The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

UK 1943, 163 mins
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Churchill’s famous opposition to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has probably done most to crystallise the image of Powell and Pressburger’s wartime epic as a subversive thrust at the military establishment. Interestingly enough, in the ‘Blimp file’ of official correspondence on the subject, opposition from all government agencies is fiercest at the production stage, when the reasons are necessarily theoretical – mainly that the film was going to resurrect ‘an imaginary type of Army officer which has become an object of ridicule to the general public’. Once the film is completed, the opposition fades, to the point where even the Minister of Information decides that it is ‘too boring’ to do any damage except to the people who made it. Only Churchill (and there is no indication that he even saw it) continues to worry away at the film throughout 1943, seized with an idée fixe that in the end makes him seem an ideal Powell-Pressburger character himself, one who found in the film (or his image of it) the proper sporting ground for his bulldog temperament.

For if there is one thing that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp resists, it is being cast in any anti-establishment role. Its restlessness, its élan, its stylistic variety and dazzle have more to do with a quest for an establishment role that is worthy of it. The film is an implicit demonstration of the conservative impulse behind much formal experimentation in art – the anger at what is outmoded, at what has lost its power to enshrine those values considered eternal.

It also goes to the heart of Powell-Pressburger’s particular paradox vis-à-vis political/national allegiances and an apparently free-floating cinematic determination to attack something. Their collaboration seems to involve such an inextricable criss-cross of un-, anti- and ultra-Englishness – is Powell the Englishman’s Englishman who understands more about his compatriots than they could ever accept?; is Pressburger the foreigner with the most sublime, mystical, overarching view of his adopted home? – that it is hard to decide whether they are insiders trying to cut their way out of hidebound traditions or outsiders trying to revitalise those traditions.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp may come on with a great deal of animus, the sense that it is attacking some deep-rooted canker in the military establishment that is impeding the war effort, but its energies are actually profoundly integrationist, conciliatory; its movement not thrusting but circular. It is also intrinsic to the Powell-Pressburger paradox that their films should have such an un-English stylistic attack (the opening sequences here of motorcycle despatch riders racing through the countryside could be strong competition for The Wild One or The Wild Angels) when their aim is usually to re-establish some ideal or fantasy of Englishness. The oppositions set up by Colonel Blimp consequently have a kind of unreal, skewed dimension, as if the conduct of the war really did depend on the question of whether an old-fashioned, gentlemanly, playing-fields-of-Eton approach should apply, or a more ruthless realpolitik, the all-out-to-win tactics implied by the term ‘total war’.

As a strategic consideration of the Second World War, or of the military history of the first half of the twentieth century, this is a fantasy akin to The Thief of Bagdad. And as is appropriate to a fantasy, its oppositions prove chimerical, illusory, easily blending or reversing in effect. If Wynne-Candy at the beginning is viewed as a hidebound, tradition-bound, class-bound old fogey, those same qualities are assumed by the rest of the film to be synonymous with moral rectitude, honour and decency (‘Clean fighting, honest soldiering have won’ as Wynne-Candy announces at the end of the First World War, and Powell and Pressburger seem to concur with his view of a war in which only the dirty Hun used poison gas). Similarly, the film approves the initiative and daring of ‘Spud’ Wilson, the boyish enthusiasm with which he pulls off a manoeuvre by cheating a little – and then worries (or pretends to) that there’s something of the Nazi mentality about it. Or is it just efficient German-type soldiering? One thing that makes the film’s argument so ambiguous, mystical and difficult to grasp is that it conflates too many qualities – of political ideology and national character, for instance – and assumes that military conduct can be discussed in purely spiritual terms, without reference to political or historical circumstances, or even to technology.

If Blimp is a very ambiguous – chimerical – figure in the two wars, in between he virtually ceases to exist. Of this the film seems to be quite ironically aware, though its irony insists more on the poignancy of a real soldier having no place in peacetime: the inter-war years are summed up in a series of montages (in one of which the death of Blimp’s wife, Deborah Kerr’s second, barely noticeable incarnation, is noted) and the accumulation of hunting trophies in his sepulchral study (where the wife’s portrait eventually finds its place). The parade of women – the same but different – through Blimp’s life may be the film’s most inspired and most ambiguous move. In their interchangeable background function, they are on the one hand a reproach to the blindness, the exclusivity of this military tapestry. On the other, the interplay of their diversified characters with Wynne-Candy’s bulldog role gives the film’s image of a chivalric place that is forever England an emotional completeness which it would not otherwise have. (Though it is unclear whether or not the last of these roles, that of the driver Angela who prefers to be called Johnny, should be taken as a further reproach to the equalising tendencies of total war.) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is in a sense playing at soldiers, playing at myths of nationhood. What gives it such uncanny power as a myth in its own right is that it uses its own disrespect for narrative, visual and thematic decorum to create a national fiction that is too ‘ecstatic’, contradictory and shifting to be called propaganda.
Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1985

Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: Archers Film Productions
Produced by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Assistant Producer: Richard Vernon
Floor Manager: Arthur Lawson
Management: Sydney S. Streeter, Alec Saville
Archers Secretary: Joan Page
Assistant Directors: Ken Horne, Tom Payne
Continuity: Maggie Unsworth *
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Based on a cartoon character created by: David Low
Photographed in Technicolor by: Georges Périnal
Chief of Colour Control Department: Natalie Kalmus
Technicolor Cameramen: Geoffrey Unsworth, Jack Cardiff, Harold Haysom
Chief Electrician: Bill Wall
Special Portraits: Fred Daniels *
Process Shots: W. Percy Day
Edited by: John Seabourne
Assistant Editors: Thelma Myers, Peter Seabourne
Production Designed by: Alfred Junge
Costumes Designed by: Joseph Bato
Costumes Executed by: Matilda Etches
Make-up: George Blackler, Dorrie Hamilton
Music Composed and Arranged by: Allan Gray
Conductor: Charles Williams
Sound: C.C. Stevens, Desmond Dew
Military Adviser: Lieut-General Sir Douglas Brownrigg
Period Advisers: E.F.E. Schoen, Dr C. Beard
Logo: D&P Studios

Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff)
Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Angela Cannon)
Roger Livesey (General Clive Wynne-Candy)
Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge)
Harry Welchman (Major Davies)
Arthur Wontner (Embassy Counsellor)
Albert Lieven (von Ritter)
John Laurie (Murdoch)
Ursula Jeans (Frau von Kalteneck)
James McKechnie (Lieutenant ‘Spud’ Wilson)
Reginald Tate (van Zijl)
David Hutcheson (Hoppy Hopwell)
A.E. Matthews (president of tribunal)
Neville Mapp (Stuffy Graves)
Vincent Holman (club porter, 1942)
Spencer Trevor (period Blimp)
James Knight (club porter, 1902)
Dennis Arundell (café orchestra leader)
David Ward (Kaunitz)
Jan Van Loewen (indignant citizen)
Valentine Dyall (von Schönborn)
Carl Jaffe (von Reumann)
Eric Maturin (Colonel Goodhead)
Frith Banbury (Baby-Face Fitzroy)
Robert Harris (embassy secretary)
Count Zichy (Colonel Borg)
Jane Millican (Nurse Erna)
Phyllis Morris (Pebble)
Muriel Aked (Aunt Margaret)
Capt. W.H. Barrett US Army (Texan, US Army)
Corp. Thomas Palmer US Army (sergeant, US Army)
Yvonne Andrée (nun)
Marjorie Gresley (matron)
Felix Aylmer (the bishop)
Helen Debroy (Mrs Wynne)
Norman Pierce (Mr Wynne)
Edward Cooper (BBC official)
Joan Swinstead (secretary)
Ian Fleming (Major Plumley) *
Patrick Macnee *
Norman Williams *

UK 1943
163 mins


L’Argent (Money)
Mon 1 May 13:30; Sat 6 May 15:40; Sat 27 May 20:40; Tue 30 May 18:10
The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet)
Tue 2 May 20:40; Sat 6 May 12:30; Mon 22 May 20:45; Thu 25 May 14:30
The Magnificent Ambersons
Wed 3 May 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Mon 15 May 20:40
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie)
Thu 4 May 20:55; Tue 16 May 20:40; Wed 31 May 18:10 (+ intro)
The River
Fri 5 May 20:45; Mon 8 May 13:20; Sat 13 May 18:10
The Wild Bunch
Sat 6 May 20:10; Sun 14 May 18:00; Mon 29 May 18:00
Sun 7 May 12:50; Sun 14 May 15:00
Le Jour se lève (Daybreak)
Tue 9 May 20:50; Thu 11 May 18:30; Sat 13 May 20:30; Wed 24 May 18:15 (+ intro)
Wed 10 May 18:15 (+ intro); Tue 23 May 18:20; Sat 27 May 18:10
The Big City (Mahanagar)
Fri 12 May 20:30; Sat 20 May 15:00; Sun 28 May 12:50
Still Walking (Aruitemo Aruitemo)
Mon 15 May 14:00 (+ intro); Thu 18 May 18:10; Sun 21 May 15:40; Fri 26 May 20:30
Dance, Girl, Dance
Tue 16 May 18:20; Sat 27 May 16:00
Wed 17 May 18:20 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Fri 19 May 20:30; Mon 29 May 13:40
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sat 20 May 19:50; Mon 29 May 13:00

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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