Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)

Director, Producer

Main image of Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)

Zoltán Korda, middle sibling of Alexander and Vincent Korda, was born Zoltán Kellner in Túrkeve, Hungary, on 3 May 1895. Much of his career was spent following the path of his eldest brother Sandór (Alex) from one company and country to the next. After odd jobs and active service in World War One, he worked as an editor at Alex's first major production base, the new Corvin Studios in Budapest, and co-directed his first feature, Károly-bakák, later in 1918. When Alex moved to Vienna in 1920, Zoltán was close behind, gaining experience in photography. When Alex tried his luck in Hollywood, Zoltán packed his bags again, and stayed by his side on the return to Europe in 1930. This may suggest a pliant character, but both brothers shared a volatile temperament; most of the features Zoltán directed for Alex only emerged after furious arguments conducted in Hungarian, punctuated by slammed doors and screams.

At the heart of these battles lay a crucial difference in aspirations. Alex, the instigator and hands-on producer, wanted his major films shaped as colourful entertainments, fit for international audiences though with a patriotic British stamp. Zoltán - once past thankless duties on Leontine Sagan's Men of Tomorrow (1932) and the frivolous quota comedy Cash (1933) - yearned to direct exotic but realistic adventures, focusing on social justice and the lives of native people, particularly in Africa. The conflict in goals is clearly visible in London Films' increasingly ambitious series of British Empire subjects, launched with Edgar Wallace's African story Sanders of the River, begun in the summer of 1933. Sanders is a film not so much directed as assembled, with the studio scenes centred on Leslie Banks' sympathetic commissioner regularly interrupted by vocal opportunities for Paul Robeson and Zoltán's respectful footage of tribal life and scenery. Elephant Boy (1937), inspired by Kipling, never achieved fusion either. Elephants and scenery lyrically and expansively filmed in India by Robert Flaherty, Zoltán and others were forced to rub shoulders in the editing with makeshift sets and animals from Whipsnade Zoo, corralled into patchy narrative scenes filmed at Denham.

But one saving grace emerged from Elephant Boy: Sabu, the stable hand chosen for the role of the boy who earns enough British approval to become a mahout, an elephant driver. Sabu's youthful charm and popularity encouraged Alex to build his future Empire films with a more careful regard for character and a stronger dramatic spine. In The Drum, from a story written to showcase Sabu by the novelist A. E. W. Mason, Zoltán struggled to bring to life the indifferently written interior scenes. But the entire film punched out its breezy tale with a new degree of narrative and visual cohesion, even though production economies showed and the 'Indian' scenery was mostly Welsh. Much of the melding was provided by the dazzling Technicolor photography (Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile), and the set designs of the third Korda brother, Vincent - a key contributor to Alex's films throughout the 1930s and 40s.

The quality gap between interiors and exteriors was significantly shortened in The Four Feathers (1939), fluidly and incisively directed by Zoltán, and the best of all film accounts of Mason's early adventure novel about a guardsman's cowardice redeemed in Egypt. Open talk of 'fuzzy wuzzies', the loud trumpeting of patriotic and family duty, and the subservient role of women combine to make the film a monument of the politically incorrect. Yet it remains genuinely exciting and moving, powered as much by the strongly defined character conflicts as the visual panoply of bright red tunics, sand, rock, and massed local extras. The extensive location footage shot in the Sudan was later raided by other directors (chunks surface in the 1955 Storm over the Nile, Zoltán's last production for Alex). But only the 1939 Four Feathers presents Harry Faversham's agonies of conscience with an even hand, or enjoys the benefit of John Clements and Ralph Richardson, who make the tussles and desert adventures so believable and gripping.

Subsequently Zoltán joined the army working on The Thief of Bagdad and moved with Alex to America to direct another Sabu vehicle derived from Kipling, Jungle Book (1942). Artistically this marked a backward step: Alex's desire for colourful fantasy, controlled in the studio, won over Zoltán's itch for realism, though the public liked the mix and the wild animals. Zoltán's expertise with adventure films and deserts no doubt helped him land an outside job for Columbia, directing Humphrey Bogart in Sahara (1943). The taut war drama's success led to an independent American career. The Hemingway adaptation The Macomber Affair (1947) offered further African wildlife and an intelligent exploration of the human jungle; while the polished melodrama A Woman's Vengeance (1948), set in England, made juicy work of Aldous Huxley's story 'The Giaconda Smile'.

Zoltán returned to the family firm for two more productions. With Cry, The Beloved Country (1952), based on Alan Paton's novel about relations in South Africa between the races, he was finally able to make an African film of his own choosing, without the burden of glamour and surface entertainment. Filmed extensively in and around Johannesburg, the long-gestating project met with many hurdles, but Zoltán stuck to his guns, and let the anti-Apartheid message emerge naturally through the entwined fates of Canada Lee's simple black minister and Charles Carson's bigoted landowner. Though the acting shone only in patches, the film's sincerity never wavered; and the public's muted response was balanced by critical respect.

Zoltán had other ambitions - he was keen to film Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge on the River Kwai when Alex briefly held the rights - but accumulating ill-health made further work difficult. On the mildly enjoyable Storm over the Nile he functioned chiefly as the producer: it was Terence Young's task to direct Anthony Steel and company in new material, fitted around Zoltán's location footage, now stretched to fit the newly fashionable CinemaScope frame. Alex's death in 1956 closed the door on further collaborations. Zoltán went into semi-retirement, and died in Beverly Hills, California on 13 October 1961. He was married to the actress Joan Gardner, featured in his untypical Forget Me Not (1936): a film strong on operatic singing, but with none of the dash and exotic colour that makes his best work so exhilarating.

Film Dope n.31, Jan. 1985 p. 30
Korda, Zoltan, 'Filming in Africa', Film Weekly n. 338, April 1935, p. 52
Kulik, Karol, Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles (London: W. H. Allen, 1975)
Patar, Benoit, 'Zoltán Korda, prince oublié', 24 Images n.12, April 1982, pp. 47-52

Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)

South African drama about a black man accused of killing a white one

Thumbnail image of Drum, The (1938)Drum, The (1938)

London Films' first Technicolor feature, a stirring Empire epic

Thumbnail image of Elephant Boy (1937)Elephant Boy (1937)

Korda Kipling adaptation that made an instant star of Sabu in the title role

Thumbnail image of Four Feathers, The (1939)Four Feathers, The (1939)

Lavish Technicolor costume epic about an alleged coward fighting in the Sudan

Thumbnail image of Jungle Book (1942)Jungle Book (1942)

Sabu plays Mowgli in this Korda Kipling adaptation

Thumbnail image of Sanders of the River (1935)Sanders of the River (1935)

The first of Korda's British colonial epics, disowned by its star

Thumbnail image of Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

Michael Powell co-directed Korda's lavish Arabian Nights fantasy

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Magyars in MayfairMagyars in Mayfair

Hungary's contribution to British film and television

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)

Director, Producer, Executive Producer

Thumbnail image of Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)Korda, Vincent (1896-1979)

Art director