In the world-known 1996 movie winning 9 Academy Awards, László Almásy is portrayed as an English pilot who is wounded in a plane crash and is looked after by a young nurse while his past and a past love affair are revealed through flashbacks. But who was the real László Almásy?
A devoted aviator
In fact, Almásy was born in Borostyánkő, Austria-Hungary (today Bernstein in Burgenland, Austria), into a Hungarian noble family, but he was not a Count even though he is referred to as one in the film. Interestingly, he later introduced himself as a Count frequently in Egypt to open doors that would have remained closed otherwise.
He studied in Kőszeg as a private student and Graz from where he had to leave early because
he accidentally hit the director of the school with his bike.
From 1911 to 1914, he was educated at Berrow School, situated in a private house in Eastbourne, England, where he learnt English perfectly.
He first flew in 1911 and bought his first plane in 1914. In WWI Almásy joined the 11th Hussars and fought against the Serbians, the Russians and the Italians. In 1921, he
helped former Habsburg Emperor and King of Hungary, Charles IV unsuccesfully to get back to Hungary.
He was a scout since his studies in England, and he became the International Commissioner of the Hungarian Scout Association in the same year.
The discoverer of the Magyarabs
He drove in 1926 from Egypt to Sudan with his brother-in-law, Antal Esterházy, which became a turning point in his life because he developed an interest in the area. As a salesman for the Steyr automotive company, he demonstrated Steyr vehicles in desert conditions in 1929. Accompanied by Count Nándor Zichy, they wanted to explore the Lybian desert in 1931; however, they crashed near Aleppo. Fortunately, both of them survived with scratches.
He did not give up, and in the next few years, he managed to explore most of the desert with the help of sponsors like Sir Robert Clayton or Prince Kamal el Dine Hussein. In February 1935, Almásy and his colleague Hansjoachim von der Esch became the first Europeans to
establish contact with the Magyarab tribe,
living on an island of the Nile opposite Wadi Halfa in Nubia. They speak Arabic but are believed to be the descendants of Nubian women and Hungarian soldiers serving in the Ottoman army in the 16th century. We wrote about them HERE.
Secret missions in WWII
Since both the Italians and the British thought that he was spying for the other side, in 1935, he was refused permission by the British military authorities to make another expedition. Therefore, he started to set up gliding activities in Egypt under the auspices of the Royal Egyptian Aviation Club.
After WWII broke out in 1939, he had to return to Hungary where he was recruited by the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service and sent back to North Africa to help their forces with his knowledge of the region. His greatest achievement was Operation Salam, the infiltration of two German spies through the Libyan Desert behind enemy lines. Even though Bletchley Park broke their code, British forces were unable to capture them so Almásy was able to return to his starting point. For his deeds, he received the Iron Cross, which he used to keep away Nazi agents from his flat in Budapest where
he provided shelter for many Jews in 1944.
After WWII, communists tried to put him in prison; however, he was acquitted with the help of some influential friends of his like Gyula Germanus, the internationally recognized Hungarian orientalist. He escaped from the country, supposedly with the aid of the British Intelligence, which allegedly bribed Hungarian Communist officials to enable his release. After that, he went to Egypt and lived there until his death in 1951, in Austria. On his grave, erected by Hungarian aviation and desert enthusiasts in 1995, they honour him as a Pilot, Sahara Explorer, and Discoverer of the Zerzura Oasis.
Academy Award-winning, but a pure fictional movie, the English patient appeared in 1996. We wrote HERE and HERE about the movie and HERE about the castle of Almásy family in Gyula. And here you can watch a Hungarian song, as well as some Hungarian words, featured in one of the scenes: