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New film tells story of Sir Nicholas Winton, World War II hero and humanitarian

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Rotarian saved hundreds of children at risk of being killed by the Nazis in the lead up to World War II


“If something is not impossible, there must be a way to do it,” Rotarian Sir Nicholas Winton once said. Known to his friends as “Nicky,” the British stockbroker rescued hundreds of predominantly Jewish children from the Holocaust in the months leading up to World War II. Winton, who died in 2015 at the age of 106, is now the subject of a new film, “One Life,” starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Helena Bonham Carter. It was released in January 2024 in the United Kingdom.

The film tells the true story of how Winton rescued 669 children from the Nazi advance and found homes for them in the United Kingdom. During a visit to Prague, Czechoslovakia, in December 1938, Winton saw numerous families who had fled the spread of Nazism in Germany and Austria. The refugees were living in desperate conditions, with little or no shelter or food, as the German invasion of Czechoslovakia loomed. Winton immediately realized it was a race against time: How many children could he rescue before the borders closed?

Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning first contemplated telling Winton’s story when they co-founded See-Saw Films more than 15 years ago.

“We were very lucky to have had the opportunity to meet Nicholas Winton before he passed away,” Canning says. “He was the most modest, generous human being. [He] felt the film should not glorify him, but celebrate how the most ordinary of people can make a huge impact.”

With the blessing of Winton’s daughter, Barbara Winton, See-Saw approached screenwriter Lucinda Coxon to adapt Barbara’s 2014 book “If It’s Not Impossible.” Collaborating with Barbara, the screenwriting team gained access to Nicholas’ archives and letters. Barbara was a familiar face at Rotary district conferences. She passed away in 2022, during the making of the film.

Barbara’s book was an essential resource for the cast. Explaining how she got a sense of Nicholas Winton’s mother, Babi, Bonham Carter said, “Barbara was named after Babi. I was very lucky to speak to Barbara, to have her perspective as a granddaughter.”

It was Barbara’s wish that Sir Anthony Hopkins should play her father.

“When Barbara read the first draft of the script, she called us to say that Anthony Hopkins would be perfect for the role, which we of course agreed with,” Canning says. “But [that] left us with a challenge because it was beyond our wildest dreams that Hopkins would read the script and want to play Nicky. Incredibly, he did, and it was magical for all of us to know we had an extraordinary actor playing a man who was such an inspirational humanitarian.”

Hopkins got to meet some descendants of the people Winton saved, who were featured in one scene of the film.

“It was like a kick in the chest when all the descendants came in,” Hopkins says. “It was hard to try not to be sentimental, but it was very moving.”

The screenplay addressed Winton’s family history and how it informed his choices.

“Nicky’s Jewish ancestry meant he was alert to what it meant to be an émigré from the rise of Nazism in Europe,” says Nick Drake, who wrote the screenplay with Coxon. “He was ashamed by the Allies’ betrayal of the Czech people in the Munich Agreement. [He] saw the consequences of that agreement in human terms, [in] these appalling camps where refugees from Germany [and] Austria… were living in intolerable conditions. He was motivated by the reality he saw in front of him and decided to do something about it.”

The film was shot in Prague and England, working with two crews in two languages. It used authentic Prague locations, even filming on the same station platform where the children said goodbye to their families and departed for the UK more than 80 years ago. A bronze statue of Winton marks the historic spot.

Winton faced many challenges in bringing the children to the UK.

“There was a belief in the UK [that] they weren’t at risk; a lot of people saying, ‘It’s fine, there’s no issue… they’re not in Austria or Germany,’” says James Hawes, the film’s director. “Another challenge was British bureaucracy and xenophobia: the newspapers and politicians saying, ‘We’re a small, crowded island. There’s no place for more people here.’ Nicky had to fight that prejudice – raising the public consciousness, writing articles – way before the Internet or broadcast news.”

Hopkins adds that he hopes the film will keep the memory of Winton’s effort alive.

“I only hope this will send a message, lest we forget,” he says. “Because we forget so quickly.”

Learn more about Rotary’s commitment to peace.

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