restricted access 1 “But what is it about?”: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

From: War Pictures

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1 “But what is it about?” The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp The cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. —Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1938) He did not cease to complain . . . that the war was being carried on contrary to all the rules—as if there were any rules for killing people. —Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869) When The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp appeared in 1943, it looked to many like a good movie that made for bad propaganda; if it was beautiful, moving, often funny, it seemed also too willful, too complicated, too weird, too eccentric to help its audiences know what to think and feel about the war. The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that its “message may be obscure, but its emotional appeal is high.”1 The Tribune claimed that, although the film was “excellent entertainment . . . no-one decided exactly what they wanted to say with it.”2 The Manchester Guardian said that it “contradicts itself, mixes its motives, and never seems quite to settle down.”3 The Daily Mail wrote that“to depict British officers as stupid, complacent, self-satisfied, and ridiculous may be legitimate comedy, but it is disastrously bad propaganda in the time of war.”4 These mostly mixed responses to the film’s apparently mixed motives are more or less representative. Molly Haskell writes:“When it opened, audiences were enthusiastic about the performances but disconcerted by the ambivalence toward war.”5 To be fair, the film did ask a lot from its first, war-weary viewers: instead of offering comfort or selling the war, it embraced formal complexity almost for its own sake. Its protagonist, a benighted but lovable English gentleman, stands both as a manifestly good man and as an implicit rebuke to Britain’s backward-looking military establishment; the film takes care not only to feature a “good German” but also to make that German its most eloquent and, indeed, its most recog- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp | 33 nizably “English” spokesman; and the film overlays its very modern story of Britain’s twentieth-century wars with a quasi-mystical tale of romantic eternal recurrence: disappointed in love, Clive Candy—the “Blimp” of the film’s title—is haunted across decades by the appearance and reappearance of his feminine ideal, a figure played in each case by the same actor, Deborah Kerr. As opposed to sending a clear message about war, the film embraced, says Ian Christie, an “often skittish, playfully allegorical” tone that seemed self-consciously to distance it from other, more obviously instrumental war movies, films that were “championed for their realistic qualities, which, in the terms of the dominant critical discourse of the time, meant sober, unsensational narratives with believable characterizations and a prevailing sense of stoicism and emotional restraint.”6 Oddly romantic, gently surreal, often sweetly funny, the film appears to distance itself from the expected and perhaps necessary pragmatism of wartime propaganda. In a line I have already quoted, C. A. Lejeune, film critic for The Observer, summed up the film’s attractive and playful incoherence in a word:“It is a handsome piece. It is frequently a moving piece. But what is it about?”7 Aesthetic complexity is one thing; aesthetic complexity in a time of war is quite another, a fact that became apparent as several members of government weighed in against the idea, the production, and at last the international distribution of Colonel Blimp. In a 1942 memo to Churchill, Sir James Grigg, secretary of state for war, wrote, “I think it of the utmost importance to get [Colonel Blimp] stopped.”8 A Ministry of Information report on an early draft of the film’s script anticipated the critics’ confusion, arguing that its complexity was not only ineffective propaganda but also a possibly active hindrance to the war effort: “The over-complication of ideas is . . . dangerous.”9 Churchill himself became involved and wrote to Minister of Information Brendan Bracken, asking him:“[P]ropose to me the measures necessary to stop this foolish production before it gets any further. I am not prepared to allow propaganda detrimental to the morale of the Army.”10 Although rightly unwilling to suppress the film (to do so “would have been a politically insensitive move in a democracy at war”), Bracken and the Ministry of Information did turn down Powell and Pressburger’s request that Laurence Olivier be given leave from the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to play Candy; did deny...