In May 1941, Winston Churchill gave orders for a cinema to be installed at Chequers. This house in Buckinghamshire, built under Queen Elizabeth I but heavily gothicized under Queen Victoria, and which a benefactor had presented to the nation in 1917 as a country residence for the prime minister, had acquired a new importance as it was forty miles from Downing Street and the Blitz. There Churchill would retreat on weekends to brood about the war undisturbed by bombs, and to relax as best he could.
He had always enjoyed drama, on stage and then on screen, and he saw public life as a kind of dramatic performance, with himself in the lead: Jonathan Rose gets this right in the subtitle of his valuable book The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (2014). Churchill’s hugely prolific literary output (from around 1930 onward much assisted by researchers and ghostwriters) had included film scripts and one novel—the swashbuckling if not quite bodice-ripping 1900 Savrola (“a tale of the revolution in Laurania”), of which he later endearingly said that “I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.”
In 1929 he visited Hollywood—where he befriended Charlie Chaplin, among others—and between 1934 and 1936 he was paid the very large fee of £10,000 by the Hungarian-born producer Alexander Korda to write two screenplays. One was about the Great War and the other about the life of George V. In the former, an American fighter pilot who has pretended to be a Canadian to join the Royal Flying Corps hears the news that his country has entered the war and says, “Oh! I’m so glad! I was brought up on George Washington, who never told a lie.”
This might have been an uncanny premonition of that remarkable phenomenon of our time, the American cult of Churchill. It is expressed through presidential invocations, warships and high schools named after him, statues from New Orleans to Kansas City, dinners in Washington and exhibitions in New York, and endless books, movies, and television series. This cult has had consequences that are serious, and too often lamentable.
Maybe it was as well that neither of Churchill’s two screenplays was filmed, but Korda would continue to play an important if little-known part in Churchill’s financial life. During World War II, enormous sums were paid, in strictly private deals, for the film rights to Churchill’s biography of his ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which would not be published for years to come. Again neither movie was made, but Korda became Sir Alexander as an expression of gratitude.
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