Winston Churchill loved everything about movies. He was fascinated by the development of both silent movies and ‘talking pictures’. He loved the ability of films to tell stories; he admired and befriended film stars. He made a large amount of money writing screenplays, and he understood the political power that the moving picture could have over the imagination of the electorate.
In 1929, Churchill visited Hollywood in his only trip to the West Coast of the United States, where he met Charlie Chaplin and many other leading stars of the silver screen. Chaplin was probably the most recognisable man in the world when Churchill visited him in his studio, where they were filmed together. Two years later, Churchill attended the premiere of Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights in London and that night, he toasted the South London-born comedian as “a man who had started out as a lad from across the river and had achieved the world’s affection.” Chaplin thereafter visited Churchill at his country home, Chartwell Manor in Kent, on several occasions.
On that visit to Hollywood, Churchill described the excitement of walking on a production lot in an article for the Daily Telegraph. “This Peter Pan township is thronged with the most odd and varied of crowds that can be imagined,” he wrote. “Ferocious brigands, bristling with property pistols, cowboys, train robbers, heroines in distress of all descriptions, aged cronies stalk or stroll or totter to and fro. Twenty films are in the making at once. Competition is intense; the hours of toil are hard, and so are the hours of waiting. Youthful beauty claims her indisputable rights; but the aristocracy of the filmland found themselves on personality.” Not much has changed in movie-producing in almost a century.
In 1934, Churchill signed a contract to write documentaries for the great Hungarian-American film producer Alexander Korda, on esoteric subjects including ‘Will Monarchies Return?’, ‘The Rise of Japan’, ‘Marriage Laws and Customs’, ‘Unemployment’ and ‘Gold.’ In early 1935, he wrote a screenplay about the reign of King George V, and he acted as historical consultant for a projected movie about Lawrence of Arabia (starring Cary Grant). He was paid handsomely for all this and more by Korda, but sadly none of the films were ever made, possibly because Churchill wrote without any thought of budgetary restraint.
Churchill believed, as he told Korda, for whom he secured a knighthood in 1942, that with movies and “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.” It was by purchasing the film rights to Churchill’s books that Korda ultimately placed Churchill’s finances on a sound basis for the first time in his life.
Churchill’s favourite wartime films included Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Alexander Korda’s patriotic epic That Hamilton Woman (1941), starring Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh—the latter of which he watched no fewer than seventeen times. He was a little in love with Leigh, and also admired the movie’s core message that, as Olivier states while playing Admiral Nelson, “You cannot make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them.” He would often cry at the scene in Lord Nelson’s death scene, and later on in the movie when Lady Hamilton was cast into poverty. Lady Williams, who was Churchill’s secretary for many years, recalls how Churchill cried often during movies, especially if they featured animals, such as Walt Disney’s The Incredible Journey (1963).
During the War, Churchill both understood the propaganda power of the movies, but also how to use them to escape the unimaginable stress of Total War. Movies took the place of painting for him at that time—he only painted one picture as wartime premier whereas he watched hundreds of films. He would invite members of his staff to stay up late into the night watching productions of all kinds—Disney cartoons, romantic comedies, cop dramas—but his favourite films were historical, noir, swashbucklers, and Westerns (“just as long as there were lots of horse riding and gunfighting,” an aide recalled). He ordered the films to start with the words “Let it roll!” If he liked the show he would say “Remarkable”, and if he did not he would grunt one word: “Bloody.”
In 1950, Churchill escaped the need of having to watch whatever was in the cinemas at the time by setting up a fully-equipped thirty-seat cinema in an unused dining room on the lower level of Chartwell. There he would watch three movies a week at 9.15pm, using two 35mm projectors and an RCA Victorphone high fidelity amplifier, all donated by Korda. The windows were blocked up on the east side of the room and a large screen was installed across the whole wall at the far end. Mr Shaw, a projectionist from nearby Westerham, was hired to show the films. “This is Mr Shaw,” Churchill would tell guests. “He’s a Labour man but quite a nice fellow.” As he got older, Churchill much preferred technicolour movies to black and white.
Churchill’s grandson recalled how in a particularly long film that needed a reel-change, such as Gone With the Wind, “We would have a fifteen minute break while brandy glasses were recharged, cigars relit, and anyone who wanted to could, to use one of his naval expressions, ‘pump ship’.” Particular favourites were All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Third Man (1949), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) Alan Ladd in Shane (1953), War and Peace (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the musical Gigi (1958), The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Longest Day (1962) and anything with Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Sadly, the Chartwell screen was not wide enough to show David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which Churchill almost certainly would have loved.
Churchill has been depicted on screen more than sixty times, with the best portrayals by Robert Hardy in The Wilderness Years (1982), Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm (2002) and most recently Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017). He would have certainly enjoyed this ubiquity, as film was one of the great passions of his life.
Andrew Roberts is an English historian and journalist, a visiting professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, and the author of the Winston Churchill biography, Churchill: Walking with Destiny.