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Filmmaker and Pimpernel

Jewish Renaissance, January 2019


Alexander Korda’s films of adventure and romance often belied a darker message. As a Korda retrospective opens at London’s BFI, Charles Drazin explores the life of this maverick director. 

When I was recently invited to speak about movie mogul Alexander Korda at a film festival in Budapest, I accepted with some ambivalence because of the xenophobic turn that Hungary has taken in recent years. I wondered to what extent it was the eagerness of Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government to promote Hungary’s cultural heritage that accounted for my invitation. At the same time I couldn’t help but dwell on the irony that Korda, whom Hungary was now happy to celebrate, had been forced into exile when the country took an earlier plunge into xenophobia after the First World War. 

Alexander Korda became famous under a borrowed name. While still at school in Budapest, he began to contribute articles to newspapers, and needed a convenient pseudonym.  He found one in the words of the Latin mass, ‘Sursum Corda.’ Lift up your hearts! It was a good motto for an ambitious young man who wanted to make his dreams come true.  

Born in the Puszta, the great plain region of north-east Hungary, in 1893, Korda started out as Sándor Kellner, the son of a Jewish estate manager. As a small child, he attended a Jewish school in the small town of Túrkeve, then won a scholarship to a gymnasium at the age of nine, where he receive a liberal, secular education.   

Korda had the good fortune to have grown up in a late nineteenth-century Hungary where a large Jewish population had successfully integrated into the larger community. Budapest before the First World War was a bustling, progressive, dynamic – and tolerant – city in which Korda could look to the future with a confidence that lived up to his new name. 

The Belle Époque Grandeur of Budapest may help to account for much of the larger-than-life spectacle that Korda would later bring to the screen in such Technicolor extravaganzas as The Four Feathers or The Thief of Bagdad. But the Belle Époque of course soon gave way to a ruinous century that destroyed Empires and fanned the embers of racial hatred. In the fractured Europe that emerged after 1918, it suddenly became necessary for Korda to gloss over a Jewish heritage that he would not have been otherwise concerned to hide. On the few occasions that the issue of his religion came up during his years in Britain, Korda claimed to belong to the Hungarian Reformed Church. When he died in 1956, a non-denominational funeral service was held for him at Golders Green crematorium.   

Korda might have chosen not to advertise his Jewishness, but his extraordinarily eventful life still held up a mirror to archetypal Jewish experience. His story was one of repeated and often dramatic exodus.  When he was only thirteen, his father died. The death left the Kellner family destitute because their home had been tied to the estate that the father had managed. The family took up lodging with a harsh, ill-tempered grandfather, a situation that encouraged Korda, as soon as he could, to move on again.

In Budapest he built a successful career in Hungary’s nascent film industry. By the end of the First World War, he had become, at the age of only twenty-five, the country’s most important film producer. But as the Austro-Hungarian Empire came crashing down, three revolutions within the space of a year taught him that his future survival would depend on his continued ability to reinvent himself. 

In the social-democratic revolution of Count Károlyi that overthrew the Habsburg monarchy in October 1918, Korda served as a ‘commissioner of film production’. When Károli’s government fell a few months later to the Communist revolution of Béla Kun, he lost the film studio he had founded, but he was still appointed to a new ‘Film Directorate’.  lt was only when Admiral Horthy’s counter-revolution of August 1919 toppled the Béla Kun regime, that his luck really ran out. 

The new government unleashed a ‘White Terror’ that led to the summary imprisonment and execution of thousands of people. Jews were singled out for especial hatred, as many had played a prominent part in the previous two revolutions.  Korda was arrested and imprisoned in Horthy’s headquarters in the Hotel Gellert. His film-star wife Maria Corda – and according to some accounts a mysterious British Brigadier – interceded on his behalf. When he was finally released, he had no choice but to leave immediately for Vienna. 

It requires little acquaintance with Hungary’s subsequent history to understand why Korda chose never to return. Under Horthy’s authoritarian rule, Hungary developed into an anti-Semitic, extreme right-wing state that introduced anti-Jewish laws as early as 1920.

The 1920s was a peripatetic decade for Korda that included spells in Weimar Germany, Hollywood and Paris. I suppose a politician in today’s dark times might scathingly call him ‘a citizen of the world’, but that did not mean he was ‘a citizen of nowhere’.  When he chose to settle in Britain, it was his ability to be open to the world that became the means of expressing his loyalty to his adopted country. 

During the 1930s his company London Film Productions made a series of popular, mainstream films that won huge international audiences. In an industry geared to turning out formulaic films of action, spectacle and romance, Korda was unusual for seeking to make films that sought to engage with the serious issues of a disturbing decade, even if the exigencies of popular entertainment meant that he had to rely on parables and allegories to do so.

When Korda produced the hugely successful Scarlet Pimpernel, this tale of ‘the phantom adventurer’ whose ‘exploits create the most stirring romance in all history’ would have seemed to take the audience far away from their present-day troubles into a long-ago past, but the contemporary relevance of the tale was none the less there for anyone who cared to look.  

In the light of his own narrow escape from Hungary’s Reign of Terror, it's easy to appreciate how Baroness Orczy’s hugely popular tale of an Englishman rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine might have appealed to Korda. After Hitler’s rise to power, he became something of a Scarlet Pimpernel himself. Britain’s secret service chief Claude Dansey recruited him into British intelligence, and London Film Productions, with its overseas sales offices, became a convenient front for agents operating in Europe. At the same time he turned the studio into a sanctuary for the many refugees who were arriving from Nazi Germany, including former UFA studio boss Erich Pommer, the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger and  movie star Conrad Veidt, whose Jewish wife Ilona had come from Hungary. 

Korda celebrated his naturalisation as a British citizen in October 1936. He held a party in his brand-new state-of-the-art studio at Denham.  As a large Union Jack descended slowly from the ceiling, he was invited to make a speech. In his thick Hungarian accent, he said, ‘I have only one thing to say –  to hell with the bloody foreigner!’ 

In spite of his accent, Korda turned London Film Productions into a bulwark of Britishness, but it was his awareness of a dangerous world beyond Britain, and his ability to communicate to audiences beyond Britain, that made him such a powerful asset. 

Through Dansey, Korda became a member of a small group within the British establishment that sought to alert Britain to the rise of fascism in Europe at a time when the policy of the government was one of appeasement. The most prominent member of this group was Sir Winston Churchill, then so deeply mired in his ‘wilderness years’ that his political comeback must have seemed nigh inconceivable.  Korda took on the future prime minister as a well-remunerated consultant. It was the beginning of an association that would culminate during the war, even though Korda left Britain for Hollywood almost as soon as the war began.

The first picture that Korda made there, Lady Hamilton, was a historical romance that could easily have given the impression that he was turning his back on the embattled, now isolated country that Britain had become by the summer of 1940. But there was a touch of the Pimpernel about a production that Korda had agreed to make at the behest of the British Minister of Information, Duff Cooper. Heavily disguised beneath the Hollywood gloss and glamour, Lady Hamilton had an urgent contemporary message for the large American audience that flocked to see Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, then two of the world’s biggest box-office stars. It was a plea that America should abandon its neutrality and join the war against Nazi Germany. 

In a scene that Churchill might easily have written, Admiral Nelson warns the Lords of the Admiralty, ‘You cannot make peace with dictators!’ A former First Lord of the Admiralty himself, Churchill showed the film to the crew of HMS Prince of Wales when in August 1941 he traveled aboard the battleship to Newfoundland for his first wartime meeting with the US president. One evening he introduced a screening of the film for the ship’s company: ‘Gentlemen, I thought this film would be of interest to you, showing great events, similar to those in which you have been taking part.’   


A few months later, the United States came into the war as Britain’s ally. The knighthood that Korda was awarded not long afterwards was Churchill’s acknowledgement of how much Britain owed to this Hungarian, British and Jewish citizen of the world.  


© Charles Drazin, 2019.

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