The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

MAN O’ WAR

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INSTON CHURCHILL’S SE­CRET MEMO was hand­writ­ten. And he was livid: “Pray pro­pose to me the mea­sures nec­es­sary to stop this fool­ish pro­duc­tion.” To be fair, with World War II in the bal­ance, the leader of the free world had a lot on his mind in Au­gust 1942. The last thing he needed was a pair of up­start film­mak­ers propos­ing some satire detri­men­tal to the morale of his Bri­tish army. To his mind, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp was a mat­ter of life and death. Democ­racy be­ing democ­racy, Michael Pow­ell and Emeric Press­burger ( hence for­ward P&P) car­ried on, us­ing bor­rowed mil­i­tary uni­forms and ve­hi­cles.

Cre­ated by car­toon­ist David Low for the Evening Stan­dard, Blimp was a slap-headed blowhard with a mous­tache the size of a coat hanger and the tem­per­a­ment of a blun­der­buss. Stephen Fry’s Gen­eral Melchett in Black­ad­der Goes Forth is pure Blimpery. Out of earshot, Churchill was widely con­sid­ered an in­spi­ra­tion.

What the PM missed was that rather than sim­ply amplify the joke, P&P (Pow­ell di­rect­ing, Press­burger writ­ing and pro­duc­ing; the joins rarely show­ing) were cre­at­ing a Bri­tish Ci­ti­zen Kane, a stir­ring at­tempt to en­com­pass a na­tion within a sin­gle fig­ure.

Not un­like Kane, their film is con­structed as a se­ries of flash­backs, here more like three move­ments in a grand sym­phony. We be­gin with the cliché of Blimp: Ma­jor- Gen­eral Clive Wyn­neCandy (Roger Livesey) in his cor­pu­lent dotage, shin­ing dome of the Home Guard, cap­tured at his Turk­ish baths in Lon­don, un­per­turbed by World War II. He’s been out­wit­ted be­fore a train­ing ex­er­cise (irony ahoy: Candy may be a mil­i­tary man to his boots, but we only see him par­take in mock ver­sions of warfare).

IAN NATHAN

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