Friday 18 October 2019

Churchill and the Movie Mogul review: 'John Fleet’s excellent film struck gold with the overlooked relationship between Churchill and Alexander Korda'

4 stars

Circa 1936: Hungarian-born director and producer Sir Alexander Korda (1893 - 1956) on the set of his film. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Circa 1936: Hungarian-born director and producer Sir Alexander Korda (1893 - 1956) on the set of his film. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Pat Stacey

Boris Johnson idolises Winston Churchill. We know this because he never bloody well shuts up about it.

Churchill is Johnson’s hero and, he likes to claim, his role model, notwithstanding the fact that he kicked his hero and role model’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, out of the Conservative Party.

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Inside his head, Johnson seems to imagine he’s a latter-day Winston Churchill — a pretty impressive feat of self-delusion to pull off, you have to admit, for someone with the credibility of a nine pound note and the intellectual heft of a paper clip.

I imagine Johnson has other things on what passes for his mind right now, but if he ever finds the time to watch Churchill and the Movie Mogul, his Goodyear blimp-sized ego will shrink in admiration at the British wartime leader’s expertise in the arts of manipulation, persuasion and propaganda.

Circa 1936: Hungarian-born director and producer Sir Alexander Korda (1893 - 1956) on the set of his film. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Circa 1936: Hungarian-born director and producer Sir Alexander Korda (1893 - 1956) on the set of his film. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The best history documentaries are often those that skip the big pages and mine the footnotes for material. John Fleet’s excellent hour-long film struck gold with the overlooked relationship between Churchill and Alexander Korda.

The latter name, unfortunately, will be unknown to many of the current generation, but the Hungarian-born Korda, who was captured and imprisoned by the fascists of his home country before fetching up in Britain, where he reinvented himself as the perfect, elegant English gentleman, was the only movie mogul Britain had to rival the Louis B Mayers and Jack L Warners of Hollywood.

Alexander Korda and the unmistakeable, even in silhouette, Winston Churchill, pictured at Korda’s movie studio
Alexander Korda and the unmistakeable, even in silhouette, Winston Churchill, pictured at Korda’s movie studio

During the war years, when he relocated his productions to America, he competed with them. Korda’s early films as either producer or director included Things to Come, The Jungle Book, The Thief of Baghdad and The Four Feathers, all big-budget spectaculars shot on an epic scale, frequently in expensive Technicolor.

Churchill was going through his wilderness years in the 1930s. Isolated and friendless in Westminster, his dire warnings about the danger of appeasing Adolf Hitler fell on the deaf ears of Neville Chamberlain.

He was also broke. So when Korda, to whom he’d been introduced by his son, Randolph, offered to hire him as a consultant and scriptwriter, Churchill leapt at the chance.

Korda paid him £10,000 for which Churchill — a prolific author throughout his life — turned out an epic, 7,000-word scenario whose story spanned the British Empire.

It was never produced, but the excerpts read out here, complete with the kind of detailed camera angles and vivid descriptions of the action you’d find in a finished shooting script, showed Churchill was a natural who understood the medium of film and its possibilities.

In fact, one historian noted, Churchill’s extraordinary comeback, once World War II began, from lonely outsider to First Lord of the Admiralty and then Prime Minister was itself the stuff of a film plot.

Like Hitler, who formed the perfect creative partnership — albeit it one forged from hatred — with Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl, Churchill understood the power of movies as propaganda. So it was no surprise that he recruited Korda, the man who’d once recruited him, to try to help persuade America to join the war.

The documentary was excellent in showing how Korda productions like Fire Over England, about England’s victory over the Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I, and Churchill’s own favourite, Lady Hamilton (released in the US as That Hamilton Woman), about the relationship between Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson, were cleverly designed by Korda and Churchill to draw parallels with Britain’s lonely stance against the might of Hitler’s war machine.

It was also a sobering, even eye-opening, reminder of the hostile forces Churchill and Britain faced, up until Pearl Harbour, in the shape of the virulently anti-Semitic, pro-fascist America First movement, led by Charles Lindbergh.

Churchill and the Movie Mogul (BBC4)

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