Saturday, January 02, 2021

Churchill and the Movie Mogul

In the 1930s, the motion picture industry was reluctant to criticize Hitler, fearing their films would suffer in the German market. So how did that investment payoff for them in the 1940s? Today, Hollywood cravenly self-censors to curry favor with the Chinese Communist Party. Does anyone think it will work out better this time? Back in 1934, there was one filmmaker who fully recognized the threat of National Socialism. He found a friend and ally in an eloquent but marginalized Conservative back-bencher. Together, Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Alexander Korda helped steel the British fighting spirit at a crucial time. Their efforts are chronicled in John Fleet’s BBC-produced Churchill and the Movie Mogul, which airs Monday night on TCM.

The mid 1930s were known as Churchill’s wilderness years. The Chamberlain government actively encouraged the press to censor Churchill, to stifle his “war-mongering” criticism. (Again, does any of this sound familiar, Twitter?) However, Alexander Korda, the Jewish-born Hungarian immigrant, was equally alarmed by the threat of Hitler’s national socialism. Finding a kindred spirit, Korda hired Churchill as a sort of idea-man at-large.

Churchill did not write any full screenplays for Korda and his conceptual treatments were considered too grandiose to produce. However, biographers and historians see Churchill’s fingerprints on a number of the patriotic films Korda produced during this time, particularly
The Four Feathers, The Lion has Wings and his classic Hollywood production, That Hamilton Woman.

Fleet and his ensemble of experts do a nice job explaining the similarities shared by the seeming odd couple. They even smoked the same brand of cigar. Although considered “propaganda” by many critics, most of the films addressed in the documentary still hold up today. Likewise, both men’s hawkishness has been vindicated by history, which is what makes Fleet’s film so uncomfortably timely.

We could definitely use a Churchill today to strengthen the Free World’s resolve against the CCP’s aggression and genocidal crimes. Yet, we need a Korda even more desperately. American “soft-power” helped win WWII and the Cold War, but it refuses to enter the fray against Xi. Appeasement did not work in the 1930s, so why does Hollywood think it will work any better now?

Movie Mogul documents a fascinating intersection of cultural and geopolitical history. It also makes viewers want to re-watch Korda’s classic films, which is surely why TCM programmed it on their Korda night. Of course, Churchill’s dry wit and larger-than-life persona are just as entertaining as any cinematic spectacle—and Fleet shrewdly showcases them to full effect. Very highly recommended, Churchill and the Movie Mogul (which had very limited screenings in the U.S., including one in lucky NJ) airs twice Monday night (1/4) on TCM.