The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Powell and Pressburger were legendary British film producers of the mid 20th century, and all of their output is worth considering by those in search of wholesome entertainment. This is an example of a film both set in and released during the Second World War, and indeed at a time, 1943, when its outcome was still far from certain. It is not, however, a simple propaganda exercise, but a subtle exploration of British culture and values.

‘Colonel Blimp’ is a stock joke character of a retired army officer, rather overweight and sporting a walrus moustache, whose attitudes have been left behind by history. The project of this film is to show that the central character, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, who seems to fit the stereotype as the film opens, is not such a bad chap after all. It is not so much that he does not fit the stereotype—he really does have a walrus moustache and so on—but rather that the stereotype does not condemn him, or perhaps, we are invited to imagine, the other people who fit it. The audience is opened up to this expansion of sympathy by a review of his forty-year career, from the era of the Boer War in 1902. His youthful follies, his disappointments and personal tragedies, his idealism and his hard work, humanise him, and also allow us to consider the kinds of experience which created ‘Colonel Blimp’, and the wider British society of the war years in which he had his place.

The opening scenes show a young officer involved in a military exercise, which is designed to test the Home Guard’s ability to defend London. His task is to attack, and Major Wynne-Candy, as the Home Guard’s leader, is to be in charge of defence. The young officer decides to make the exercise more realistic by undertaking a daring raid six hours before it is supposed to begin, to capture Wynne-Candy himself. It is at once bold, amusing, and annoying, since for all the attempts to make such exercises realistic, they have to operate within some kind of rules. The young officer’s prank serves as a backdrop to the extended flash-back which comprises most of the rest of the film, and to Wynne-Candy’s life-long devotion to fair play. This, we learn, gets him into trouble as a young man, and enables him to befriend a German officer, Theo, who marries an Englishwoman and manages much later to flee to England before the start of the war.

Theo’s explanation of his motivations for wishing to come to England could serve as a summary of Britain’s self-understanding in the face of Nazi aggression:

I remembered the people at the station in ’19, when we prisoners [of war] were sent home… cheering us, treating us like friends. The faces of a party of distinguished men around a table, who tried their utmost to comfort me when the defeat of my country seemed to me unbearable. And…very foolishly… I remembered the English countryside, the gardens, the green lawns, the weedy rivers and the trees… she loved so much. And a great desire came over me to come back to my wife’s country. And this, sir, is the truth.

The turning point of the film is Wynne-Candy’s dismissal from the army after a radio talk he had been scheduled to deliver falls foul of the censors. Theo explains to him the problem with the planned talk:

You commented on Nazi methods—foul fighting, bombing refugees, machine-gunning hospitals, lifeboats, bailed-out pilots and so on—by saying that you despised them, that you would be ashamed to fight on their side and that you’d sooner accept defeat than victory if it could only be won by those methods. …Clive, if you let yourself be defeated by them just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you, there won’t be any methods but Nazi methods.

Theo’s argument seems compelling, but it is self-defeating. If the British had adopted Nazi methods to defeat the Nazis, then the same end result would have arisen: a situation in which there were no methods but Nazi methods. The humane, untidy, and self-deprecating British civilisation of that era would have been destroyed after all, not by its declared enemies, but by its supposed defenders.

Wynne-Candy does not give way to Theo’s argument, but nor does he articulate a response to it: the issue is left hanging. It is said that the film only narrowly escaped the fate of Wynne-Candy’s fictional talk—a censor’s veto—and we may wonder, following the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans, just how, in practice, that argument was concluded.

This is a question, however, not just for 1943 or 1945, but for every generation.

Info

  • Original title: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • Original language: English
  • Starring: Roger Livesey (as Clive Wynne-Candy), and Anton Walbrook (as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff).
  • Genre: Drama, war movie
  • Release date: 1943
  • Public: Adults, teenagers
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Author

Hon Alexander Joseph Ranald Shaw (Ph.D., Philosophy) is a British academic and the current chairman of the Latin Mass Society. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow in philosophy at St Benet's Hall, Oxford University. His main areas of interest are practical ethics, the philosophy of religion and medieval philosophy. In 2015, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. As a father of nine, Doctor Joseph Shaw has a special interest in cultivating the virtue of "eutrapelia".

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