I recently watched, for the first time, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on a plane back from Poland. I’d been attending a conference with a number of Polish academics and politicians, including many who had been associated with the Solidarity movement that helped bring down Communism. The film, which took such a magnificent, roving look at the British character including, most brilliantly and subversively, through the eyes of other cultures, felt uniquely fitting and provoking.
As it was filmed and released in 1943, it’s hard to believe that something so bright, sharply subversive and effortlessly agile in its time-shifted plotting can really have emerged in the thick of a world war in ration book England. 1943? Really? Not 1963? The date is real, and all the more miraculous for the fact that it was released to audiences at the height of wartime propaganda, against the will of Winston Churchill (on whose career the film may have been loosely based) — he had severe reservations about the film.
Inspired by the David Low caricature Colonel Blimp, a walrus-moustachioed reactionary with muddle-headed views from another century, Powell and Pressburger took the stereotypical old buffer and transformed him into a complex, idealistic, though deeply flawed protagonist. We join him on his adventures, as he fights duels in Germany, is unlucky in love twice over, wanders the chaos of WWI battlefields, and is finally fully lost and out of place in the horrors of WWII.
The genius of the film, for the most part, is that it tends to avoid easy interpretation, with love and criticism of Britishness emphasised in equal measure. The film is one of the most powerful arguments for the value of British culture and nationhood at a time it was under existential threat, precisely because such extraordinary self-critique and appreciation for the humanity of the enemy was possible even at the moment of maximum threat and crisis.
There is one scene in the film that is unquestionably didactic, and it has been obsessing me ever since I saw it. The protagonist, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, has by this point in the film been joined by old romantic and military rival, the marvellously portrayed Prussian officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. He has since become his oldest friend. Theo and young military driver Angela “Johnny” Cannon, remonstrate with Wynne-Candy about his military conservatism after his radio broadcast is cancelled by the War Office.
Speaking on the German blitzkrieg in France, Wynne-Candy, as Theo recounts, takes the following view: “You commented on Nazi methods for fighting, foul fighting, bombing refugees, machine-gunning hospitals, lifeboats, lightships, bailed-out pilots and so on, by saying that you despised them, that you would be ashamed to fight on their side and that you’d sooner accept defeat than victory if it could only be won by those methods.”
It was the Blitz that tipped Britain into a strategic bombing campaign
Theo goes on to argue, “Clive, if you let yourself be defeated by them just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you … there won’t be any methods BUT Nazi methods.” This echoes an earlier scene in the film, in which Theo, following his country’s defeat is invited to dinner by leading lights in the British war effort, who reassure him that they bear Germans no animus and want to “get Germany back on its feet”. Theo can hardly believe it; on the train back with his German comrades, he suggests Britain is weak and complacent. Years later he has come to despise the Nazis and admire British culture, but believes it must be saved from itself — the British must acquire a streak of ruthlessness and stop treating war as a feudal game of gentlemen. “You’ve been educated as a gentleman and a sportsman in peace and in war. But Clive … this is not a gentleman’s war.” Angela, embodying a frustrated younger generation, agrees.
The message appeals so much to our still governing assumptions and myths — the oracular youth, the wise sage-like outsider, the old establishment having to change its ways or get out of the way — that it’s easy to miss the actual content of what is being discussed. It’s not just surprise attacks, lightning tank attacks or guerilla warfare that he objects to in gentlemanly fashion. Indeed none of that gets a mention in his cancelled broadcast. It’s the bombing of civilian targets and the mistreatment of prisoners that he vocally objects to.
This is highly significant for the timing of the film. At the beginning of the war America appealed to European nations to restrict aerial bombing to military targets — a request that all participants had agreed to. Germany swiftly reneged on this agreement, devastating Polish cities whilst claiming that they were “fortified” as an excuse. By 1940, Britain and France were still committed not to initiate such bombardment, except in retaliation. Following the German bombing of Rotterdam in the same year, industrial plants were attacked by the allies, but civilians themselves were not directly targeted.
As late as January 1942, widespread bombing of purely civilian targets was still not an aspect of allied policy, for reasons both practical and ethical. The horrifying aerial destruction of civilian areas by the Nazis had been a central feature of allied propaganda to demonstrate the evil of the enemy. It was the Blitz, which reached its height in late 1940, which tipped Britain into pursuing a strategic bombing campaign. In the world of the film, following his denunciation of Nazi methods, Wynne-Candy’s house is destroyed by German bombers — the point could hardly be more obvious.
By 1941 plans are laid in Britain for the bombing not of German civilian industrial targets, but of German civilians themselves, as one memorandum notes:
The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction and (ii) fear of death.
These very cold blooded debates, already at work and backed by the likes of Bomber Harris, happened largely behind closed doors. For a British population enduring the Blitz, and facing what Churchill called “the long night of barbarism … unbroken even by a star of hope” with Germany ascendant across Europe, the sense that not enough was being done was widespread. Public opinion was firmly behind unrestricted bombardment in retaliation for the Blitz. Confronted by an MP who demanded that he heed such demands, Churchill responded in thoroughly Blimpish fashion: “My Dear Sir, this is a military and not civilian war. You and others may desire to kill women and children. We desire … to destroy German military objectives.”
By March of 1942, Churchill had reluctantly reversed his position, and Britain launched its first ruthless attacks on German civilian populations: firebombing Lubeck then following up the attack a month later with a raid on Rostock. The strategic bombing campaign would only reach its height in 1943, with American entrance into the war and Soviet pressure for greater British intervention. Only a month after Blimp appeared on British screens, an Anglo-American fleet of bombers unleashed the largest firestorm of the war in Hamburg, killing 37,000 people and levelling 60 per cent of the city.
The British Blimp had decisively turned round — Britain had abandoned its “gentleman’s war” and was pursuing Nazi methods in the air with some vigour, incinerating hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, ignoring any distinction whatsoever between combatant and civilian. Justifications moved swiftly from the well-established idea of acceptable collateral damage to a forthright case for destroying enemy morale and “dehousing” its industrial workforce.
In the drama of the film, two opposed characters confront one another. Blimp embodies British honour, decency and tradition, yet must be persuaded to accept originality, flexibility and “dishonourable” trickiness if he and his values are to survive. As the film alludes to, it’s more than dirty tricks that Wynne-Candy is being called to embrace — it’s the firebombing of enemy cities. This stands starkly at odds with Candy’s assertion, made in 1918, that the Great War proved “right is might” and that a war against a savage opponent might be won by civilised and honourable means.
Hundreds of thousands of civilian dead did little to blunt the German war machine
Still, Blimp had a point — strategic bombing was a catastrophic moral and military error. In the first instance, it was already correctly regarded as profoundly flawed in its effectiveness, especially given the technological limitations of the time. The Butt report showed that of planes claiming to have attacked their target, only a third were actually within five miles of it. Bombers, forced to act at night to avoid being shot down, were straightforwardly incapable of even a modicum of precision. Churchill himself, in 1917, had judged that “terrorisation” from the air would fail to destroy the will to fight in the foe. Based on his impression of such attacks on Britain, he believed it would actually increase the determination to fight. Despite these massive limitations, vast proportions of British industrial capacity were devoted to bomber production, and thousands of planes were unleashed upon Germany. Why? Politics.
Whilst Blimp learnt to stay away from politics and pursue strict soldiering, Churchill had far wider concerns, ones that could override strict military logic. He was under intense pressure to bring and keep the Americans in the war and to demonstrate to the Russians that Britain was doing enough. After the attack on Lubeck, Stalin congratulated Churchill on his “merciless bombing” and requested further raids of the same nature. Following Dunkirk, Britain lacked the means to attack Germany on land, and the navy was limited in what it could do. This left only the RAF as Britain’s offensive tool. Even more than Russian and American regard, Churchill had to keep the British people onside and reassured that effective action was being taken. Spectacular images of burning German cities did just that, even though evidence suggested that wartime production continued to rise well into 1944, with hundreds of thousands of civilian dead doing little to blunt the German war machine. Dresden was bombed in 1945, despite possessing no meaningful industrial or military targets. Thousands of refugees and allied POWs were present, and Germany was already on the brink of defeat.
Whilst the attacks certainly had an impact on production, they were never, and could never, be a decisive factor. Their main function was political. Dresden made that pitifully obvious; in its wake, with the war in Europe drawing to a close, Churchill finally called a halt to area bombing.
There were of course public figures who opposed area bombing from the start. Bishop George Bell, one of the greatest and most visionary Anglican Churchmen of the 20th century, had already warned in 1939 against “any war of extermination or enslavement, and any measures directly aimed to destroy the morale of a population”. In 1944 at the height of area bombing, he was more forceful still in a speech before parliament:
It will be said that this area bombing — for it is this area bombing which is the issue to-day — is definitely designed to diminish the sacrifice of British lives and to shorten the war. We all wish with all our hearts that these two objects could be achieved, but to justify methods inhumane in themselves by arguments of expediency smacks of the Nazi philosophy that Might is Right.
This too is a distinctly Blimpish argument. Blimp, whose life spans many conflicts, may sometimes seem to have his head in the clouds, yet he can see much further as a result. As Bell says, “What we do in war — which, after all, lasts a comparatively short time — affects the whole character of peace, which covers a much longer period.” In the face of a situation as extreme as the Nazis, taking the long view can easily be portrayed as naive. Still, there is a direct line between the justification of the bombing of cities like Dresden, the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japan, the use of terror bombing in Cambodia and Vietnam, and the tactics now being employed by Russia in Ukraine, the Saudis in Yemen, and Assad in Syria. There was a moral cost to be paid for winning by foul means, and we are still paying it. The bombing of civilian populations from the air was very near to being excluded, just as chemical and biological weapons largely have been, from “civilised” warfare. The Nazis changed all that, but it was the Allies who pioneered its worst extremes and continued to justify its use in subsequent wars.
The problem with the simplistic clash of new guard and old guard Britain is that for all the energy of the new, and all the manifest limitations of the old, there is often something sinister in the energy of new, and something admirable about the limitations of the old. Modernisation presents itself as active and ambitious, but the attitude of flexibility can reveal itself as a form of passivity, in which actions are dictated by circumstance rather than determined by principle. The terror bombing of civilians was carried out under the logic of “Something Must be Done”, even if that “something” was both ineffective and immoral. Doing nothing is sometimes complacent — but it’s sometimes an act of heroic restraint.
We must resist the seductive lure of being carried along by the current
It’s easy, of course, to parody two fictional positions, but Powell and Pressburger’s film captures something vital and complex: the confrontation between Britain’s historic status as an empire and a civilisation, capable of imposing its moral vision globally; and its emerging status as a second tier national power, influential but subordinate to America and forced to rapidly adapt itself to circumstances dictated by others. Spanning this divide are friendships, both intergenerational and international, which point towards a reconciliation of these changing roles. Britain may no longer be able to spread its principles and ideas across a global empire, but its ideals can live on through the power of its culture to persuade, influence and inspire far beyond the reach of its reduced economic and military might.
Contemporary watchers of the film might be easily tempted to dismiss Blimp as a washed up reactionary politically, even as they celebrate the film’s humane portrait of him as a romantic and idealistic man. In fact, his reactionary romanticism gives him a moral steel his more forward-thinking friends lack, including a more expansive vision of Britishness. When the German Theo says to Wynne-Candy of his wife’s dying in the Caribbean that it must have been very terrible losing someone you loved in a foreign country, Candy retorts, “It wasn’t a foreign country, it was Jamaica.” If Candy sometimes underestimates the evil of the enemy, he also never forgets their humanity. There is room in his empire for the universal brotherhood of man.
At a time when British life seemed narrowed to a desperate conflict by a small island, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp recalls the vast world of history and geography that stretches behind and beyond it — a world opened up by the out of touch old man who has seen and experienced far more than young men and women coming of age during the Battle of Britain.
As Britain, 80 years on, finds its history and culture narrowed and imperilled in very different ways, we need the bright, expansive vision embodied by the film more than ever. We must resist the seductive lure of being carried along by the current in order to get ahead, and we must rediscover the confidence to chart our own distinctive course in our rapidly changing world. Let us rediscover the forgotten wisdom of Colonel Blimp, learn to look beyond the demands of momentary crisis, and revive our deep civilisational principles.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe