“Forty years ago… forty years ago” is the ghostly refrain that accompanies the old Blimp General Wynne-Candy falling into a pool in the Turkish bath of a London gentleman’s club in 1942. He’s been caught napping, literally, by a young lieutenant, determined to prove that the old guard running the current war against Nazi Germany don’t understand “total war”, who has anticipated the start of an invasion exercise. The indignant general insists that the young pup has no idea what he was like “forty years ago”, as he wrestles him into the pool – and when he emerges, rejuvenated back to 1902, as dashing young Clive Candy, just back from winning a VC in the South African War, he’s immediately chided by what the film’s script called a “period Blimp”, a crusty old general of the Edwardian era (1). However, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is now seventy, and the beneficiary of a sparkling new digital restoration, which supersedes the 1985 British Film Institute restoration that first resurrected the 1943 film in its original form, after the intervening forty years, when only a truncated and re-ordered version was available.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Some briefing may be needed for those new to the film and its immediate context. “Colonel Blimp” was the immensely popular creation of the New Zealand-born cartoonist David Low, and throughout the 1930s in the London Evening Standard he held forth on issues of the day – usually from a Turkish Bath – with bellicose conviction. For Low, Blimp was a “symbol of stupidity”, but Powell and Pressburger wanted to make a film about the dilemma of intergenerational incomprehension: the young can’t imagine themselves old, and the old can’t uncover their youth. According to Powell, during the development of their script about an old buffer who had once been a dashing adventurer, it occurred to them “to lug in Colonel Blimp”, and Low agreed, since “it seemed useful to drop a hint that even nice people can be fools” (2). Clive “Sugar” Candy is only identified as Blimp in the film’s title (changed during production) and in his first appearance in the Turkish Bath sequence; and in Roger Livesey’s portrayal he is an overwhelmingly sympathetic character. Yet the notoriety of Low’s Blimp was enough to provoke Winston Churchill’s sustained campaign to suppress the film, in the mistaken belief that it was accusing the army of rampant “Blimpism”, and also to ensure its great success with British wartime audiences (3).

Despite this success, there is evidence that the film puzzled many. In a Mass-Observation survey during 1943, many correspondents praised Blimp for its imaginative use of Technicolor, its characterisation and its humour. But a fitter from Glasgow reported being perplexed: “I liked it – why I cannot say”; and the prominent newspaper critic C. A. Lejeune wondered in her review, “What is it really about?” (4) There is indeed an eerie quality about this story of an old Blimp who has remained innocent and idealistic throughout forty years, and the interlocking story of his German equivalent, Theo (Anton Walbrook), who comes to Britain twice, first as a sceptical POW during the First World War, and then as a refugee from Nazi Germany, just in time to ease Clive’s painful realisation that he is indeed of limited use in “total war”.

Unusually, we know what the film’s makers originally intended it to be about, thanks to an eloquent letter from Powell to the film’s intended star, Wendy Hiller, in which he writes of showing “the changing world of the last forty years through the eyes of one unchanging man” (5). We know also from an incisive letter by Laurence Olivier, who had been offered the central role, what he considered to be the script’s weakness: that it did not show in enough detail “what makes him a blimp” (6). Olivier offered suggestions about how this could be made more explicit, showing Clive receiving undeserved credit for his naiveté, which would encourage his continued belief in “fair play”, but Powell and Pressburger ignored Olivier’s advice in favour of portraying Clive’s invincible innocence, even in the face of Nazi Germany.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

What then is it really about, seen from the perspective of seventy years later? And how does its unusual filmic structure contribute to creating such an enduring enigma? The main strategy adopted by Powell and Pressburger is, I suggest, extreme ellipsis. Despite the film’s exceptional length, which surprised even its makers, we see very little except preparation and outcome, with major events invariably happening offscreen (7). The most striking example is the duel that Clive fights, after springing to the defence of Britain in a Berlin café in 1902. Much of the prelude to the insult that sparks the duel has been conducted through music, as Clive bribes the café orchestra with beer to play a tune which provokes his opponent by recalling their captivity in South Africa. The build-up to the duel is similarly choreographed in musical-comedy style, as British diplomats try to prevent it. But when Clive finally faces his opponent, an officer chosen by lot to defend his regiment’s honour, we see only the elaborate prelude to the duel, taken from a German duelling manual discovered by Pressburger, before (as the script predicts): “the movement of the camera quickens. It sweeps away from the fighters and high above them. They and their seconds are small figures in the middle of the vast brightly-lit hall….” This daring ellipsis – we only learn the outcome in the following scene set in a nursing home, where both combatants are recovering from their wounds – has been widely celebrated, with Martin Scorsese citing it as “a direct influence on the way I showed very little of the actual fights in Raging Bull(8). But this is also typical of the film’s treatment of Clive’s life as a whole, chronicled in two virtuoso montage sequences. One shows in a comic procession punctuated by gunfire the trophy heads of big game that Clive has shot during his travels around the British Empire between 1902 and the First World War, parodying the typical montage-ellipsis of 1930s cinema. The other, more poignantly, consists of diplomatic invitations from around the world, while covering the period between Clive’s marriage in 1919 and his wife’s death in 1926. Empty pages in the album convey the emptiness of the following years, until a map centred on Munich signifies the approach of another war, and Clive’s remobilisation.

Low’s Blimp was a symbol, and the film, for all its affection towards Clive, is determined to avoid investing him with any more life or career than necessary to create an “eternal” old soldier. Which also accounts for two other unusual episodes designed to place Clive in non-biographical terms. One is his visit to a London theatre, accompanied by the sister of the governess he lost to his duelling opponent during their convalescence. The play, Stephen Phillips’ Ulysses, was actually staged in 1902, but most importantly the fragment we see shows the gods planning to delay Ulysses’ return from Troy and “work in mischief on the way”. Clive’s journey towards benign Blimphood includes more mischief than solemnity, and this ingenious allusion places it among the many 20th century works that invoke classical sources, often through parody (9). Another clue as to how we might understand Clive is a domestic scene with his wife, Barbara, in which she asks him to stop absent-mindedly humming – “a little habit you’ve got” – to which he responds, “What’ll I do if I don’t hum?” Winnie-the-Pooh, in the English nursery classic, hums “proudly” and makes up nonsense-verse hums; and this exchange in Blimp both underlines Clive’s lack of any interiority and the infantile aspect of his innocence (10).

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The film’s opening credits appear against a tapestry featuring Low’s already familiar Blimp in heraldic style, and his first and last appearances are in the same idiom (Low had stipulated that “Blimp had to be proved a fool in the end”). But between these, he is shown in pursuit of an elusive feminine ideal, incarnated on three occasions by the same actress, Deborah Kerr. Powell’s down-to-earth explanation was that Clive had “fumblingly put one woman, quite against her will or inclination, on a pedestal, and when she jumped off into another’s arms, is always trying to fill the vacant niche with women of the same size and shape” (11). But we may wonder if Pressburger’s conception was not also more abstract or literary, perhaps influenced by the fate of Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust and the tradition of the “eternal feminine”. And although it would be another eight years before Powell and Pressburger filmed Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, the pattern of a thrice-lost love is strikingly similar. There were allegations of “sentimentality” when the film appeared, and Theo voices his, and our, surprise that “an Englishman could be so romantic” when he discovers that Clive’s wife, and his driver, both resemble his first love, Edith.

Like other Powell-Pressburger collaborations, Blimp wears its romantic mysticism lightly, and the recurrence of Clive’s feminine ideal can be accepted as a part of its two-dimensional tapestry-like pattern. I have suggested elsewhere that their A Matter of Life and Death (1946) can usefully be considered as a modern allegorical masque, with its central couple clearly representing Britain and America, divided by past history, yet potentially united in the postwar future (12). Blimp seems to be where they discovered this new way of figuring issues of nationality, identity and history within a filmic form that is only superficially realist. As in Kipling, Powell’s favourite author, authentic texture and detail is used to cover a structure that resists decoding and defies any simple logic of propaganda – which is no doubt why it so riled Churchill – offering instead “an art of ellipsis, implication, the resonance of the unsaid” (13).

Endnotes

  1. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, ed. Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, p. 98.
  2. David Low, Low’s Autobiography, Michael Joseph, London, 1956.
  3. For details of Churchill’s opposition, see my “Blimp, Churchill and the State” in Powell, Pressburger and Others, ed. Ian Christie, British Film Institute, London, pp. 105-20. The BBC People’s War reminiscence website includes at least six varied references to the Colonel Blimp cartoon character, indicating how prevalent the stereotype was in wartime reality: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/.
  4. A fitter, aged 23, from Glasgow, quoted in “1943 Directive Replies on Favourite Films”, Mass-Observation at the Movies, ed. Jeffery Richards and Dorothy Sheridan, Routledge, London, 1987, p. 228; C. A. Lejeune, The Observer 13 June 1943.
  5. Michael Powell, draft letter to Wendy Hiller (nd, but early 1942), reproduced in Powell and Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, p. 17.
  6. Laurence Olivier letter to Michael Powell, 28 May 1942, in Powell and Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, p. 21.
  7. Powell refers to the final cut running 168 minutes, although it was listed as 163 minutes in trade reviews, and to both he and Pressburger being surprised by this. See A Life in Movies, Faber, London, 2000, p. 418. It was substantially longer than most releases of the period, apart from Gone With the Wind (238 minutes) which, unlike Blimp, was shown with an interval.
  8. Martin Scorsese, “Foreword”, Ian Christie, Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Faber, London, 1994, p. xxviii (first published 1985).
  9. Most obviously James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922, but first published in England in 1936) and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), but also many lesser-known works of the interwar years, which would have been familiar to Powell and Pressburger, such as Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927) and Reinhold Schünzel’s Amphytrion (1935), a musical drawn from Plautus and Molière.
  10. See the opening of Chapter Two of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). Powell recalled inventing this “bit of business which scandalised Emeric” in his memoir A Life in Movies, p. 411.
  11. Powell draft letter to Hiller in Powell and Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, p. 17.
  12. Ian Christie, A Matter of Life and Death, British Film Institute, London, 2000. Also Jefferson Hunter, English Filming, English Writing, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2010, pp. 10-11.
  13. Donald Mackenzie, “Introduction”, Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Oxford World’s Classics, 1993: http://www.kipling.org.uk/rg_puck_intro.htm.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943 UK 163 mins)

Prod Co: The Archers/Independent Producers Prod, Dir, Scr: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Phot: Georges Périnal Ed: John Seabourne Prod Des: Alfred Junge Mus: Allan Gray

Cast: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Albert Lieven