Pimpernel Smith is the most morally influential film ever made. The 1941 adventure film focused on the main character’s rescue of innocent people from the Nazis. The film was made by Leslie Howard using money he had earned from co-starring in Gone With the Wind. Pimpernel Smith directly influenced extraordinary acts of heroism. For example, in 1942 the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg attended a private screening of the film with his half-sister Nina. She later noted, “On the way home, he told me this was the kind of thing he would like to do.” Surely, there were other influences on Wallenberg, but the film was one of them. Working in Budapest during the War, Wallenberg issued passports and housed Jews. He saved 100,000 Jews from the Nazis. He was later arrested by the Russians and disappeared in the Gulag prison system.
Leslie Howard sought to transfer the heroism he portrayed on the screen to his own life. He made other anti-Nazi films and appeared on radio broadcasts. His work was so effective that Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, called him, “the most dangerous propagandist in the British service.” When Pimpernel Smith was released, the worried Nazis pressured neutral countries not to screen it in public. That’s why Raoul Wallenberg had to see the film within the confines of the British embassy.
Eventually, the Nazis were so fearful of Howard’s work that on June 1, 1943, they shot down a civilian airliner over neutral airspace because they knew he was on board. According to a recent, credible study by the Spanish journalist Jose Rey-Ximena, Howard had been personally sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on a successful mission to keep Spain out of the war and was returning on that flight.
Beyond these two extraordinary cases, Pimpernel Smith stirred the patriotic feelings, provided emotional strength, and offered inspiration to untold millions of British citizens and alerted people around the world of the dangers of Nazism.
Given this incredible history, it is both sad and unfair that Pimpernel Smith remains virtually unknown. Beyond its staggering influence, the film provides a gateway to crucial historical questions because Pimpernel Smith was one of only a few films that deliberately tried to influence America to fight the Nazis.
Along with such films as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, Pimpernel Smith raises the question of the moral obligations—as distinct from business and aesthetic interests--of films and the film industry. Pimpernel Smith was not allowed to be released in the U.S. until February 12, 1942 (that is, until after America’s entry into the War and even then under another title, Mister V), almost seven months after its release in England, and To Be or Not To Be’s release was delayed until March 6, 1942. Chaplin and Lubitsch came under enormous pressure in Hollywood, which depended on European, including German, markets.
Pimpernel Smith thus needs to be seen against a specific historical background, the reluctance of America to enter the Second World War as exemplified in such organizations as the America First Committee which favored not intervening in the War (and included among its members Gerald Ford, Walt Disney, and many other prominent Americans.) Against such efforts, a relatively few voices spoke up for the moral imperative to confront Nazism.
Pimpernel Smith also raises the question of how a film affects its audience. The movie is about a hero. As Horatio Smith, Howard was a British gentleman with guts, a gentle, understated scholar with a splendid heart. The character was deliberately given the surname “Smith” by Howard to illustrate that ordinary people can be heroes. The film thus becomes a means of self-examination by audience members to determine their own capacity for heroism in their personal lives.
Beyond its influence and good intentions, what is amazing about Pimpernel Smith is that it is artistically an enormously successful film.
The film’s making is a personal drama about Leslie Howard, one that pits the still, small voice of duty against the loud siren calls of alluring Hollywood party life. It is a drama that reveals the triumph of conscience over commerce and of obligation over personal safety. Pimpernel Smith in this sense is the story of how Leslie Howard became morally mature. He had starred in the successful 1934 film The Scarlet Pimpernel, playing a British aristocrat who secretly smuggles French aristocrats to safety during the French Revolution. When he appeared in The Petrified Forest (1936), he demanded that Humphrey Bogart cast in the film because the two had appeared on Broadway together in the play. Warner Brothers had planned to hire Edward G. Robinson. Howard said he would not appear in the film without Bogart. It was The Petrified Forest that made Bogart famous, and in appreciation, the tough-guy actor named his daughter Leslie after Howard. This private bravery and the playing of the hero in The Scarlet Pimpernel helped propel Howard to meet the call of history. Gone With the Wind gave him the money and the fame to allow his conscience to be heard around the world. When others fled west away from Europe toward America, Howard left the comfortable security of Hollywood fame and a Beverly Hills home and returned home to England
As the child of a Hungarian Jewish father and British Jewish mother, Howard had a first-hand knowledge of anti-Semitism. He determined to call the world’s attention to the dangers of Nazism. Pimpernel Smith was his chance to do so, and he succeeded in creating a remarkable film that deserves to be known for its artistry to be sure but most especially for its pivotal role in world history.