According to Roger Ebert's review of the 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Winston Churchill once demanded of Anton Walbrook, the Austrian refugee who plays a German officer in the movie, "'What's this film supposed to mean? I suppose you regard it as good propaganda for Britain." Walbrook supposedly responded, "No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth."
I'm not quite sure what to make of this story, given my own reaction to the film. Perhaps it means that I'm a hardened anti-war cynic driven to folly by my fear of being naive, and that the reaction I want to have (which is basically Ebert's reaction) is the right one. Or perhaps it's testimony to the depravity of moral sensibility on questions of war, violence and nationalism prevalent in the 1940s.
The fact is that after watching the film (one I've wanted to see for years), I would be inclined to answer Churchill's ironic question with an unironic, "yes, of course I do--it's excellent propaganda for Britain, and I only wish it were true."
Colonel Blimp portrays its central character (who confusingly is not called Blimp but Miles Candy, eventually becomes a general, and does not die in the course of the movie) as an affectionate caricature of a British military officer. In the opening frame sequence he is an elderly, mustachioed general mocked by a young Home Guard officer for his attachment to a gentlemanly way of warfare whose time is long past. The bulk of the movie describes Miles Candy's life over a period of forty years, beginning in 1902 when he goes impulsively to Berlin to squelch rumors about British atrocities in the Boer War, in which he has just earned the Victoria Cross. The film takes for granted that the stories are false, and plays on the irony of the Germans of all people being outraged by stories of atrocities. One of the more interesting and subtle suggestions in the movie (stated baldly and in a naive way by Candy's wife as a suggestion that there's "something wrong" with the Germans, but hinted in more sophisticated ways elsewhere) is that German militarism and ruthlessness were in part the product of inexperience. German idealism and high culture leave the Germans ill-equipped to deal with actual warfare (in the 1902 sequence a German officer tells Candy that he envies the British because they have military experience, while the Germans know war only in books), and they quickly become savage. The British, on the other hand, have steeped themselves in a code of military behavior that protects them from slipping into savagery, but at the same time disadvantages them over against the enthusiastic ferocity of the Germans.
In the film, Candy draws entirely the wrong lesson from the First World War, concluding that it had been won by British fair play and honor over against German ruthlessness and leading a whole table of well-placed British gentlemen in generously assuring a former prisoner of war (his friend and successful romantic rival Theo Kretzschmar-Schuldorff) that Britain will help Germany "get on its feat again." Theo shakes his head over this naivete, reflecting to himself that it will give Germany a chance for revenge. When we next see Theo, in the 1930s, he is seeking asylum from the Nazis and ruefully remarking that he understands Nazi militarism as a recovering addict understands drugs. Theo, and many other characters, berate Candy for his naivete and warn that if Britain refuses to use the same methods as the Germans, then the Germans will win and there will be nothing but "German methods."
Candy, then, can be seen as a romantic hero who represents an older British way of warfare, hopelessly inadequate to modern conditions but at the same time deeply lovable and admirable. But the film is more complex than that, as its portrait of Candy's private life shows. His first love, Edith, marries Theo (because Candy's not in touch enough with his feelings to figure out that he's in love with her until it's too late) and years later he marries a much younger woman who reminds him of her. She dies fairly soon (after about seven years of marriage if I have the film's chronology right), and at the end of the movie he is employing a young female driver who again resembles his lost love strikingly (it should be made clear that there is no hint of a sexual relationship in this last case). All three characters are played by Deborah Kerr, a move that reminds me of Meg Ryan's similar turn in the underrated Joe Vs. the Volcano and, more relevantly and disturbingly, of Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo. Candy's obsession with finding a lookalike for Edith, like the "makeover" scene in Vertigo, seems to indicate that his "romanticism" has something deeply unhealthy about it. The film sums up large stretches of Candy's life, before his marriage and after his wife's death, by montage sequences in which the heads of wild animals appear one after the other on blank space in his "den." In a particularly creepy moment, he shows off a picture of his dead wife to Theo in order to demonstrate how much she looked like Edith--and the picture is enshrined in the midst of the animal heads, as if it were another trophy.
So taken as a character sketch, the film is an ambivalent and deeply engaging work of art, giving us a figure whom we can't help loving even as we recognize that he has a strained relationship with reality.
But from a political and moral point of view, the more ambivalent the portrait of Candy the more disturbing the film's underlying message becomes, because the alternative to Candy is pragmatic ruthlessness, a determination to do whatever it takes to win and to beat the Germans by their own methods.
Most nations like to tell about themselves a story something like this: "We are good, honorable people who are always being beaten by other people because the other people are more ruthless than we are. This is our greatest fault and we need to correct it by becoming just as ruthless as our enemies. That's too bad--it will mean that we lose something very quaint and sweet and precious--but it's necessary to preserve what really matters in our way of life, and since we are such nice people who don't want to be mean we really don't need to worry that we will go too far." This film, it seems to me, tells a story very much like that. Walbrook's "unvarnished truth," which offended Churchill, turns out to be, "We British are unfailingly honorable except when we reluctantly see the light of common sense and do what has to be done."
Apart from its moral problems, the story isn't historically accurate. The British did, in fact, commit atrocities in the Boer War. They herded women, children, and Africans into concentration camps where thousands of them died of starvation. The Germans were indeed, as the film hints, learning from the British. But the British were their models not only in soldiering but in war crimes. The film also skates over the Treaty of Versailles, giving the entirely inaccurate impression that the nice Allies helped the Germans on their feet after the war only to be stabbed in the back.
If the film were nothing more than war propaganda, this playing fast and loose with history would be unremarkable. But precisely because the film is so complex and compelling, one is left wondering just what Powell is doing here. Is he perhaps giving us a deliberately unreliable perspective, reflecting Candy's subjective view of himself? (Cinematically, some important sequences, including Theo's meditation on British naivete and kind-heartedness, are presented when Candy is offscreen, so it's hard to argue that the whole movie is from his POV.) Is the film saying, "actually the British are not as innocent as they think," and is this lack of national self-knowledge mirrored in Candy's personal life? Maybe. Maybe my first reaction that the film is very sophisticated war propaganda doesn't do it justice. Or maybe it's just a film that, like other great films, takes on a life of its own and thus transcends any "message" the directors may have intended.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is similar in its effect on me to Zhang Yimou's Hero, another film which I found ideologically disturbing but artistically compelling. (No, before you ask, I don't put Birth of a Nation remotely in the same category. It's just racism with great spectacle.) Like Hero, this movie will be with me for a long time.
Since I've focused on the film's ideas and characterization, I should add that it's darn entertaining. Anyone who likes British film and television should love this movie, and anyone who doesn't (if there is such a barbaric person to be found among my readers) should give it a try anyway. If you have made it through watching the characters of Downton Abbey sipping tea significantly at each other for hours on end, Colonel Blimp should be a refreshing change.