"Pimpernel Smith is a fascinating time capsule...an old school adventure, with daring antics, witty dialogue and an unabashed romanticism."
Ian Haydn Smith, Editor of Curzon Magazine
In February 2018, the British Embassy in Stockholm, in partnership with the Raoul Wallenberg Academy, brought the film Pimpernelí Smith back to Stockholmís Grand Cinema some 77 years after the film's original screenings in the same location during the Second World War. The British Council were delighted to welcome Ian Haydn Smith (Editor of Curzon Magazine) for a post-screen discussion about the significance of the film for Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian who is widely celebrated for saving thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust from German Nazis and Hungarian Fascists. Discussing the film with Ian were:
- Ingrid Calberg - Swedish author and journalist. Her book about the life and destiny of Raoul Wallenberg was awarded the August Prize for best work of non-fiction 2012. Her biography was also awarded the Swedish Academy's Axel Hirsch Prize in 2013;
- Pia Molander, author and academic at the Swedish Defense University;
- Dr Vin Arthey, author of Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Swapped for Gary Powers and Visiting Fellow at Teeside University.
In this interview Ian talks to us about his interest in the film and offers a more personal take on why he finds it so compelling.
When did you first come across the film and where did you see it?
I first saw the film as a child. My grandfather was a huge fan of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, which often played as a season, one each morning, during the Christmas holidays. This film followed on one day. I had already seen and enjoyed Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) so a stayed on to watch it. It's become a bit of a comfort blanket movie – required viewing every time it appears on the TV. But it's the first time that I'm seeing it on the big screen here in Stockholm.
What was it about it that spoke to you – the acting, cinematography, adventure?
The adventure for the first few times. Now it's a fascinating time capsule and interesting to locate as a propaganda film made prior to America's entry into the war. The US government had discouraged Hollywood from making propagandist films and this was a rousing addition to a growing number of British and European allied films that were highlighting the atrocities and human rights violations of the Nazis.
Why is the movie so little known in the UK compared to the Scarlet Pimpernel?
That's just a better-known story. Pimpernel Smith is so specific to it's time and such a tool of propaganda that in the post-war years it was seen as irrelevant. Now it stands up as a fascinating artefact of that era.
What do you think a Swedish audience will make of the film?
More than anything, I hope they will enjoy it. It's an old school adventure, with daring antics, witty dialogue and an unabashed romanticism that suits Lelsie Howard's star persona perfectly.
Did you know about Raoul Wallenberg already, and especially how he was inspired by the film’s narrative?
I knew of Raoul Wallenberg, but I had no idea of the link with the film. It surprised me. But also shows the power of propaganda.
Did you know about Leslie Howard’s wartime activities?
I did. He was a fascinating and somewhat remarkable individual. But not alone amongst film stars whose wartime experiences were remarkable. From James Stewart and David Niven to Audie Murphy (one of the most decorated soldiers in the war who went on to become a Western star). Not to mention the vast swathe of stars – male and female – who supported the troops by visiting and performing so near to the Front Line.
How unusual or usual is or was it for films to inspire real-life adventures, such as the Pimpernel Smith?
I'm sure there are many, but I can't quite think of one as unique as that of Pimpernel Smith and Raoul Wallenberg. It's an extraordinary story and one that I think Leslie Howard would have been proud to have been associated with.