Winston Churchill, the Jewish mogul and the films that ‘swayed America to war’

Winston Churchill, the Jewish mogul and the films that ‘swayed America to war’

New documentary Churchill and the Movie Mogul claims the British prime minister and Hollywood director Korda used ‘subtle propaganda’ to convince the US to join allies

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

A new documentary explores the friendship between movie mogul Alexander Korda and Winston Churchill
A new documentary explores the friendship between movie mogul Alexander Korda and Winston Churchill

There are many things that one can attribute to Alexander Korda. He was Britain’s first film maven to receive a knighthood, the driving force behind a string of cinematic successes, such as The Thief of Baghdad and The Third Man and even a talent scout, with the likes of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier signed up well before Hollywood became familiar with those names.

Intriguingly, the Hungarian-Jewish émigré provided cover to MI6 agents working in Europe during the war by pretending they were employed by his company, London Films.

But what is less well-known is his enduring friendship with Winston Churchill – and the suggestion the pair collaborated in bringing the United States into the Second World War through the medium of film.

That tantalising scenario is now explored for the first time in a new BBC4 documentary, Churchill and the Movie Mogul, which features evidence from previously unseen documents.

Among those offering their opinions are Charles Drazin, who wrote a detailed biography on Korda, Lady Williams, one of Churchill’s last surviving secretaries, and Churchill biographer David Lough.

Winston Churchill’s career was in the doldrums when he was asked to become a screenwriter for Korda

According to the documentary, Korda was introduced to Churchill in 1934 by Colonel Claude Dansey, the deputy head of MI6, who fought alongside him during the Boer War.

At this time, Churchill’s political career was in the doldrums, having resigned from the Conservative shadow cabinet only years earlier.

As director John Fleet notes: “Churchill’s views were against the mainstream at this time, so Korda was making a bold statement by supporting him.”

Why then did they become such fast friends?

“They were on the same page politically, they were both outsiders in that Churchill was half-American and Korda from Hungary, and in a way they were kindred spirits. Churchill was also a polymath.

“He had an incredible knowledge of all kinds of things and advised Korda on a film, Conquest of the Air, about the history of aviation, as well as about British history. But he didn’t just know the details – he knew how to turn it into an entertaining story. Churchill was seen as the go-to-guy.”

Meanwhile to Churchill, Korda fitted well into his “adventurous” circle of friends, who included Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook . “He sought out the rebels who could get cut through the red tape and get things done.”

After meeting him, Korda hired Churchill as a screenwriter, paying him a  handsome £10,000 for two screenplays that while never made cemented the beginning of an enduring friendship.

From then on, Churchill played something of an advisory role, with the documentary claiming that the pair collaborated to pump out “subtle propaganda” through the guise of historical dramas, in a bid to sway American opinion towards joining the Allies during the Second World War.

Lady Hamilton, made in 1941 and known as That Hamilton Woman in the States, was one such example.

Churchill, by now prime minister, is said to have enjoyed repeatedly watching the cinematic smash starring Olivier as Admiral Nelson and Leigh as his mistress and there is the suggestion he may have even written the scene in which Nelson warned against any peace deal with Napoleon: “Believe me gentleman, he wants to be the master of the world,” cries Oliver as the heroic Nelson. “You cannot make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them.”

The message to America is evident, but did such subconscious cries to battle really convince them to join the war?

“In realistic terms, Pearl Harbour was the defining reason why America joined the war,” concludes Fleet.

“But the truth is that nobody goes to war for one reason alone and there’s no doubt these  films helped shift public attitudes and convince the Americans there was an injustice that needed to be addressed.”

Churchill and the Movie Mogul airs on 25 September, 9pm, on BBC4.

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