When we (as in, yours truly) were young, we felt we were smarter than older generations because we could identify the celebrities du jour. We thought this somehow made us smarter, which is rather embarrassing to admit.
Now that we’re a bit older, we realize we don’t know as much as the generation before or after us, which is also rather embarrassing.
There’s a lot to be said about the experience and wisdom of older generations, but oftentimes the fresh perspective of younger generations is necessary.
This is one of the themes of the British WWII war dramedy The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film about a young British army soldier who duels with, then befriends, a German soldier. He remains the German’s lifelong friend despite the miles between them, a mutual love for the same woman, and a mild skirmish known as WWI.
The main character is a clever young man who serves his country his entire life with the ideals he was raised, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly out of step with the perplexing twentieth century.
So, who on earth was Colonel Blimp?
Blimp was a popular British cartoon that lampooned stuffy, démodé leaders in government and the military. Blimp often makes circular arguments and/or arrives at ridiculous conclusions, most of which are based on the assumption that the British Empire Is Never Wrong. Here is an example:
The movie Colonel Blimp is named Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), and when we first meet him, he is just like the cartoon figure pictured above. He is an awkward, blustery old man, complete with giant walrus moustache.
We also discover, however, that Wynne-Candy is also a man who loves deeply and, when he was a young man, he fell in love with a woman he didn’t marry – and never got over it. (This woman is Deborah Kerr, who plays three women in the film.) Not only that, his fondness and admiration for his German friend (Anton Walbrook), is a remarkable show of loyalty. Despite our initial impressions, we find ourselves becoming enamoured with Wynne-Candy.
Colonel Blimp is considered one of the greatest British films ever made; it was written and directed by the brilliant filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. One of the most remarkable scenes features a monologue by Anton Walbrook when his character applies for refugee status in England. The monologue starts at the 1:16 mark below. When Walbrook begins his speech, notice the camera never looks away, never blinks.
But when Colonel Blimp was released in 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to have it banned, even though it was a commercial success – and even though it contained Walbrook’s inspirational monologue. When the ban attempt failed, he managed to delay its international release until 1945.
One can’t be too hard on Churchill for this position. It was WWII, after all, and British civilians were asked to make great sacrifices for the war. He certainly wanted to keep civilian morale high, and having a pompous, slightly ridiculous character lampooning the military was, in his mind, likely defeating the purpose.
(The British media, like any other media, loves a whiff of scandal, and they discussed Churchill’s displeasure with this film at length in 2012, when Colonel Blimp was re-released. You can see an example here.)
If you’ve not seen The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, please set aside an evening for it. It’s a gorgeous film, and is ranked 45 out of the top 100 British films of all time. More importantly, however, you’ll be glad to make Colonel Blimp’s acquaintance.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook. Written & directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Rank Organisation, 1943, Technicolor, 163 mins.
This post is part of the BRITISH EMPIRE Blogathon hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon. Be sure to read all the other contributions!