Leslie Howard — born April 3rd, 1893 — is probably best-known to audiences for his memorable role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. But he also chose to star in, and in some cases produced and directed, several early films of libertarian interest. Two of these films were important in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany and to save its victims.
Howard’s first libertarian film was The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which he portrays an English gentleman who, under the guise of being a useless dandy, secretly risks all to save innocent lives from the guillotine of the French Revolution. Amidst this carnage enters our hero, snatching the innocent from the blood-soaked jaws of the state. Under the code-name of the “Scarlet Pimpernel,” he and his band outwit the French authorities, rescue the doomed, and transport them to safety in England. Though made in 1934 and now nearly a hundred years old, this film still remarkably entertaining and despite a dozen film adaptations of this novel having been made since, Howard’s performance is still considered the definitive portrayal.
Just a few years later in 1941, there were rumors of death camps in Germany. Howard reprised his earlier role into Pimpernel Smith, essentially the same as that of The Scarlet Pimpernel but updated to the Nazi era, the hero being a British professor of classics and archaeology who rescues the condemned from Nazi concentration camps. Leslie Howard — himself the son of an Hungarian Jew — was the driving force that made this film happen. He produced, directed, and starred in it, and it’s one of those times when you can say a film had an important real-life effect. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, is said to have been inspired by the character of Pimpernel Smith.
And lastly, in 1942, Leslie Howard made Spitfire, a tribute to aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire fighter plane. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the formidable Spitfire to modern freedom. The Nazi assault on England was planned to take just six weeks but instead dragged on for a year before being called off, thanks in part to Britain’s plucky Spitfires. That precious year gave the U.S. time to begin building the war machine that would ultimately spoil Axis plans for world conquest. Dramatized here is the less well-known account of how the Spitfire was designed and to some degree financed by private individuals worried about German militarism, long before government woke up to the danger. It’s a tribute both to Mitchell and to private initiative, and was an important boost to the morale of beleaguered wartime Britain.
In 1943, Leslie Howard traveled to Portugal and died when his plane was shot down by German aircraft. It’s a pity his career didn’t go on longer, but in the moment when the peoples of the free world needed heroes to inspire them, he gave us some terrific and memorable ones — heroes who are still, by their undying example for all who care to see them, fighting the good fight for liberty.