From: War Pictures

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Introduction One really has to rack one’s brains to find anything to say about a British film. One wonders why. But that’s the way it is. And there isn’t even an exception to prove the rule. —Jean-Luc Godard, review of J. Lee Thompson’s Woman in a Dressing-Gown (1958) Before continuing with our diagnosis it becomes necessary to have a definition of style. —Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938) I first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) years ago when a friend lent me an old, much-played VHS tape of its shortened and badly recut American release.1 Even washed-out, wobbly, and stripped of its allimportant flashback structure, the film struck me as odd, willful, beautiful, and—to use a word often associated with the British cinema—eccentric. The story of a bluff and romantic old soldier as he fought, lived, and found and lost love in three wars (the Boer War and World Wars I and II), Colonel Blimp seemed both whimsical and cynical, nostalgic and pragmatic, cosmopolitan and patriotic. Although unquestionably a war film, it also felt to me like something other, something more than a war film. As it turns out, that first, dimly remembered and mixed-up impression of the film was more or less right: like several of the films I discuss in this book, Colonel Blimp is a committed work of propaganda that nonetheless embraces a thematic and aesthetic complexity that would otherwise seem antithetical to propaganda. C. A. Lejeune, a film critic for the Observer in 1943, wrote this about Blimp: “It is a handsome piece. It is frequently a moving piece. But what is it about?”2 We might say provisionally that Colonel Blimp is about two very different things: while the film sometimes seems to suggest that Britain had to move beyond the old decencies, beyond the “sporting-club rules” 2 | Introduction that underwrote earlier wars, at other times it seems to suggest that Britain was fighting in order to preserve exactly those decencies, exactly those old rules. It is in these conflicted terms that the film offers both a criticism and an unexpectedly sincere defense of Clive Candy, the film’s out-of-touch old soldier and its titular “Blimp.”3 Essentially ambivalent, Colonel Blimp both accepts and deplores the all-in tactics of modern total war; and, because its ideological ambivalence is matched with a superbly excessive visual style— with bravura formal experiments in color, cutting, and composition—the film seems willfully to undermine even as it pursues its practical aims as wartime propaganda. If Colonel Blimp is eccentric, it is at least decisively so (in the words of British film critic Raymond Durgnat, the film’s director, Michael Powell,“reveres eccentricity”4 ). Like an uncertain satellite, the film follows an erratic, wavering, or hyperbolic path around its own official ideas about war and violence.5 This is one way to picture its striking inability or unwillingness to be about any one thing, its inability or unwillingness to center in on a single argument or coherent theme. In charting its eccentric but nonetheless committed course in relation to war, Colonel Blimp manages to be propaganda while also resisting the ideological and aesthetic simplifications that a warweary British public had come to expect from propaganda.6 Committed and complex, the cinematic eccentricity of Colonel Blimp enabled Powell and Pressburger to have their bellicose cake and eat it, too.7 It allowed them, in other words, to manage what was almost impossible about their war. War Pictures argues for a kind of tactical cinematic eccentricity that allowed some important British wartime films to respond to political and social contradictions characteristic of the British home front between 1939 and 1945. Seen at one and the same time as a characteristic national virtue and as an implicit and maybe unruly kind of critique, the idea of eccentricity helped the British to navigate some political and ethical contradictions necessary to the experience of total mobilization and total war. In particular, the tactical ambivalence these British war films display allowed audiences to confront—if not necessarily to overcome—the disturbing, paradoxical, and maybe self-defeating possibility that a commitment to a total war against totalitarianism was perhaps also a commitment to totalitarianism, and that to fight a fascist you maybe had to become a fascist. In that case, we can look to the specific demands that total war made on a few British filmmakers in...