The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is based on a cartoon figure quite unlike Spiderman or Superman. Colonel Blimp was a widely familiar newspaper ‘funny’, a portly man of strong but not always consistent or coherent views, typically holding forth in the Turkish baths. The film gives this two-dimensional vehicle of satire a name, Clive Wynne-Candy, and imagines a life story for him, stretching from 1902, when he is a young, decorated officer on leave from the Boer War, to 1943, when he is the portly figure of the cartoons, and as head of the Home Guard is about to oversee a large-scale exercise for the defence of London. We first meet him being interrupted from relaxing in the Turkish baths in the basement of his club by an impudent young officer’s “pre-emptive strike” the afternoon before the exercise is due to start.
One of the earlier Technicolor feature films made in Britain, Colonel Blimp is technically superb, amusingly written, and at times movingly acted. In the opening sequence the camera dizzyingly weaves in and around a phalanx of motorcycle messengers carrying the orders for the exercise (“War starts at midnight”). The portrayal of the TT races in George Formby’s breakthrough picture No Limit, much praised at the time, looks static by comparison.
Although it is very plainly a propaganda film, Blimp was controversial when it was made and questions were raised in high places as to whether it was opportune to release it. There seem to have been two sources of concern. One was that the portrayal of the pre-war officers of the professional armed forces as ‘blimpish’, hidebound old duffers was thought likely to be unconstructive in terms of morale. The other was that one of the two axes around which the plot revolves is the colonel’s relationship with a Prussian counterpart, a ‘good German’, who has some of the best lines in the film. Having a good German at all was a step too far for some.
In his Autobiography G. K. Chesterton wrote of British propaganda in the First World War, which included works such as his Crimes of England (in which the main crime of England turns out to have been being far too pro-German prior to 1914):
...to write of the Crimes of England, under that naked title, was at that time liable to misunderstanding; and I believe that in some places the book was banned like a pacifist pamphlet. [. . .] My old friend Masterman, in charge of one Propaganda Department, told me with great pride that his enemies were complaining that no British propaganda was being pushed in Spain or Sweden. At this he crowed aloud with glee; for it meant that propaganda like mine was being absorbed without people even knowing it was propaganda. [. . .] The fools who baited Masterman would have published it with a Union Jack cover and a picture of the British Lion, so that hardly one Spaniard would read it, and no Spaniard would believe it. It was in matters of that sort that the rather subtle individuality of Masterman was so superior to his political surroundings.
The same sort of conflict between proponents of ‘subtle’ and ‘blatant’ propaganda was played out in 1943 at the Ministry of Information (which was, after all, one of the main inspirations for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth). A confidential screening of the final cut allayed enough fears for the film to be cleared for release. Ironically, one crisis in the plot of Blimp comes when, early in the Second World War, Wynne-Candy is due to give a talk to the BBC; not only is the broadcast cancelled under ministry pressure (with J. B. Priestley substituted at the last minute), but Candy is removed from the active list as no longer fit for service — hence his move to the Home Guard.
The film opens in 1943, on the eve of the Home Guard defence exercise, then flashes back to 1902, and from there builds forward into the present again for the climax and denouement — the protagonist’s admission that he is rather a stick-in-the-mud and perhaps new times do require new thinking. Chronologically the oldest point in the plot is that Candy, on leave from the Boer War, is interviewed by The Times. After reading the interview, an English governess in Berlin writes to him asking if he couldn’t come to Germany to counter some of the anti-British lies being spread by the newspapers there. He does so, contrary to official advice, then inadvertently insults the entire officer corps of the German Imperial Army, and to preserve Britain’s honour has to fight a duel with a German officer chosen by lot. The Prussian duel is presented as quaint and somewhat ludicrous, rather than sinister, which seems something of an achievement in the atmosphere of 1943. The scriptwriter, Emeric Pressburger, was himself an immensely anglophile Hungarian refugee, who could combine a nostalgia for pre-Hitlerian Central Europe with a warm but keen eye for English foibles. Candy’s opponent in the duel becomes his friend for life, and before the end of the film ends up a refugee in England.
Roger Livesey, who was in his 30s at the time, plays Candy in his late 20s (for the Boer War), in his early 40s (First World War), and in his mid 60s (Second World War), having to age 40 years over the course of the film. It is a remarkable achievement, skilfully done. His German counterpart, played by the Austrian refugee actor Anton Walbrook (originally Adolf Wohlbrück), has to do the same, but on the whole less successfully — his old man strikes me as much stagier. The leading lady, Deborah Kerr (later to be Anna in The King and I), got top billing, and doesn’t age a day. She plays a different part in each chronological section: first the patriotic and pedantic governess with whom Captain Candy realizes too late he has fallen in love (she has already fallen for the German); then an exhausted First World War nurse, who looks just like Colonel Candy’s old flame; and finally the chirpy, rather working-class driver that General Candy picks from the Army motor pool, from among 700 candidates, for reasons she cannot fathom.
While too subtle for the ‘blatant’ propagandists, the film has a very clear message that it hammers home in various ways. This is simply that Nazism is so evil that no qualms should stand in the way of doing whatever may be possible, however repugnant, to fight against it. A sweet old fuddy-duddy from a bygone age might think “I would rather lose my freedom than sink to such methods to defend it” (and naively think the BBC would let him tell the nation that), but realists knew that flinching from doing the previously unthinkable could only lead to defeat.
The year before Blimp the writer-director team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, had brought out a very different film — black and white, pared back, natural sound only — about a downed bomber crew in occupied Holland trying to elude German capture: One of Our Aircraft is Missing, which I hope to return to in a later post. That film too had a very simple, central message. To caricature it only very slightly, if at all, it is that civilians in occupied countries loved being bombed, because they could see it hurt the Germans.
Powell and Pressburger went on to their greatest triumph after the war with Black Narcissus, based on a novel by Rumer Godden.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.