Day 315: ‘Colonel Blimp and Gentleman’s Rules’ 2018

Day 315
Friday 11 May 2018  11.48pm
‘Colonel Blimp and Gentleman’s Rules’  2018

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

“Goddard’s just arrived, Spud.”
“What’s the ruddy idea?”

– The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Screenplay

Top 100 Films Ever Made –
This film is #93 in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll and #174 in the Directors Poll (4 votes).

I wanted to watch something with Ali tonight which was part of my project. I toyed with choosing Dodsworth or The Killers (on TIME Top 100 list) or Nashville (1974) or an Orson Welles film. I suddenly settled on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) because I had borrowed it from the library for the second week running and couldn’t borrow it again for a third week.

I’d seen it once before, on Laser Disc, with Tony Buckley (who had an interesting connection with Michael Powell, who in several ways was a mentor to him), at least twenty-years ago. I’d thought it was very mannered at the time and while it had some occasionally interesting moments, I hadn’t thought it was as good a film as its reputation indicated. I felt disconnected from it. It didn’t mean a lot to me then and I didn’t know much about the first and second world wars.

Now, of course, I have some knowledge of what was happening in Europe in the 1930s and what started the Second World War. History was something that was never a long suit for me. I knew about Sport, Literature, Japan and Music. I knew almost nothing about Science, Geography and History. [And that’s reflected by the pieces of pie I don’t win when I play Trivial Pursuit.]

After watching Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Regle du jeu (1939) I researched Europe in the 1930s. I was particularly interested to know how much the rest of Europe and Britain knew about what was happening in Germany at that time. I had the idea – stupid and ignorant – that Hitler suddenly appeared one day in 1939, invaded Poland, and the NATO countries declared war on him. What I later learned was that Renoir’s The Grand Illusion was about the First World War and notions of the aristocracy sticking together despite the war. It was made a couple of year before WWII began. What I learned from Colonel Blimp, was that in 1942 in Britain, there were still notions of people acting like gentleman when the nature of war had become more insidious; where the rule book was thrown away; where the idea of trusting your friends – and holding your enemies to a certain standard of behaviour – across the English Channel was not a reliable measure of weighing up what to do and how to do it.

Of course, I see that life was a lot simpler in 1902, when the film’s story starts, than in 1939. By 1942, ideas of friendship and trust, and everyone acting like jolly good fellows was antiquated.

As a film, very deliberately, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp says the nature of the two world wars were clearly different and it makes it point, plain as day. One scene that underlines the naievety of the English happens at the conclusion of the First World War, at a dinner party:

Englishman: “The war is over.”
Clive Candy (Kretschmar’s long-time English friend): “Yes. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You’re a decent fellow – and so are we.”
Kretschmar-Schuldorff (POW): “I’m not a decent fellow. I’m a beggar. Like all the rest of the professional soldiers in our army. A beaten country can’t have an army, so what are we going to do?”
Englishman: “I imagine there will be a great deal to do.”
Kretschmar: “But not for us. We know a bit about horses. We can become stableboys.”
Candy: “You’ll feel differently when you’re home again.”
Kretschmar: “When we’re home? But what will the home be like? Another prison camp. Aren’t we going to have foreign troops occupy our cities for years?”
Englishman: “I never heard a man more wrong than you are. We don’t want to make beggars of you.”
Englishman: “We’re a trading nation. We must have countries to trade with.”
Englishman: “Surely, you realise that the reconstruction of Germany is essential to the peace of Europe.”
Englishman: “I can’t see our taxpayers keeping an army in your country. Can you, Candy?”
Candy: “No, of course not. Read the papers, man, the English papers. We can’t ask you to be our friends if we rob you and humiliate you, too. That’s how we all feel, hey?”
A chorus of Ayes.
Candy: “We want to be friends.”


– The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell

In 1942-43 there were aging members of the British Army who had fought in the Boer War and other minor conflicts, who thoughts they still had something to contribute in a senior leadership role. Colonel Blimp makes a gentle propaganda statement which taps those people – the Clive Candy character- on the shoulder and indicates that a role with the Home Guard might be more suitable. Twice, Blimp (aka. Candy) reacts badly to suggestions that he’s out of touch with current war in Europe. Making a film as political as this during WWII means that it is trying make an important statement. I wonder if anyone went to see it; especially those exercising power or whether it was a pure fictional statement by Pressburger and Powell, that may or may not have been noticed?

An important Englishmen tells a recently released German soldier, Kretschmar, “I can’t imagine anything more awful than being a prisoner of war in England.”

“I don’t think it is much good anywhere,” replies Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff. “It wasn’t so bad. We had books, concerts, lectures.”

In a pivotal scene Kretschmar tries to tell this group of important British military and political men that a defeated race simply cannot adjust to peacetime equally as well as the victors. He says that even though he’s leaving England, he’s actually going from one prison camp to another. After all, Germany will be occupied by foreign forces.