The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp
MAN O’ WAR
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).