Aug 2003 Journal

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Film knight

Sir Alexander Korda strode like a colossus across the inter-war and immediate post-war history of the infant British film industry - the country's only film mogul. He produced films infused with British patriotism - even jingoism - often as a coded riposte, couched in historical allegory, to the looming fascist threat from Continental Europe. Ironically, these most British of films were crafted by teams which included writers, cameramen, set designers, musical soundtrack composers and costume-makers who, like Korda, were refugee Hungarian Jews.

Professor Greg Walker of the University of Leicester guided an enthralled audience, invited by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the Parkes Centre at the University of Southampton and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, through a fascinating debate on Korda's 'Englishness and Jewishness'.

Born Sando Laslo Kelner, a village child, Korda attended a Jewish primary school and was brought up in a Jewish cultural environment. Following the death of his father, in the early 1900s he moved to school in Budapest, 'a city profoundly Jewish in character', where he changed his name from Kelner to Korda, and then from Sandor to Alexander. Having lived a Jewish communal life, according to Professor Walker, his Jewishness was by no means a marginal influence. Yet he denied his ethnic origins. Korda's identity was always somewhat 'ill defined' as he chose to manipulate his origins to suit his current needs.

Korda had begun his film career in Budapest, writing scripts and directing a film each year from 1914 to 1919. When he migrated to Vienna the following year (making two films), he began to earn the reputation of a cultural chameleon. Despite little money or work, he rapidly assimilated and presented the image of a wealthy film man. For Korda the ability to assimilate, as with many other refugees, was a strategic move, particularly in an image-conscious industry. He followed a similar path in Berlin in 1923, making five films there before emigrating to Hollywood in 1927.

In 1931 Korda arrived in London, having apparently left all his Jewishness behind him. Perhaps in Britain there was too ready an acceptance of his downgrading his former religious identity. Yet Korda always remained generous to his fellow Hungarian refugees.

Director, screenwriter, producer and executive producer at one time or another, Korda produced an amazing string of 51 films, including The Private Life of Henry VIII, which won an Oscar for Charles Laughton and virtually revived the home film industry of the 1930s. He went on to make such classics as Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sanders of the River, Things to Come, Fire Over England and Storm in a Teacup.

After a second interlude in Hollywood, from 1940 to 1942, he returned to London in 1943 to make some of the most memorable of British films, including The Shop at Sly Corner and An Ideal Husband (1947), Anna Karenina and The Winslow Boy (1948), The Third Man (1949), and The Happiest Days of Your Life, his last film in 1950.

Korda's films of the 1930s displayed a distinct humanitarianism, several of them containing anti-fascist motifs. He portrayed England as a country standing above and against a fascist threat and favoured rearmament. An historical film calling for naval ships was a plea for an expansion of the RAF. Likewise, Leslie Howard's unforgettable Scarlet Pimpernel, smuggling people out of revolutionary France, mirrored SAS special operations.

Professor Walker believed that Korda 'should be taken more seriously as a political film maker'. Though Korda made pro-refugee and anti-fascist films while denying his own Jewish ancestry, Professor Walker saw both his Jewishness and his adopted Englishness as essential to his work. Indeed, he formed an alliance with Winston Churchill and other 'little Englanders'. Paradoxically, it seems that, as a foreigner, Korda picked up the essence of Britain's national culture and was able to present it on the screen to the British with great conviction .
Ronald Channing

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