10 questions with ‘Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny’ director Rick Trank

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Rick Trank is the director, co-writer and co-producer of the new documentary, “Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny.”

The film, narrated by Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley, focuses on, according the documentary’s website, “Churchill’s years in the political wilderness, his early opposition to Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and his support for Jews under threat by the Nazi regime.” Churchill’s official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, served as a historical consultant to the production and is featured prominently in the documentary itself.

The documentary, a production of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films Center, is currently being shown in select locations around the country (click here to see where).

Trank recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about what makes Churchill so special as a historical figure, what his documentary offers that is different from all the movies and books that have already been made about the great British prime minister and other topics of interest:

1. Why did you decide to make this documentary? And what makes this Churchill film different from others that have been produced about him?

My producing partner, Rabbi Marvin Hier, and I have made a number of documentaries about the WWII/Holocaust era in which Winston Churchill was a major subject. Both he and I are also longtime Churchill buffs and always read the latest books that have been written about him. Rabbi Hier happened to be a co-speaker at an event in Arizona where Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer and a longtime collaborator with the Simon Wiesenthal Center on several projects over the years, was speaking. Sir Martin was discussing his new book about Winston Churchill’s relationship with the Jewish people entitled “Churchill and the Jews.” When the book was published, Rabbi Hier and I began to discuss how a film that examined Churchill’s long relationship with the Jewish community and support of Jewish causes and Zionism might be an interesting documentary to make. Sir Martin agreed to serve as the historical consultant on such a film and we began working on it in the spring of 2009. As work progressed we became concerned that just focusing on Churchill and the Jews might be too parochial of a documentary. At the same time, we both saw that the years of 1940 and 1941, when Churchill was virtually alone in the fight against Nazi Germany, was a fascinating historical period. So we decided to change our focus a bit but also to use the story of Churchill’s relationship with the Jews as an undercurrent to the story of 1940 and 1941. I think that this is what sets this film apart from others that have been made and it seems that audiences agree.

2. What makes Churchill such a compelling historical figure and is it fair to say – as I would argue – that he was the most important and greatest leader of the 20th century?

I think there are several reasons why Churchill is such a compelling historical figure. First is the breadth and length of his career, which spanned from the turn of the last century through the late 1950s. Second was his refusal to alter his principles even when it meant public ridicule and spending years in the political wilderness, as was the case from 1930 to 1940 when he was the lone voice in British politics speaking out against Hitler and the Chamberlain government’s appeasement policies. It is fair to say that he was the most important and the greatest leader of the 20th century because without his leadership during WWII, we would be living in a much different world today.

3. So the world would look different today had Churchill not been at the helm of the U.K. during World War II?

As Winston Churchill’s late grandson and namesake, Winston S. Churchill says in our film (in what was the last interview he filmed before his death from cancer at the age of 69 at the beginning of 2010), without Winston Churchill the swastika would be flying today over all of Europe, Russia and Buckingham Palace. Had Churchill not stood up to Hitler when he did, and kept the fight going when no other country in the world was willing to step in and help Great Britain, one wonders what the United States would look like today.

4. The film says that polling after Churchill’s speeches demonstrated that he helped bring down the anxiety among the British public. Can you tell us more about that.

The particular speech that we refer to was Churchill’s first radio address as prime minister. The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark and Norway had been invaded by the Nazis and there was tremendous concern in Great Britain that Germany would invade across the Channel. Churchill’s address, which honestly assessed the situation but also expressed that England was going to remain vigilant. The address was identical to the one which Churchill gave in the Parliament and helped the average Briton feel more assured that the U.K. would pull through the current crisis. Many of Churchill’s war speeches were a mixture of honesty about the situation and inspiration about how the nation would not only survive but be victorious.

5. Did Churchill believe that leading Britain through World War II was his destiny, a role almost thrust upon him by God himself?

Winston Churchill did believe that it was his destiny to lead Britain at that calamitous time. As we tell in the film, he wrote in his diary the night that he was named Prime Minister, “I felt I was walking with destiny and  that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. … I was sure I should not fail.”

6. As the film shows, Hitler almost met Churchill in 1932 while Churchill was in Germany? How did that come to be and why didn’t they actually meet?

In 1932, Winston Churchill signed what was then the most lucrative contract in publishing history to write a book about his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough. He went to Munich, Germany, among other places, to do research. Accompanying him was his son, Randolph, who had been working as a journalist and who had covered a number of Hitler’s campaign rallies. Randolph had become acquainted with Hitler’s PR manager and contacted him when he arrived in Munich with his father. The PR manager suggested that a meeting be arranged at Churchill’s hotel between him and Hitler as the two men had never met. Churchill said that he would agree to the meeting but that he would also question Hitler about his aims and especially his anti-Semitic views. Hitler showed up to the hotel for the meeting, saw Churchill waiting for him in the lobby and at the last moment, decided not to go through with the encounter. Churchill’s grandson (Randolph’s son), Winston S. Churchill surmises in our film that when push came to shove, Hitler just did not have the courage to actually go through the meeting and face the questions his grandfather was going to ask him.

7. What do you think Churchill’s legacy is? What lessons does he leave for world leaders today?

I think Churchill’s legacy is the importance of staying true to your principles and not being afraid to speak out for what you believe in, even if your views might not be popular at that moment. Many leaders today are too busy consulting polls and consultants before they take a position and that diminishes them as leaders. Churchill stuck to his guns, even when it might have hurt him politically.

8. The film touches on Churchill’s ardent Zionism. Why was he so in favor of the creation of Jewish state?

Winston Churchill’s support of the creation of a Jewish state dated back to his very first parliamentary seat at the turn of the last century. He represented Manchester which had a large Jewish constituency and became acquainted with Zionism at that time. Additionally, his father, who died when Churchill was a teenager, had many close Jewish friends who had become father figures to Churchill. He learned a great deal about the history of the Jewish people and the combination of his historical knowledge and personal associations led to what become an almost lifetime support of Zionism.

9. Are there any leaders in the world today that you think demonstrate the characteristics that made Churchill great?

Churchill was one of a kind. I think there are a lot of leaders today who would like to think that they are following Churchill’s example but who leave much to be desired.

10. Where can readers see this documentary? Will it be released nationally in theaters or on DVD?

“Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny” started its national theatrical release in New York and California in November 2010 and it continues to roll out in theatres across the country. Currently it is being screened in South Florida, Chicago, Phoenix, Albuquerque and  Southern California. Your readers can check on the Facebook page for Moriah Films or go to moriahfilms.com to see where it is currently playing. In the coming weeks, it will screen in Atlanta, the Pacific Northwest and we’re hoping in Washington, D.C., among other places.