A secret protector shepherds “enemies of the state” from Nazi Germany to safety. [ Pimpernel Smith credits: Dir: Leslie Howard/ Leslie Howard, Mary Morris, Francis L. Sullivan/ 120 min/ Action-Adventure/ Britain/ Escape from Socialism, Democide]
“Although the tone is witty and debonair, this film has its serious side and is considered one of the most important anti-Nazi films of the period — and it was not without effect.”
This story is essentially the same as that of The Scarlet Pimpernel but is updated to the Nazi era. Here, the hero is a British professor of classics and archaeology who rescues condemned scientists and artists from Nazi concentration camps. Says he, “When a man holds the view that progress and civilization depend in every age upon the hands and brains of a few exceptional spirits, it’s rather hard to stand by and see them destroyed.”
This courageous professor is a master of disguise and deceit. Operating under the cover of doing excavations on supposed ruins of ancient Aryan civilizations, he outwits the Nazi authorities over and over again. Publicly, the Nazis deny his existence, as in this humorous announcement from the Ministry of Propaganda: “Rumors of a mysterious personage helping enemies of the state to escape from Germany are without foundation. We can assure you there have been no such escapes and there is no such rescuer. Furthermore, in Nazi Germany, no one can hope to be saved by anybody!”
However, privately, Nazi agents are searching everywhere for this secret liberator. The Nazis end up forcing the daughter of a captured newspaper editor into helping them in their manhunt, but she double-crosses them to seek the hero’s aid in freeing her father. Getting her and her father out of the country to safety becomes the last daring rescue for Pimpernel Smith.
Leslie Howard produced, directed, and starred in this film. He makes an understated hero in the British style and is, as always, entertaining. The film also benefits from clever use of cinematography and an amusing script that mocks pretty much everything Nazi. There aren’t many films with this much of the right idea around, so it’s worth seeing, especially if you like classic British cinema.
Although the tone is witty and debonair, it has its serious side and is considered one of the most important anti-Nazi films of the period — and it was not without effect. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, is said to have been inspired by the character of Pimpernel Smith.
“…a gallant figure to capture the imagination and stir the blood.”
–New York Times
“Pimpernel Smith is not only every bit as stirring as Howard intended, but also genuinely poignant.”
How to See It
Book: Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor (Revised Second Edition)
Book: Heroes of the Holocaust: Ordinary Britons Who Risked Their Lives to Make a Difference
Book: In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer
Book: The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust
Book: Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, Missing Hero of the Holocaust
Book: A Place To Hide: True Stories Of Holocaust Rescues (Scholastic Biography)
“On the basis of Wallenberg’s statement to his sister in 1942 and the striking similarities between Leslie Howard’s performance, particularly in the Vodenschatz episode, and Wallenberg’s modus operandi in Budapest, there is every reason to believe that once committed to his mission at the Swedish legation in Hungary, Wallenberg found in Pimpernel Smith a role-model he could adapt to the situation at hand when facing down Nazi and Arrow Cross guards and snatching prisoners from their grasp. It is in this respect that the remarkable rescue of countless lives in Budapest involved at least in part the transmission of a heroic model from Leslie Howard to Raoul Wallenberg.”
–P.O.V.: From Leslie Howard to Raoul Wallenberg: the transmission and adaptation of a heroic model