Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr and Roger Livesey

This England

We should celebrate the glorious wartime cinematic masterpiece that Churchill wanted to ban


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Winston Churchill got a great many things right, but one that he got badly wrong was the 1943 Powell and Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Before even having seen it, the then Prime Minister decided that it was pro-German (it isn’t), hostile to the war and/or to the British Army (it is neither), a satire on himself (also untrue) and, above all, unpatriotic. The last accusation is especially unjust: Blimp has a serious claim not only to be the best English film ever made but the best film about England.

There is a story that Churchill barged into the West End theatre dressing room of Anton Walbrook, who plays the anti-Nazi refugee Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in Blimp, and demanded to know what the film was supposed to mean. “I suppose you regard it as good propaganda for Britain,” the PM reportedly expostulated. Walbrook, whose real name was Adolf Wohlbrück — and who, as a gay, half-Jewish Austrian émigré, was essentially playing himself — must have felt quite threatened. After all, it was Churchill who notoriously had ordered the rounding up and internment of “enemy aliens” after Dunkirk with the words: “Collar the lot!” But Walbrook had the presence of mind to reply coolly: “No people but the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth.”

Walbrook was presumably the source of this story, which an article by the Churchill Project at Hillsdale College in Washington DC concludes is “uncertain but possible”. Even if it is apocryphal, however, it is ben trovato. What we do know is that Churchill tried to suppress or censor Blimp. When that failed and the film proved popular, he slapped an export ban on it. When the film was finally released in the United States after the war, it was in a mutilated form and in Hollywood’s golden era Blimp made little impact.

Allan Gray

Decades after the war, the original cut was released, and following the 1980s revival of interest in Powell and Pressburger, Blimp was taken up by American admirers such as David Mamet and Martin Scorsese, who restored the lost footage. At its original length of 163 minutes, you can now watch it free on YouTube or buy it as part of the DVD boxed set of Powell and Pressburger movies. The cinematography may now be seen in all its Technicolour glory.

We can also enjoy the unobtrusive but superb musical score by Allan Gray. Born Józef Źmigrod in Habsburg Poland, Gray was a leading film composer in the Weimar Republic before emigrating to England to escape the Nazis. He, too, got the “enemy alien” treatment on the Isle of Man, until Ralph Vaughan Williams obtained his release.

Gray deserves recognition here, having composed music for such memorable early talkies as Berlin Alexanderplatz and Emil and the Detectives (both the 1931 German version and the 1935 British remake), as well as most of the Powell and Pressburger oeuvre, besides such Hollywood classics as The African Queen. Yet Gray still doesn’t rate an entry in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. A century after Arnold Schoenberg disowned him as a pupil for the offence of composing film scores, the prejudice against cinematic music still persists.

For the choice of Gray we have Emeric Pressburger to thank. Like so many of those with whom he collaborated, he too came from a Central European Jewish milieu. A Hungarian by birth, he had worked as a screenwriter at the UFA studios in Babelsberg, Berlin’s equivalent of Hollywood, until the Nazis forced him to emigrate. Once in England, he and the director Michael Powell formed a partnership that endured from the Thirties to the Fifties, with Pressburger acting as producer and editor as well as screenwriter.

During that time their contribution to British cinema was not merely important — it was unique. No filmmaker before or since has come closer to depicting what the Anglo-American critic of the New Yorker, Anthony Lane, writing about Blimp, calls “the incurable condition of being English”.

But who, now, would even want to do such a thing? We are remote from the days when it was possible to refer without irony or sarcasm to “fair play” or “ladies and gentlemen”, let alone such commonplaces as “it’s a free country” or “an Englishman’s home is his castle”.

For the first half of the last century, adult notions of Englishness were instilled by successive generations of the greatest children’s literature the world had ever known. These tales created and reinforced a certain idea of England — the landscape and its inhabitants, human and nonhuman; their habits, habitats and homes; their foibles, follies and wit. Underlying all of these was an ethos of Christian chivalry, inculcated less by education than by example. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman wrote: “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.” The sainted Cardinal had no need to preach this precept, for it was in the air he breathed.

What makes Blimp so very English, though, is that it is actually a subtle critique of Englishmen — and even of the English way of life that it celebrates. Famously, that way of life had been ridiculed in the 1930s by the left-wing cartoonist David Low with his caricature Colonel Blimp. Thanks to the walrus-moustached veteran’s exposure in the mass circulation Daily Express, Colonel Blimp became a byword for absurdly reactionary views; the adjective “blimpish” and the interjection “Gad, Sir”, with which he prefixed his pronouncements, even entered the language.

Powell and Pressburger turned the cantankerous cartoon character into a three-dimensional human being, who in his time had seen tragedy as well as comedy. Their Blimp is, in his way, a romantic figure — the quintessential Englishman — whose demise marked the end of an epoch.

Michael Powell directing Colonel Blimp, photographed by Bill Brandt for Picture Post

The film’s plot is based on an extended series of flashbacks that chronicle Blimp’s late-Victorian generation. But the long life of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey, has been rich in experience — as the film not only tells but shows us — and his story has a profound, if uncomfortable, moral.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp begins with a team of dispatch-riders roaring down a country road on their motorcycles: modernity rudely intruding on tranquillity. The message to be delivered to a detachment of the Home Guard is: “War begins at midnight.” An exercise — no more. Yet for their young commander, “Spud” Wilson, it’s an opportunity to launch a surprise attack, “like Pearl Harbor”.

His girlfriend Angela “Johnny” Cannon, who also happens to be General Wynne-Candy’s driver, is determined to warn “the old darling” of this dirty trick. Johnny (one of no fewer than four parts played by Deborah Kerr) races back to London, pursued by her boyfriend and his men.

At his beloved club, which is also the Home Guard HQ, the General and his staff are “captured” in the Turkish baths. He is outraged by the “impudence” of his opponent, but even more by the assumption that he is just a silly old Colonel Blimp, whose sense of decency and duty counts for nothing.

The first flashback takes place in 1903. On leave from the Boer War, the young Lieutenant Clive Candy VC disobeys orders by going to Berlin to meet a governess, Miss Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr again). She has warned him about Kaunitz, a duplicitous German he has encountered in South Africa who is stirring up anti-British hatred with atrocity propaganda. After confronting Kaunitz in public, Candy is provoked into insulting the Imperial Officer Corps and challenged to a duel by their champion, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff.

The duel scene, set in an army gymnasium, is amongst the best and most authentic in the film — perhaps because Pressburger had witnessed one in real life. Though fencing duels were by then illegal in Germany and Austria, the practice persisted in student fraternities until at least 1945. Indeed, a generation ago, one still occasionally saw Germans sporting a Schmiss (or duelling scar) as a badge of honour.

The late George Weidenfeld told me how in Vienna in 1938, before the Anschluss, he had challenged an Aryan Nazi, who at first refused to give him, as a Jew, “satisfaction” but, accused of cowardice, was obliged to fight. The duel was a hard-fought draw and, as in the film, a friendship formed that survived the war.

In Blimp, both duellists end up convalescing in a nursing home, cared for by Miss Hunter. Unsurprisingly, both fall in love with her; but when Candy realises that she has chosen his rival, now friend, he sincerely congratulates them. In love, as in war, an English gentleman plays by the rules.

The action moves on to the Great War, during which Candy meets a nurse, Barbara Wynne, who reminds him of Miss Hunter (she too played by Kerr). He tracks her down and they marry, only for her to die young. Wynne-Candy (as he now is) never gets over his lost loves, but in old age he is reminded of them by his young driver (Kerr as “Johnny” Cannon).

One of the best aspects of the film is its depiction of self-confident female characters. The same applies to the absence of the class stereotypes then typical of British cinema. At the news of the Armistice in 1918, the General toasts peace with Murdoch, his wartime adjutant and later his peacetime butler. In the next war he too joins the Home Guard and is killed in the Blitz. (It’s a nice irony that John Laurie, a scene-stealer as Murdoch, went on to be a star of Dad’s Army.) In Blimp, neither sex nor class is any bar to being a gentleman.

Yet what must have got Churchill’s goat more than any egalitarian subtext was the portrayal of Theo Kretzschmar-Schuldorff as the “good German”. His emergence as such is not a foregone conclusion. In 1918 we see him in a POW camp, listening with his fellow inmates to Schubert as they ignore the visiting Candy.

1943: A crowd gathered for the premiere of The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp

Then we see him as Candy’s guest at his club, informing the British top brass that Germany is “finished”, whilst they assure their guest that they will help his country get “back on her feet again”. En route home, Theo mocks their naïveté. This Theo is one of Thomas Mann’s “Unpolitical Germans’, whose devotion to Kultur masks their nationalist resentment of Western Zivilisation.

And so the exiled, chastened Theo we meet in the Second World War takes us by surprise. Broken by the loss of his English wife, disowned by his Hitler-Jugend children, his role is now to warn his old friend that the Nazis are a new, more dangerous and more radical kind of evil. Theo is not surprised when Clive’s talk on the BBC is cancelled: the General had intended to say that it would be better to be defeated than to stoop to the enemy’s level.

Theo understands that his friend is not “blimpish”, but an officer and a gentleman. The old soldier believes British decency could still triumph over militarism, as in 1914-18. But he learns that against the Nazis, that way of thinking is a recipe for disaster. Eventually he is persuaded that the cardinal English principle of “playing by the rules” is suicidal against an enemy who not only breaks them but refuses to recognise that they exist. Finally retired from active service, he salutes the new generation.

If there is a lesson for our time from this 80-year-old epic, it is that the generational roles have been reversed. The Blimps of our time are those too young to remember the Cold War — those who suppose that the authoritarian enemies of Western civilisation can be defeated by appeals to international law rather than by brute force.

Just as too few Germans were Kretzschmar-Schuldorffs, so too few Russians are Navalnys. To deny Kyiv the means to prevail against Moscow, whilst demanding that it refrain from retaliation on Russian soil, is worse than blimpishness. It is moral cowardice, a dereliction of duty of which Clive Wynne-Candy VC would never have been guilty. Powell and Pressburger! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. England hath need of thee.

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