Oscar-winning actor Leslie Howard is widely regarded for his portrayal as the handsome Ashley Wilkes whom Scarlett O’Hara pursues in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). After filming “Gone With The Wind,” World War II broke out. It was from his salary that Leslie Howard was able to produce and direct his own anti-Nazi propaganda films. Howard’s propaganda films boosted the morale of his Mother England and the world against the Nazi’s formidable force. But it did not come without a cost for Leslie Howard. That cost was his life.
Howard’s first film, “Common Heritage” (1940), had an innocent theme. It featured Howard and four foreign soldiers touring the historical sites of England. The film showcased the shared principles Howard and the soldiers had about humanity despite their coming from varying parts of the world.
It was Howard’s second film, “Pimpernel Smith” (1941), that stirred a lot of attention. In “Pimpernel Smith,” Howard brought the storyline of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” into the atmosphere of WW II. The film was Howard’s directorial debut; he starred in it as well as “Professor Horatio Smith.” The plot involved Professor Smith using his student archaeological dig as a device to rescue prisoners of the Gestapo. The Nazi regime was insulted by the film. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels believed Howard was “the most dangerous propagandist in the British service.” The rest of world and its leaders, however, found it entertaining and understood its message of heroism, particularly Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. By the end of the war, Wallenberg rescued over 15,000 Hungarian Jews in Budapest.
Leslie Howard made seven propaganda films in all. “The 49th Parallel” (1941), released after “Pimpernel Smith,” co-starred Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard as a part of an ensemble cast portraying a WW II U-boat crew. It was nominated for three Oscars, winning one for “Best Writing, Original Story” by Emeric Pressburger. The last three films Howard completed he served as the uncredited narrator.
On June 1, 1943, Howard’s untimely death occurred after he boarded an airplane for a return trip to England. At the time, Howard had just finished a speaking tour in Lisbon, Portugal. During the flight, the thirteen-passenger, four-crew member plane was suddenly and deliberately shot down by German fighter planes.
When the plane failed to reach its destination, a search party was immediately sent out. They did not find any bodies or signs of wreckage; the airplane had broken up on impact and was immediately swallowed by the waves. When the news broke out that Howard was amongst the list of the tragedy’s ill-fated, controversy spread over whether or not Howard was the target. The Nazi regime insisted that their sources reported the airplane was carrying Winston Churchill. It still remains unclear if the Nazi regime intended to kill Howard or if they were in fact out to annihilate England’s Prime Minister. At the time of death, Leslie Howard was fifty years old.