Winston Churchill was wrong: Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a lively classic
May 26, 2012
World War II is raging. British soldiers are chasing a woman through the English countryside and the streets of London. They call her Mata Hari and say she's rushing to meet someone codenamed "The Wizard." This could be serious.
Except the spirits of the soldiers at the start of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) are too high for people engaged in counter-espionage. The music that accompanies their chase is upbeat. When everyone meets up at Mata Hari's destination, it becomes clear the stage has been set for a confrontation that is amusing rather than ominous. When part of the chase is shown later from a different perspective, it is even more fun.
Much of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is lighthearted. The movie traces the career of an army officer from the Boer wars through the two world wars and so there are suggestions of grim happenings, but the movie's tone is celebratory. It honors an admirable man and the nation that could take pride in helping to shape people like him.
Winston Churchill tried to block distribution of Colonel Blimp in Great Britain, an effort which backfired when audiences flocked to the movie they weren't supposed to see. Churchill feared that the movie's poking fun at elements of British life would demoralize the nation's people, who were beset by the hardships of life during wartime. He was mistaken. Colonel Blimp's mockery is the mild type that grows from deep affection. The movie retains the power to inspire some of that affection for Britain, and for Britons as well.
Colonel Blimp unfolds mostly in flashback and always in vivid Technicolor. The movie is another triumph by the acclaimed production team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also made such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and One of Our Aircraft is Missing.
The idea for Colonel Blimp was suggested by Lawrence of Arabia (1962) director David Lean, who edited One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). That movie originally contained a scene that had to be cut. In it, an older officer gently warned a younger one that he would grow up to be just like the aged soldiers the younger man was mocking.
The idea that a brash soldier would grow into a crusty one became the foundation for Colonel Blimp, which is about the officer played with deft assurance by Roger Livesey. He radiates electricity that glows even through prosthetics and make-up that turn him from a dashing young man into a rotund, vaguely walrus-like older one.
Livesey's character, who eventually becomes a general, falls in love with a woman but realizes it only after she marries his best friend, a German soldier whose complicated life mirrors the tumult of his country during the first half of the 20th century. The British general marries one woman and then later develops a paternal fondness for the younger woman who is assigned to be his driver during World War II. All three are played with beguiling charm by Deborah Kerr.
The general tries to adjust to the realities of a global war in which no one honors the rules of engagement he had long ago been taught to respect. An impertinent junior officer admonishes him that no one could believe after Pearl Harbor that this is a "gentleman's war." The movie resonates with longing for a time when life seemed simpler and the triumph of good was certain.
WHERE "COLONEL BLIMP" WAS BORN
The officer at the heart of the movie The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is not named Blimp. Powell and Pressburger borrowed the name and some of their inspiration from a popular series of newspaper editorial cartoons by Sir David Low that have been cited as influences on many later strips, including "Pogo" and "Doonesbury." Low ridiculed positions taken by prominent leaders in Great Britain by having his Col. Blimp agree with them as he re-stated them in ways that made their outrageousness clear. Among the captions of the cartoons presented on the Criterion Collection DVD of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp are these:
Gad sir, Eden is right. War is NOT inevitable and it never will be unless we do something about it.
Gad sir, Lucy Houston is right. We need 5,000 more planes, otherwise how can the upper classes flee to Scotland when the bombing of London begins?
And Gad sir, Lord Snuffield was right. If the country is to be saved from dictatorship, the House of Lords must put a stop to all this democracy.
The humor in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is milder than that. The movie pulses with comic energy that is charming and understated. If that doesn't persuade you the movie is worthwhile, perhaps taking a trick from its original distributors will: This movie is banned by order of the government.
Churchill was outraged. He was expecting a patriotic war movie full of valor, heroic death, brave British soldiers overcoming all odds to beat the Hun, with Nazis portrayed as the beasts they were. What he saw was a film about a fat, bald, pompous old man with a walrus mustache who can't seem to do anything right. Worse, the only German around is a good German who turns out to be a firm friend. Even worse, the lead character seems to be based on a newspaper cartoon of a blustering old colonel … more