Kings And Country


Kings And Country Essay, Research Paper

Kings and countryKorda: Britain’s Only Movie MogulCharles DrazinSidgwick & Jackson ?20, pp411Just over 70 years ago, the critic CA Lejeune, writing in this newspaper, said that Alexander Korda’s new film, The Private Life of Henry VIII, was ‘more likely to bring prestige to the British film industry, both at home and abroad, than anything we have done in the whole history of filmmaking’.That flourish of patriotic hyperbole from Lejeune says as much about Korda’s ability to project himself as it does about the film or even Charles Laughton’s grand performance in it. The cast may have been British, it may have been made by London Films, a company that stamped its productions with a shot of Big Ben, but, as Charles Drazin’s assiduously researched biography of Korda proves, the sensibility that delivered it was something entirely other. All the key figures behind the camera were French, American or, as with Korda, Hungarian.That is not to question Korda’s devotion to, or belief in, his adopted country. He certainly felt more at ease working in Britain than anywhere else, and he’d had a go at making films in most countries where there was an industry. But it was his very otherness that made him such a success. In the coffee-houses of Mittel Europe, the boy from the Hungarian provinces found his ambitions to put grandeur and spectacle on the screen stifled by the intense life of the mind; in the Hollywood of the 1920s, he found the demands of commerce numbing.Britain offered a halfway house, both literally and figuratively. It was a place where a man with a taste for business and art could invent both himself and a body of work. Not that Korda always found a balance between the two. He was just as capable of making schlock with no redeeming features as he was of overly indulging the ‘creatives’.A desperately un-Hollywood conviction that the success of a movie lay with the creative vision of the writer led him in the mid-Thirties, for example, to give HG Wells almost total control over the sci-fi epic The Shape of Things to Come; the result was a tediously cerebral picture that made for good intellectual argument, bad entertainment and even worse box-office. It earned back barely half its huge budget.Perhaps the problem was simply that, in attempting to film a vision of the future, Korda had moved off safe territory, for it is striking how many of his great successes were historical epics. The man who was from everywhere and nowhere and who therefore was unburdened by attachments to particular myths and traditions had a peculiarly light touch when it came to putting the past on the screen: The Scarlet Pimpernel and That Hamilton Woman, An Ideal Husband and Richard III were matched by films like The Private Lives of Helen of Troy, Don Juan and Henry VIII. (In 1935, keen to exploit the marketability of the ‘Private Lives of…’ series, he even agreed to fund a documentary about the breeding habits of seabirds as long as it was called The Private Life of the Gannet.)Reading Drazin’s account, however, what becomes most obvious is Korda’s talent for the deal. Like all of his breed, he was a great filmmaker not simply because he knew how to put things on screen but because he kept managing to convince people to give him money to do so, even when he had just failed. The success of a movie man, he once said, lay in the ability to stare bankruptcy in the face and he did it more than most.Once Drazin gets over his bizarre need to place himself in the story early on – an account of his own visits to Hungary and to modern-day Los Angeles are irritating distractions – he tells this story well. His sources are clearly very good and he is not embarrassed to admit where a previous biography of Korda – and there have been a few – has already nailed the truth. Equally, he has enough weapons in his armoury to destroy a few myths. The result is an intriguing narrative.Indeed, it is pleasing to imagine that Korda, who was famed for splashing out cash on book rights, might even have seen some cinematic promise in the tale. The problem is that Korda liked his movies to have a clean narrative structure, of rise and fall, or progress and retreat. But the boy who was born Sándor Laszlo Kellner in Pusztaturpaszto, Hungary and who was buried as Sir Alexander Korda in Stoke Poges Garden of Remembrance in Buckinghamshire, managed to be all of these at the same time. Up on the big screen, that would never have worked.· Jay Rayner’s Star Dust Falling, is published by Doubleday

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