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The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp

[1]2,298 words

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Red Shoes, Michael Powell’s 1948 Technicolor feast about a ballet impresario played by the great Anton Walbrook and his ecstatic, obsessive, and ultimately destructive relationship with his art—and one artist in particular. So you can imagine how eagerly I sought out Powell’s first foray into Technicolor, 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, also starring Walbrook.

My interest was further sharpened when I read some of the critical notices. No less than Martin Scorsese praised Blimp as a masterpiece. Andrew Sarris called Blimp “England’s answer to Citizen Kane”—an over-praised movie, to be sure, but still intriguing. Anthony Lane of the New Yorker said Blimp “may be the greatest English film ever made,” which is high praise indeed when one considers that Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean were in the running. Empire magazine ranked Blimp #80 in its list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, and it is #45 in the British Film Institute list of the Top 100 British Films.

I am sad to report, however, that Blimp is the worst “great” movie I have ever seen—worse even than Casablanca, which it displaced at the bottom of my ranking. To be clear, there are many films that are worse than Blimp, but they are seldom heaped with praise by directors and critics. Blimp is so bad, in fact, that I long hesitated to give it even a negative review, for two main reasons. First, I didn’t want to watch it again. Second, I don’t want to encourage anyone else to watch it, and negative reviews often have that perverse effect, because people wonder if it is “really that bad.” Well, it really is. Take my word for it. Blimp isn’t even entertainingly bad, like many midnight movies. But it is at least interestingly bad, hence this review.

The idea for the story of Blimp came from Powell’s previous film, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). Then-editor David Lean thought a scene should be cut because it did not advance the plot, but he did remark that it contained the dramatic seed of a whole new film about the conflict between youth and old-age, specifically in a military setting.

This idea grew into the story of a British officer, Clive Wynne-Candy, who fought in three wars, fell in love three times with beautiful women all played by the same actress, and at the end of his career clashes with the younger generation, who could use his wisdom and experience, although they can also teach him a thing or two.

As an elevator pitch, it is intriguing idea for a serious film, with plenty of opportunity for dramatic conflict and romance centering on deep, archetypal symbolism: the adventure and horror of war, youth versus old age, the eternal feminine, and those intriguing threes.

Unfortunately, during the “development” process, Clive Wynne-Candy was amalgamated with the cartoon character of Colonel Blimp, created by David Low. Low’s Blimp is a dim-witted, jingoistic, reactionary blowhard who speaks in hilarious clichés, vacuities, and contradictions: “Gad sir! Mr. Lansbury is right. The League of Nations should insist on peace—except, of course, in the case of war.”

But Clive Wynne-Candy is neither a colonel nor named Blimp. Nor does he die, for that matter. And although his opinions are old-fashioned, he is neither stupid nor contemptible. Which makes the Blimp makeover seem rather dumb and dishonest: a cynical attempt to boost the movie by name-checking a rather different cartoon character. But the cynicism does not stop there.

Powell’s creative partner, screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who hated the Nazis—and apparently all Germans, whom he regarded as mere stand-ins for Nazis—and wished to put his talents to work stirring up and sustaining another World War.

Thus Powell and Pressburger teamed up to make a whole series of anti-Nazi or just anti-German propaganda films: The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), Blimp (1943), The Volunteer (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

According to Powell, Pressburger fancied himself the “British” answer to Dr. Goebbels. He also thought Blimp was his finest work. He was delusional on both counts, for Blimp is very clumsy propaganda, which is fortunate, because its intended message is pure evil.

The only thing “Blimpian” about Colonel Blimp is the script, which is bloated with undramatic flab, padding, and hot air, yielding a running time of nearly three hours. Of course, if the original story idea had been developed into a compelling drama, it could have run three hours with no complaints.

My hypothesis is that once the original idea—with its span of four decades, triple romance, and struggle between youth and experience—was fused with a cartoon buffoon, Pressburger felt relieved of the necessity of any serious dramatic character development or storytelling. Hence the characters become mere caricatures and the plot becomes as thin as a clothesline on which Pressburger strings his messages.

Usually, these messages are conveyed by a cast member making a speech, often looking straight into the camera. It is flat, undramatic, and often deadly dull. Since Pressburger was pretty much indifferent to what came between, the story is cluttered with pointless characters, childish and cutesy dialogue, scenes contrived merely for superficial color and charm, and bizarre, psychologically implausible changes of character.

For instance, the central relationship of the movie is the forty-year friendship of Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey, and Prussian officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf, played by Anton Walbrook. When they first meet in Berlin in 1902, they are fighting a duel with sabers because Clive has insulted the honor of the German military.

The preparations for the duel take up a great deal of screen time because Pressburger had developed a pedantic fixation on a Prussian dueling manual. But when the duel actually starts—at last, some action!—the camera cuts to the exterior of the building, which renders the rehearsal of the rules pointless and makes a complete mockery of the duel’s dramatic buildup, such as it is. It is practically a textbook example of an anticlimax. Amazingly, Scorsese praises this perverse stunt as brilliant and even imitated it in Raging Bull.

Clive’s love for three women of three different generations, all played by Deborah Kerr, could have been developed into a great romance. But Clive’s feelings for all three women are more narrated than shown. Indeed, I was completely taken by surprise when Clive announced his love for the first of them, Edith.

There is a bit more feeling in Clive’s relationship with the second woman, Barbara, whom he marries. But when she dies, we learn of it only from a newspaper clipping flashed on the screen. Would it have killed Pressburger to have actually written a scene?

When Clive’s loyal servant Murdoch dies in the blitz, we learn about it the same way. Why not just flash the whole script up and dispense with the cast entirely? Why treat these opportunities for drama and genuine feeling in such a cold and perfunctory way while cluttering up the script with pointless inanities?

Unfortunately for Pressburger, drama, characterization, and the rest are necessary to sell propaganda. Generally, the worse the propaganda, the better the story has to be. If Pressburger had been a better storyteller, the world would have been a much worse place.

So what was Pressburger’s message?

The story begins in 1902. Clive Wynne-Candy has won the Victoria Cross in the Second Boer War. He dashes off to Berlin when he learns that the Germans are spreading dastardly lies that the British interned innocent Boer civilians in concentration camps, where many of them died. Of course this dastardly lie is true. Why is Pressburger eager to hide that fact? Because real British concentration camps for civilians would be a real moral equivalency between the British and the Third Reich.

Pressburger is keen on selling the idea that the British establishment consisted of innocent, overgrown children, complete with silly nicknames and schoolboy pranks, given to sports and hunting. They fight wars the same way: as gentlemen, loath to do anything dishonorable, unsporting, or not “cricket.” They are also quick to forgive their enemies, no matter how dastardly.

After the First World War, Clive finds Theo in a British prisoner-of-war camp, listening to an orchestra concert, because although the Germans are butchers, they are cultured butchers. Once Theo is released, Clive invites him to dinner at his London mansion. His fellow guests are top military brass and important civil servants who assure Theo that they want nothing more than to get Germany up on her feet in no time. Nothing about lost territories, starvation blockades, or onerous reparations. Message: Germany had no reason for resentment against England.

Theo interprets this magnanimity as weakness and reports it to his fellow German officers. He’s so villainous that you expect him to click his heels and twirl the tip of his moustache.

We also learn that England has fought a clean war, Germany a dirty one. But England won because “right is might.” This too is interpreted by the Krauts as weakness.

Pressburger’s message is that the Second World War happened not because the Allies were too cruel to the Germans but because they were far too kind. In the current war, the British need to renounce their alleged high-mindedness and mercy. Next time, no more Mr. Nice Guy. When Germany goes down again, the Brits need to keep her down, forever.

By the time the Second World War breaks out, however, Theo has had a mysterious change of heart, which he talks about endlessly without making it psychologically plausible. He is no longer a dastardly, resentful Kraut. He is now an anti-Nazi who has taken refuge in England. A talented storyteller could make this transformation plausible, even inevitable, but the only reason it happens in Blimp is because Pressburger now wants Theo to make anti-Nazi propaganda speeches.

Theo and Clive are reunited. Clive is about to make a propaganda speech on the radio, but at the last minute, it is nixed by the government. Theo has read the speech and explains why. Clive had planned to expatiate on what a dirty war the Germans were fighting, yet again. This was fine. But then Clive mentioned that he would prefer to lose than to stoop to German methods. Theo makes an impassioned appeal to Clive to drop the English gentleman routine, because Nazism is the most dastardly idea in human history, which must be defeated by any means necessary, including war crimes.

At the end of the movie, Clive has been retired from the regular army and has gone to work for the Home Guard (the British militia). But he still has a few lessons to learn. The Home Guard is having an exercise, which begins at midnight. The Old Guard like Clive follow the rules, but the New Guard decide to launch the war a little early, storming Clive’s club—a symbol of the British establishment—and taking him prisoner. After all, it’s what the Germans would do. Suitably humiliated, Clive stands in front of his bombed-out mansion—another symbol of the destruction of the old order—and salutes the young whippersnappers in their victory parade. The end.

The younger generation is portrayed as brash, fast-talking, and vulgar. They all seem to be proles. Women wear uniforms and sport male nicknames. Big band music blasts from jukeboxes. Engines throb and roar. In short, they are portrayed as Americans. It would be laughable if it weren’t so repulsive.

Pressburger seemed to regard colonials as barbarians who would be more receptive to his message of total war. In one scene during the First World War, an Australian is brought in for some “enhanced interrogation” of German prisoners. After all, it’s what the Germans would do.

These barbarians would probably claim they didn’t trust anyone over thirty, but they believed everything they heard from the Pressburgers of the world and happily incinerated whole German cities at their behest.

I don’t know what’s more obscene: Pressburger egging the Brits on to commit war crimes—or the pretense that they needed to be egged on in the first place. Britain’s Blimps never hesitated to fight dirty—and they never lost any sleep over it, either.

Churchill did everything he could to sabotage Blimp, flattering himself that the overly scrupulous Clive Wynne-Candy was meant to be a parody of him. Churchill certainly showed the world that was untrue.

The movie opened to largely negative reviews. Critics were absolutely right to complain about the long running time, which really means they found it dramatically empty and boring. But they were rightly impressed by the film’s technical qualities. The sets, costumes, art design, and Technicolor cinematography are dazzling. But they simply underscore the fact that everything which makes Blimp bad comes down to Pressburger’s script.

Blimp was, however, a success with the British public, although some criticized it for being insufficiently bellicose because it had one good German in it. Apparently, they nodded off before it became clear that the purpose of the one good German was to justify anti-German war crimes.

Pressburger’s target audience was the British upper class. He acknowledged what they all knew: that there are good Germans and that the English and Germans are kindred peoples sharing a common culture. He acknowledged all that, then argued that the British should still stop at nothing to defeat the Germans, then crush them forever.

Blimp was not seen in America until after the war, and then only with increasingly drastic cuts. A restored version was released in theatres in 1983. The movie’s unfathomably inflated critical reputation began then. I hope this review will contribute to the Hindenburg-like revision it so richly deserves.

The Unz Review, August 2, 2021 [2]

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