The story surrounding Leslie Howard’s death seems to be one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in cinema history. Leslie Howard died aged fifty after his plane was shot down on the 1st of June 1943 by the Luftwaffe.
The plane was a passenger carrier from Portugal; thus in this instance the Nazis violated an unwritten yet informal treaty to not shoot down civilian planes from neutral countries – Portugal being neutral at the time. There are many reasons to believe that the plane, which was headed for landing at a small airfield near Bristol, was shot down because one of its passengers was none other than actor and filmmaker Leslie Howard.
At the peak of his Hollywood popularity, having starred in such classics as Of Human Bondage, Pygmalion and Gone With the Wind, with the outbreak of World War II, he bought himself out of a lucrative contract and returned to his native Britain to contribute to his war effort. Of course, Winston Churchill had a reason for being a fan in this case. He instantly thought well of using him as an ‘agent of influence,’ one of the theatricals who went around the world and spread the British doctrine trying to convince countries to join its cause in its fight against the axis.
Howard met Churchill back in 1937, in occasion of some discussions regarding a possible film version of the story of Lawrence of Arabia that never materialised. In the occasion, however, Howard took the opportunity to tell Churchill of his anti-Nazi views – something that the future Prime Minister would keep in mind when it looked like propaganda would play an important role in this global conflict.
Fast forward to 1941, when Howard made and released ‘Pimpernel’ Smith, his second feature as a director, three years after his admirable and celebrated debut Pygmalion. Here, Howard also stars as the titular hero, who whilst very unassuming, rescues victims of Nazi prosecutions during the conflict that was taking place in the ‘real world’. A year later, he would shoot The First of Few, now renamed Spitfire, about the designer of the Spitfire – a film which has been credited with highly boosting the morale of the people during the most heated stages of the Battle of Britain.