Justin Reash is Deputy Editor of Finest Hour and works at the University of Michigan.
Churchill. Chartwell. Cinema. How did an unused room on the lower level of Chartwell become a portal for Churchill’s escapism? By chance, as it happens. Though not a subject found in many books or academic studies, films played an important role in Winston Churchill’s life. They were an extension of his personality. Like painting, watching movies helped him to relax.
Furthermore, as an artist himself, films allowed Churchill to criticize and explore the creativity of others. But movies held another attraction for him. Stories are told on the screen, and Churchill was passionate for stories. He wrote stories, spoke stories, and painted stories. Thus, films were yet another medium for him to live his storied life.
Churchill’s love for the cinema produced memories for people beyond himself. His granddaughter Celia Sandys says that some of her first memories of Chartwell, her grandfather’s home in Kent, are those of watching films in rooms that smelled of “Napoleon brandy and cigars and my grandfather saying ‘let it roll’”— which was the signal to start the film. Lady Williams of Elvel, who as Jane Portal worked as a secretary to Churchill from 1949 to 1955, remembers spending many weekend evenings in the cinema and how much pleasure it brought her boss.
Celia and Jane recently discussed the Chartwell cinema together at the 2017 International Churchill Conference in New York City. Based on their memories and those recorded by others, we can tell the story of how, thanks to good friends and new technology, Churchill’s treasured home became the epicenter for one of his great passions and most important forms of entertainment.
Robert James received his Ph.D. in English from UCLA. He is author of the series Who Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars.
Winston Churchill had excellent taste in movies. His three favorite films have all remained recognized classics, beloved by fans for generations: Charlie Chaplin’s masterwork, City Lights (1931); Alexander Korda’s romance That Hamilton Woman (1941); and Laurence Olivier’s most innovative work as a director, Henry V (1944). City Lights is a strong candidate for the greatest of Chaplin’s films, as well as the height of American silent film. That Hamilton Woman tops the category of the doomed lover genre, as well as being the most enduring of the three films Olivier made with Vivien Leigh. Henry V broke new cinematic ground in adapting Shakespeare, and for many endures as the finest of all Shakespeare films not directed by Orson Welles or Akira Kurosawa. Churchill loved all three of these, and had a hand in either promoting or creating them—or both.
Charlie Chaplin was facing disaster aft er Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” on 26 October 1927. But then, so was all of Hollywood, although it took people time to recognize that—and nobody took longer than Chaplin, the king of the silent screen, the most famous face in the world (even today, people are more likely to recognize Chaplin than any other movie star of the first half of the Twentieth Century—except perhaps Mickey Mouse). Chaplin would go on making silent films long aft er everybody else had converted to sound; he did not release his first true talking picture until The Great Dictator in 1940. He had other tragedies on his hands as well, including the troubled production of The Circus (the sets burned down), his mother’s death, his ugly scandalous divorce from his second wife, and the IRS demanding payment of back taxes.
John Fleet is a British film-maker. He is currently making a documentary about Winston Churchill and his friendship with Alexander Korda.
In early 1935, Winston Churchill wrote an urgent letter to the Hungarian-born British film producer Alexander Korda. He had just completed a screenplay entitled The Reign of George V and was anxious that “not another day be lost in the preparation of the sets.”1 So confident was Churchill that he cautioned in the text of his screenplay, “the audience must have a chance to recover from the cataract of impressions and emotions to which they will be subjected.”2
It was to be “an imperial film embodying the sentiments, anxieties and achievements of the British people all over the world.”3 Churchill was under contract to Korda as assistant-producer and historical adviser for a handsome sum, so much so that he had sidetracked his long-overdue biography of Marlborough.
Churchill believed that “with the pregnant word, illustrated by the compelling picture, it will be possible to bring home to a vast audience the basic truths about many questions of public importance.”4
The main problem, however, was that the screenplay showed no concern for budget. Here is how Churchill painted a few of his scenes:
The Crown, season one, produced by Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television, distributed by Netflix, initial release date 4 November 2016.
Sonia Purnell is the author of First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill (2015). Her article about Clementine starts on page 17.
The words exchanged at the weekly audience between the British monarch and her prime minister are meant to remain private in perpetuity. It is all part of the mystique and majesty that make the British monarchy probably the best known but least understood institution in the world.
Very occasionally the royal door is opened a little—Tony Blair was once indiscreet about an exchange he had had with Queen Elizabeth II on the subject of Princess Diana’s funeral. A predecessor described the Queen during these encounters at Buckingham Palace as “friendly” but certainly not a friend. Historians remind us that as a constitutional monarch the Queen has only three rights—to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn—and it is likely that she exercises all of them, particularly in these troubled times.
Yet even with such meagre fare, Peter Morgan offers us a credible depiction of Winston Churchill’s audiences with the Queen in the new Netflix series The Crown. Skillfully Morgan plots the transformation of a privileged, under-educated, flesh-and-blood young woman into a monarch anointed in an abbey and answerable to God—a journey of self-sacrifice and personal transformation in which Winston Churchill, her first premier, is one of her greatest guides.
David Lough is the author of No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money (2015). He received the International Churchill Society’s 2016 Somervell Award for Outstanding Original Contribution to Finest Hour.
Note: All sums of money earned by Winston Churchill from film are given in the currency (£) and amount paid to him at the time. To convert these to an approximate equivalent today, multiply by the following factors: 1930s– £ x6o, $ x80; 1940s–£ x40, $ x55; 1960s–£ x20, $ x27.
Churchill’s Favorite FilmWinston Churchill and the film industry grew up together. As a schoolboy, Churchill witnessed the demonstration of an early projector; full-length films first appeared in cinemas as he entered government in 1906; and an early Pathé newsreel captured him as home secretary in 1911 at the siege of Sidney Street in London.
Churchill first took a close interest in the new industry in 1929, when his friend Bernard Baruch included the Los Angeles suburb of Hollwood in the itinerary for Churchill’s two-month American tour of 1929. US film-makers had by then pulled so far ahead of their European counterparts that Hollywood was producing four out of every five of the world’s films.
The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst acted as Churchill’s host in California. After a few days with the official Mrs. Hearst in San Francisco, the party moved south to the domain of Hearst’s unofficial partner, the film star Marion Davies. Her party for Churchill was attended by Hollywood’s social élite, including Charlie Chaplin, who invited his fellow Englishman to witness the filming of City Lights. Churchill may have returned to Britain financially poorer after losing money in the Wall Street crash, but his memories of Hollywood were vivid enough to inspire a newspaper article entitled ‘The Peter Pan Township of the Films.”1
My father had two great heroes. One was John Ford, the legendary film director who propelled him into stardom. The other was Winston Churchill.
Due to his public image as a laconic cowboy, few people knew that my father enjoyed intellectual pastimes. He played chess extremely well, and he read avidly. For pure escape he favored mysteries: Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Raymond Chandler. He was also a fan of Ernest Hemingway.
Besides Hemingway, mysteries, and novels he thought might translate well to the screen, my father stuck mostly to nonfiction: political histories, military biographies, and anything at all by Winston Churchill, the public figure he most revered. In a March 1971 interview with Playboy, when the questioner asked him who he would most like to spend time with, my father replied, “That’s easy: Winston Churchill. He’s the most terrific fella of our century….Churchill was unparalleled. Above all, he took a nearly beaten nation and kept their dignity for them.”
My father’s interest in Churchill began long before he spoke with Playboy. In the summer of 1951 he was on location in Ireland filming The Quiet Man, one of his most beloved classics. Andrew McLaglen—an assistant director on the film as well as the son of movie co-star Victor McLaglen, who played Squire Danaher—remembered seeing my father on the set reading Churchill’s war memoirs. Andrew did not recall which volume, but it may have been the fourth, The Hinge of Fate, which had been published in the United States the previous year but which was not yet available in Britain. Read More >
Film – Toils of Youth: Looking Back at Young Winston
By Jared Feldschreiber
Mr. Feldschreiber is a journalist and writer specializing in ambassadors, officials and dissidents. He saw the film as part of this past summer’s Morgan Library & Museum exhibition “Churchill: The Power of Words,” (FH 155:36).
The death of Simon Ward (Datelines, page 7), who played its title role, is an appropriate time for a retrospective look at the film version of My Early Life. Young Winston depicts a wide-eyed, perhaps insecure Churchill in the toils of youth, with no hints of future glory. In fact, some might see him as a troublesome youth who desperately and vainly seeks his father’s acceptance.
“Politics? How do I get there?,” wonders Lieutenant Churchill, fighting in Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. Amid the whine of bullets, Ward’s voiceover suggests a youth seeking not heroic deeds but acts that will lead to political advancement. Based on Churchill’s autobiography (with considerable license from then-popular myths) the film shows him as a precocious schoolboy, a soldier, a war correspondent, and a Member of Parliament at age 26.
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.