Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Leslie Howard, Actor and British Hero

LeslieHowardBritish actor Leslie Howard is largely remembered for his portrayal of Ashley Wilkes in the iconic 1939 movie Gone with the Wind.  Less well known is his role in promoting the allies’ war effort, on screen and off, during World War II.  In fact, his death may have been directly orchestrated by high-level Nazi officials.

Howard served in World War I before beginning his 25-year acting career.   One starring role was in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a costume drama in which he plays a rescuer of French noblemen during the French Revolution.

His visibility was greatly enhanced by Gone with the Wind, which was the top grossing movie for decades.  As a foil to Clark Gable’s swashbuckling Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes embodies tradition, commitment and honor. 

Those on-screen qualities were exhibited by Howard in a series of movies attacking the Nazis and supporting Britain after the war started.  These included The 39th Parallel, in which a U-Boat crew hiding out in Canada is taken down, and The First of the Few, about British development of the Spitfire plane.

His most notable movie from this period was Pimpernel Smith, released in 1941 but set on the eve of the war in 1939.  It was a modern-day reprise of The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which Howard stars as a British archeology professor who cunningly rescues scientists and artists detained by the Nazis. 

Howard’s character, Professor Horatio Smith, seems to be an archetypical absentminded scholar.  But that is simply a rouse as he outwits hapless and pompous Nazis.  The Nazis were so effectively belittled that the movie aroused the anger of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

The most memorable part of the movie comes at the end, when an unmasked Professor Smith has a brutally frank repartee with his Gestapo nemesis.  Standing in the shadows, he says to the arrogant captain:  “You will never rule the world because you are doomed.  All of you who have demoralized a nation are doomed.” 

He adds, “You will find no horizon and see no dawn until at last you are lost and destroyed.  You are doomed, Captain of Murderers.”  Then, nimbly escaping beyond the German border, he continues, “Don’t worry, I shall be back.  We shall all be back.”

Two years later, Howard directed and narrated a sort of fictional documentary about  British women who join the auxiliary army.  Entitled The Gentle Sex, this is a pure propaganda movie, in which he says of the dedicated women:  “The world you are helping to shape is going to be a better world because you are helping to shape it.”

The British actor’s impact was significant.  It appears that Pimpernel Smith encouraged the work of the great rescuer Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest.  Howard also took to the radio airwaves to excoriate the Nazis.

Leslie Howard was killed in 1943 when the Luftwaffe shot down his airplane as he was flying from Spain to England.  There is strong evidence that the German high command specifically targeted him.  So in addition to rallying the British people, Howard gave his life for the cause.  His wartime contribution surely trumps his role in Gone with the Wind.

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