Director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger created films together as The Archers. Their mutual legacy under the aegis of this production company is a string of films from the 1940s and 1950s, from One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) to Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). Taken together, their films are at-once typical of British cinema (frequent topics and subtexts include national identity, melodramatic love, and the idea of duty) and highly abnormal. With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I’d like to briefly clue you in to its importance and centrality to its culture, and then spend slightly more time dwelling on its abnormality, the many ways in which it is strange, unsettling, and singular.
Blimp was a pop cultural mainstay, a creation of David Low for first appeared in cartoons in the Evening Standard: a pompous, stereotypical military figure recognizable as much for his high Tory politics as for his rotund shape. To be a “Colonel Blimp”
means to be a certain sort of old timer, outraged and out of touch. Powell and Pressburger’s film takes this type and brings it to bear of Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey, in his best performance), an old man during a new war. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is about the life, loves, and military service of Wynne-Candy, told mainly in flashbacks, as he navigates his youth during the Boer War, sees service in World War I, and, in the frame story, tries to find his place in the “People’s War” of the 1940s, a desperate, yet more egalitarian conflict that does not observe the old codes of conduct and civility. On a quite obvious level, then, the film is about how an establishment figure in British cultural life looks back on the empire’s legacy of military honor and achievement, in the process coming to terms with aging, death, and the mores of a new generation. This is a movie about how “official” culture changes and about how the eccentric gentleman finds his place in a brave new world.
It was also a scandalous film. Although produced and distributed independently, the movie had to pass wartime censorship standards (in brief, it was like all British films about war released during the war: at least partial propaganda). It did, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill, probably the most famous Colonel Blimp figure in the world, tried to suppress it on grounds of ideology and appearance. Nonetheless, it was a success in Britain, providing humor and heroism in well-measured proportion. The afterlife of the film seems to follow Criterion’s favored trajectory: it initially circulated in several cut versions, but their release restores it to intended length. Their painstaking restoration must be seen to be believed.
Powell and Pressburger are known in British film historiography for being the flipside to the nation’s typical associations with realism. Using lush cinematography, sets, deeply felt space, the visual suggestion of psychological subjectivity, and unconventional structures (here, a flashback model that uncannily captures some of the muddle and idealization that happens with time), they are usually read as everything that John Grierson and Ken Loach are not. This is a slightly unfair distinction–my larger academic project looks at genres and filmmakers who hold realism and fantasy in tension, which means admitting, at least in certain circumstances, that Grierson was never quite as timid, nor Powell and Pressburger so untethered from lived experience, as commentators would often suggest. As you watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, though, keep an eye on things that are typically missing from conventional British cinema: characters in multiple roles (a Brechtian effect achieved without Brecht); space and landscape invested with psychic and psychological significance; an unusually introspective sense of what it means to belong to a nation (or to differentiate one nation from another); and the sense of real depth in characterization. Most of the central characters are three-dimensional such that they give the impression of thinking-through real struggle, and arriving at real compromise or change. This was as rare then as it is today.
Most of all, rest easy in the knowledge that Powell and Pressburger (once rank outsiders to a cinematic establishment) have finally been embraced for all their idiosyncrasy. This film serves both as a representative introduction to their collaboration and as possibly the most moving feature film made by the Isles during the war.
Kevin M. Flanagan