regime. Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, served as a historical consultant and is featured prominently in the production.

Churchill Centre Executive Director Lee Pollock recently spoke with Rick Trank, the film’s director, co-writer and co-producer to find out more about the film and how it has been received by audiences.

Lee Pollock: Rick, many of CB’s readers have seen “Walking With Destiny” but may not know about your background. How did you get involved in film-making and what drew you to documentaries in particular? What other films have you directed in recent years?

Rick Trank: I began studying Theatre History at UC Berkeley and the USC Film School in the mid 1970’s and then started writing and producing news and public affairs documentaries for radio stations around the country. That brought me to the attention of the Simon Wiesenthal Center where I created a weekly radio series and began conducting archival interviews with Holocaust survivors and concentration camp liberators.

At the time, the Center had just completed its first film, GENOCIDE, narrated by Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles. It became the first feature documentary about the Holocaust to win an Academy Award. In 1990, I was asked by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Center’s Founder, to produce a new feature documentary about Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust. That film, ECHOES THAT REMAIN, narrated by Martin Landau and Miriam Margolyes, was released in 1991 and was followed by LIBERATION (1995) narrated by Ben Kingsley, Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg. In many ways LIBERATION was a “prequel” to WALKING WITH DESTINY as it looked at how the Allies won WWII and paralleled that effort to what was going on in the death camps; Winston Churchill is a major presence in that film.

The Wiesenthal Center ultimately created Moriah Films to produce documentaries on a regular basis. Two years later, our film THE LONG WAY HOME, narrated by Morgan Freeman, won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, our second Oscar. Our subsequent films have included IN SEARCH OF PEACE, narrated by Michael Douglas which examined Israel’s first two decades; UNLIKELY HEROES (2003) about resistance during the Holocaust; I HAVE NEVER FORGOTTEN YOU (2007), a biography Simon Wiesenthal; AGAINST THE TIDE (2009), an examination of conflicts within the American Jewish community in the late 1930’s and 1940’s; and finally, WALKING WITH DESTINY (2010). Each one of these films was narrated by a major personality such as Nicole Kidman, Kevin Costner, Dustin Hoffman and Ben Kingsley, just to name a few. Currently we are in production on IT IS NO DREAM, a documentary about the life and legacy of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, that will be released toward the end of 2011.

LP: How has “Walking With Destiny” been received? Has it had a range of venues and how many people have seen it so far? And what has been the typical audience reaction?

RT: The reception to “Walking With Destiny” has far surpassed any of our expectations and hopes. While our other films have been well received, the experience with WALKING WITH DESTINY has been incredible – it has become our most successful theatrical release. In fact, WALKING WITH DESTINY ranks in the top 20 grossing theatrical documentaries of 2011 thus far.

Much of the credit is due to the support of the Churchill Centre for which we are very grateful. More than 30,000 tickets have been sold and it continues, almost a year after being released, to open in theatres across the US. It has been seen from one coast to the other, in large urban areas and small towns alike. If there has been one common reaction it has been “I thought I knew a lot about Winston Churchill, but this film taught me things I never expected!” What has been especially gratifying to me as the filmmaker, has been the fact that the film has attracted audiences ranging in age from pre-teens to seniors.

LP: Why did you decide to make this documentary? And what makes this Churchill film different from others that have been produced about him?

RT: My producing partner, Rabbi Marvin Hier and I are longtime Churchill buffs. Rabbi Hier happened to be a speaker at an event in Arizona where Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer and a longtime collaborator with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was also appearing. Sir Martin was discussing his new book about Winston Churchill’s relationship with the Jewish people entitled “Churchill and the Jews.” When the book was published, Rabbi Hier and I began to discuss how a film that examined this subject might be an interesting documentary. Sir Martin agreed to serve as the historical consultant and we began working on it in the spring of 2009.

As work progressed we became concerned that just focusing on Churchill and the Jews might be too narrow. At the same time, we both saw that the years 1940 and 1941, when Churchill was virtually alone in the fight against Nazi Germany, was a fascinating historical period. So we decided to change our focus to use the story of Churchill’s relationship with the Jews as an undercurrent to the story of 1940 and 1941. I think that this is what sets this film apart from others that have been made and it seems that audiences agree.

LP: What makes Churchill such a compelling historical figure and is it fair to say that he was the most important and greatest leader of the 20th century?

RT: I think there are several reasons. First is the breadth and length of his career, from the turn of the last century through the late 1950s. Second was his refusal to alter his principles even when it meant public ridicule and spending years in the political wilderness, as was the case from 1930 to 1940 when he was a lone voice in British politics speaking out against Hitler and the Chamberlain government’s appeasement policies. It is fair to say that he was the most important and the greatest leader of the 20th century because without his leadership during WWII, we would be living in a much different world today.

LP: You’d agree that world would look different today had Churchill not been lead the U.K. during World War II…..

RT: As Winston Churchill’s late grandson and namesake, Winston S. Churchill says in our film (in what was the last filmed interview before his death at the beginning of 2010), without Winston Churchill the swastika would be flying today over all of Europe, Russia and on Buckingham Palace. Had Churchill not stood up to Hitler when he did, and kept the fight going when no other major country in the world was willing to step in and help Great Britain, one wonders what the United States would look like today.

LP: The film notes that opinion polling after Churchill’s speeches demonstrated that he helped bring down the anxiety among the British public. Can you tell us more about that.

RT: The particular speech that we refer to was Churchill’s first radio address as prime minister. Five European countries had been invaded and largely conquered by the Nazis and there was tremendous concern in Great Britain that Germany would cross the Channel. Churchill’s address honestly assessed the situation but also demonstrated that England would remain defiant. This helped the average Briton feel more assured that the U.K. would pull through the crisis. Many of Churchill’s war time speeches were a mixture of honesty about the situation and inspiration about how the nation would not only survive but be victorious.

LP: Did Churchill believe that leading Britain through World War II was his destiny, a role almost thrust upon him by God himself?

RT: I think Churchill did believe that it was his destiny to lead Britain at that calamitous time. As we tell in the film, he later wrote that the night that he was named Prime Minister, “I felt I was walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. … I was sure I should not fail.”

LP: As the film shows, Hitler almost met Churchill in 1932 while Churchill was in Germany? How did that come to be and why didn’t they actually meet?

RT: In 1932, Winston Churchill began a biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough and traveled to Munich to do research. Accompanying him was his son, Randolph, a journalist who had covered a number of Hitler’s campaign rallies. Randolph had become acquainted with Hitler’s press secretary and contacted him when he arrived in Munich with his father. It was suggested that a meeting be arranged at Churchill’s hotel between him and Hitler as the two had never met.

Churchill said that he would agree to the meeting but that he would also question Hitler about his aims and especially his anti-Semitic views. Hitler showed up to the hotel, saw Churchill waiting for him in the lobby and at the last moment, decided not to go through with the encounter. Churchill’s grandson (Randolph’s son), Winston S. Churchill surmises in our film that when push came to shove, Hitler just did not have the courage to actually go through the meeting and face the questions his grandfather was going to ask him.

LP: The film emphasizes the experience of “ordinary” people during 1940 and 1941, for example in the Dunkirk evacuation, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Were you surprised by what you found about how people responded to the challenges and stresses of the time and do you think that relating these experiences is an especially important part of documentary film-making?

RT: I had some knowledge of what the British people went through during WWII but after doing my research and then interviewing various historians, I came away with even greater respect for the “Keep Calm and Carry On” and “Never Give In” attitude of the average Briton. As a filmmaker, I think it was extremely important to emphasize what the common person went through because those experiences are what the audience can identify with. We have tried to do this in most of our films.

LP: What do you think Churchill’s legacy is? What lessons does he leave for world leaders today?

RT: I think Churchill’s legacy is the importance of staying true to your principles and not being afraid to speak out for what you believe in, even if your views might not be popular at that moment. Many leaders today are too busy consulting polls and consultants before they take a position and that diminishes them as leaders. Churchill stuck to his guns, even when it might have hurt him politically.

LP: The film touches on Churchill’s ardent Zionism. Why was he so in favor of the creation of Jewish state?

RT: Winston Churchill’s support of the creation of a Jewish state dated back to his very first parliamentary seat at the turn of the last century. He represented Manchester which had a large Jewish constituency and became acquainted with Zionism at that time. He learned a great deal about the history of the Jewish people and the combination of his historical knowledge and personal associations led to what become an almost lifetime support of Zionism.

LP: Are there any leaders in the world today that you think demonstrate the characteristics that made Churchill great?

RT: Churchill was one of a kind. I think there are a lot of leaders today who would like to think that they are following Churchill’s example but who leave much to be desired.

LP: Is the film still showing in theaters and is it available on DVD?

RT: “Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny” started its national theatrical release in New York and California in November 2010 and has continued in theatres across the country. Your readers can check on the Facebook page for Moriah Films or go to moriahfilms.com for upcoming showings and the DVD of the film is now also available on our website.

LP: Rick, thank you and congratulations on the success of WALKING WITH DESTINY.

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