The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

‘The movie looks past the fat, bald military man with the walrus moustache, and sees inside, to an idealist and a romantic. To know him is to love him.’
— Roger Ebert

Colonel Blimp

United Kingdom 1943 163 min Technicolor
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Print Source: NFSA. Production Companies: Independent Producers, The Archers; producers, directors and writers, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger ; cinematographer, Georges Périnal; camera operators, Jack Cardiff, Geoffrey Unsworth; production designer, Alfred Junge;  original music, Allan Gray. Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Aspect ratio 1.33:1 (4:3).

Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Angela (Johnny) Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), Roland Culver (Col. Betteridge), James McKechnie (Spud Wilson), Albert Lieven (von Ritter), Arthur Wontner (Embassy Counsellor), David Hutcheson (Hoppy), Ursula Jeans (Frau von Kalteneck), John Laurie (Murdoch), Harry Welchman (Major Davies), Reginald Tate (van Zijl).

Over the 40-year span of his military career from the Boer War through World War I to the beginning of World War II, General Clive Wynne-Candy became out of touch with changing realities of warfare. He also lost the three loves of his life.

As a young subaltern, in 1902 Candy impetuously travelled to Berlin without permission to protest German propaganda about British concentration camps in South Africa. He caused an international incident which led to a rapier duel with a German Army officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, chosen by lot to respond to an insult to the German Army. Recovering from their wounds in hospital, Clive and Theo became friends. They were visited by Clive’s friend Edith, an English governess in Berlin who, uncertain of Clive’s intentions, later accepted Theo’s eager proposal of marriage. Clive realised too late that she was his ideal woman. He will spend the rest of his life looking for her equal.

According to Powell, the inspiration for General Clive Candy in his later years came from a scene cut from their previous film, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), in which an elderly member of the crew tells a younger one, “You don’t know what it’s like to be old”. The protagonist’s Word War II years are based on David Low’s buffoonish newspaper cartoon “Colonel Blimp”, a parody of procrastinating, jingoistic, military blowhards that took aim at the public school traditions of honour, decency and “playing the game” which commissioned officers had brought with them into the British Army. Through the years Clive has become Blimp, affectionately portrayed, but out of step with the realties of the times and, in particular, the nature of modern warfare. He is put out to grass in charge of the Home Guard’s “war games”.

Powell and Pressburger called their partnership The Archers, working under J Arthur Rank.s Independent Producers division. They had intended to make a civilised study of the widening gap between British and German military psyches to warn the world that the Nazis were not fighting like gentlemen but they took a calculated risk in featuring a “good German” in a sympathetic major role. Winston Churchill saw the script while the film was in pre-production and did everything he could to have it shelved.  From Churchill’s point of view, risking weakening public morale for the sake of a film about a fictional British/German friendship was out of the question: Britain was in a life or death struggle in a war waged on a scale and intensity undreamed of half a century earlier, when more honourable rules of war prevailed. He was determined to reinforce British patriotism in every way and resist the pressures for appeasement and a dishonourable peace with Germany still coming from some sections of British society. He thought that a British film where a German “got the girl” in the first 30 minutes would suggest to British audiences an inevitable defeat by the “beastly Hun”. That the British hero was called Candy only made it worse.

Churchill also knew that the public needed no reminder that the British Army had thus far failed to produce resolute and inspirational leaders like Germany’s Field Marshall Rommel, only somewhat Blimp-like generals whose heritage was indeed a military etiquette that was already becoming outmoded during the Boer War. By World War I they had become unimaginative armchair strategists well behind the front lines steadily sending millions to their deaths and whose successors, better at running a garrison force than a field army, were getting the blame for the debacle of Dunkirk, for the retreats from Norway, Greece and Crete, for reversals in the Western Desert campaigns and, particularly, for the national shame of the Singapore surrender.

According to Powell, the Minister of War told him: “My dear fellow, after all we are a democracy, aren’t we? You know we can’t forbid you to do anything but the Old Man will be very cross and you’ll never get a knighthood”. The Minister would be proved right on all points. But Powell and Pressburger went ahead.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was shot during the London blitz. To emphasise the official line that blimps no longer exercised any authority in the Army, Powell and Pressburger diplomatically dedicated the film to “the New Army of Britain”. Promoted as “An unforgettable story of 40 gallant years”, it was cut by some 23 minutes before its June 1943 London premiere. To counter the growing impression in America that Britain was a weak-kneed ally, Churchill managed at least to delay its export permit. It was not premiered in New York until March 1945 and, re-edited for Americans into a chronological plotline that lost another 20 minutes, was promoted as “A lusty lifetime of love and adventure in lavish Technicolor”. It finally hit Australia in June 1945 cut by about 10 minutes for a popular 9-week season at Sydney’s old Embassy theatre billed as “Three Lovely Women and their Love Stories”

Blimp made a star of Deborah Kerr, just 20 years old, playing the three loves of Candy’s life. She was cast only after Powell’s original choice Wendy Hiller became pregnant. Lawrence Olivier was the first choice for Candy but the Ministry of War refused to allow him leave from the Army, in a calculated move to sabotage the production.  Luckily, Roger Livesey, the second choice, was not in the Army. He would make two more films for the Archers, I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Over fifteen years, the Archers were responsible for a remarkable series of other British films including One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), A Canterbury Tale (1944), Black Narcissus (1947) The Red Shoes (1948), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and The Battle of the River Plate (1956).

Powell’s first film after the Archers had amicably ended their partnership was Peeping Tom (1960), a sadistic horror film that seemed to have been directed by his inner demons. Both the critics and the general public hated it, and his film career was destroyed overnight. He retreated to British television until an old friend, JC Williamson’s John McCallum, invited him to Australia to direct the film version of They’re a Weird Mob (1966), which told Australians just what they wanted to hear: that they were the friendliest, funniest, laziest, booziest and most lovable people on Earth and, stretching facts a bit more, that any migrant with a few good mates could build himself a home overlooking Sydney Heads in no time, no worries, mate. It was a huge success (in Australia). Two years later he directed another Australian film Age of Consent featuring the young Helen Mirren.

Blimp was restored to its original length 1983 in all its Technicolour glory. A glowing tribute to the cinematography team of Périnal, Cardiff and Unsworth, we can now also appreciate it as one of the finest films made by The Archers.

The tapestry seen in the opening credits was made by the members of The Royal College of Needlework. The tapestry contains the film’s cast and crew credits. At the end, when the camera zooms in on the tapestry, the Latin phrase “Sic Transit Gloria Candy” is shown. This translates to: “Thus passes away the glory of Candy”.

— Introduction to the film at the session ‘Colonel Blimp’, WEA Film Study Group, Sydney, Australia, 11 March 2012. Co-authored with Graham Seaman.

Further reading:
Braun, Eric, Deborah Kerr. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
Christie, Ian, Arrows of desire: the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. New ed. London, Boston : Faber and Faber, 1994.
Macdonald, Kevin, Emeric Pressburger: the life and death of a screenwriter. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.
Powell, Michael. A life in movies: an autobiography. London, Melbourne: Heinemann, 1986.
Danks, Adrian. “Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger” at:
Ebert, Roger. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at:    WS08/210270301/1023/
Macnab, Geoffry. “Colonel Blimp: The masterpiece Churchill hated. Powell and Pressburger’s jingoistic film was maligned, then mutilated. But its genius survives”. The Independent Friday 2 December 2011 at: entertainment/films/features/colonel blimp-the-masterpiece-churchill-hated- 6270460.html

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