Bela Lugosi, was one of the first and most famous of the many men who played Dracula on the big screen, is remembered by film buffs for the many roles he played in dozens of horror films. Lugosi parlayed the fame he gained from his Dracula role into a long career in Hollywood. He eventually fell into obscurity and was reduced to roles in some of the worst B-movies ever made. Nonetheless, Lugosi is still beloved by many for his entrancing portrayal of the mysterious, blood lusting vampire from the primeval land of Transylvania. Lugosi played the role so well, that for the rest of his career he was typecast as Count Dracula. Because of this, it is difficult to separate Lugosi the man, from Lugosi the actor. When the man is separated from the screen it usually shows him in a much less flattering light, focusing on his later years, when drug addiction left him destitute, alone and a mere shell of his former self (the film Ed Wood does a remarkable job characterizing this).
There is little interest about Lugosi’s early years, other than the fact that he was Hungarian and acted in numerous roles on both stage and screen. Unbeknownst to many, Lugosi also spent several of his formative years fighting on the front lines during World War I. His wartime experience and the conflict’s chaotic aftermath in Hungary would lead him down a path that would shape his career for years to come. Casting a light on what happened to Lugosi during this time, illuminates an otherwise little known aspect of this iconic screen legend’s life.
Beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, Lugosi had slowly worked his way up from bit parts in provincial theatrical plays to roles at the National Theater in Budapest. By 1914, Lugosi had made somewhat of a name for himself in artistic circles. The sudden outbreak of World War I that summer did not seem likely to change this. Actors were exempted from military service and Lugosi did not have a martial background. Yet for reasons that are still unclear he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army almost immediately. Perhaps he was seeking adventure or felt the emotional urge of patriotism that gripped so many other men at that time. He was assigned to the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry, first serving as an infantry lieutenant. The unit was sent to the Eastern Front where they fought in Galicia against Russian forces. Lugosi showed enough ability to gain entry into the ski patrol. His unit soon found themselves engaged in the brutal winter Carpathian campaigns. These began in earnest during late January of 1915. To give just one example of the danger and death that pervaded these battles, the Austro-Hungarians lost an astonishing two-thirds of a 100,000 man army in less than three weeks. Though largely forgotten, the fighting which occurred high up in the snowy Carpathians is believed by some historians to have been the deadliest of the entire war on any front. Casualties upwards of 50% became the norm.
In some ways, the bombs and bullets of the Russians were the least of a soldier’s worries. The natural elements were if anything deadlier. Two companies, including staff and officers, froze to death after temperatures plunged to twenty below zero. Lugosi’s role in the ski patrol may have helped save his life, since he may have been better equipped with winter gear than the average infantryman. We do not have any documentation on Lugosi’s feelings about this winter warfare, but we do have rare extracts from a Romanian officer, Octavian C. Taslauuanu, who fought in the Carpathians. A short extract is instructive as to the conditions faced by the soldiers. “The fighting in the Carpathians, because of the difficulties of the ground and the severity of the season, demanded the greatest effort and suffering of which our army was ever capable. Those who have not taken part in it can have no idea of what a human being is capable…Everything was wrapped in a mantle of snow, whose virginal whiteness soothed us and made our thoughts turn calmly to death, which we longed for as never before. The men dug coffin-shaped trenches, so that when in the evening I went to inspect them lying in these ditches covered with juniper, they looked to me as if they had been buried alive…The men, despite the cold, lost no time in undressing to change their linen. I then saw human bodies which were nothing, but one great sore from the neck to the waist. They were absolutely eaten up with lice.”
Lugosi did not escape the fighting unscathed. He suffered both mentally and physically. One of the few times he spoke about the war took place in an interview years later as he recalled, “There was a moment I could never forget. We were protecting a forest from the Russians. All of us were cowering beneath huge trees, each man beneath a tree. A young officer incautious, went a little way out of cover and a bullet struck his breast. I forgot the Russians were firing from their line with machine guns. Not a selfless man…I ran to him and gave him first aid. I came back to my tree and found out that it had been blown to the heavens in heavy crushing pieces. I became hysterical. I wept there on the forest floor, like a child…not from fear, not even from relief…from gratitude at how God had paid me back for having that good heart.”
Lugosi was wounded twice, the first time in fighting near Rohatin, Galicia (Rohatyn, Ukraine today), the second time occurred in the Carpathians. These wounds brought him a decoration for bravery, but they also put him out of commission. Shortly after being released from the hospital in early 1916 Lugosi was discharged after 18 months of service. One biographer states that the discharge was given for “mental instability” – an irony if ever there was one. Whatever wounds Lugosi had sustained could not keep him away from the theater. On April, 10 1916, less than twenty months after his last performance in Budapest he was back on stage at the National Theater. As the war dragged on over the next two and a half years, Lugosi continued to act in a variety of roles on stage and also getting his first start in film. It was as though he had never went to the trenches. Maybe he was able to forget about the war, but its aftereffects in Hungary were about to influence the rest of his life.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in November of 1918. Hungary became a republic, albeit one threatened by the excesses of radicalism and revolt. For the first time in his life, Lugosi became involved in politics. He gained a role as one of the leaders of the newly created theaters union in December 1918. He espoused decidedly left wing views, campaigning to eradicate a seniority system that had been biased towards the Budapest theatrical old guard. He advocated ending the power of the theater managers who encouraged profit over art. These views put him in line with the short lived Hungarian Democratic Republic led by Mihaly Karolyi. After its abrupt implosion, he supported the Hungarian Soviet Republic of Bela Kun. A reign of red terror swept the country. Left wingers such as Lugosi spoke out with impunity. Art was now going to be ascendant over money. Lugosi’s ambitious rhetoric came back to haunt him when Kun’s government was ousted from power after a mere four months. In 1919, a conservative right wing government under regent Miklos Horthy took power. A backlash quickly ensued. Hungary see sawed from the Red to a White Terror which killed, tortured and imprisoned thousands of left wing sympathizers, including many involved with the theater. Lugosi could have been next.
Exile being the better part valor in his case, Lugosi fled Hungary with his wife, both hidden in a load of hay. He headed to Vienna and then onwards to Berlin. His wife came from a wealthy banking family. The wandering life of a theatrical nomad was not for her. She left Lugosi for good. Meanwhile, he found work in the growing German film industry. He decided to immigrate to the United States in 1921 in order to find better career opportunities. Lugosi never returned to Hungary.
The rest as they say is history. Lugosi went on to the height of fame with Dracula in 1931, unfortunately it was all pretty much downhill from there. He fell into squalor due to indebtedness, poor career decisions and substance abuse. Strangely for a man who played Dracula, only after his death did he rise again to the heights of his former fame. He is now remembered for his iconic star turn as one of the first and most famous of the horror genre’s characters. What to make of Lugosi’s service in the First World War? He had survived due to luck or skill, perhaps both. It was his first brush with mortality. Like many veterans he rarely spoke of what he had seen at the front. For a man who spent a large part of his life playing roles that dealt with the darker side of humanity, it is strange that Lugosi had hardly anything to say about his wartime experiences with danger and death. Then again, all those plays and films were just fiction, a way to escape life. Whereas war was a horrible reality, one that left millions of men like Lugosi scarred. It transformed their lives in ways that we are only beginning to understand.