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Submitted by: Roger Mellor

'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' reconsidered.
By James Chapman

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (The Archers/General Film Distributors, 1943; dir. Michael Powell) is notorious in the history of the British cinema of the Second World War as the film that Winston Churchill wanted to ban. The discovery of documents relating to the film in the Public Record Office, and their subsequent publication in the journal Sight and Sound in 1978, confirmed what had long been an open secret: that Churchill had objected to the film and had tried to have it suppressed [1]. However, the circumstances of the film's production has been subject to a number of different interpretations, with the result that there is no general consensus as to the implications of the attempt to suppress it. Nor is there a completely satisfactory answer to one of the most puzzling questions which arises from the incident: why was Churchill, Britain's all-powerful war leader, unable to stop the film's production when it is clear that he wanted to do so? Furthermore, the emphasis by historians on the attempt to suppress the film has overshadowed other important considerations, particularly the question of how it was received by contemporary critics and audiences. The aim of this article, therefore, is to reconsider The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from a revisionist perspective. It will provide a critical survey of the historiography of the film, examine the question of why the attempt to suppress it failed, and discuss the film's critical and popular reception both in Britain and the United States by drawing on a range of contemporary sources.

It is first necessary, however, to provide a brief synopsis of the film. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a Technicolor epic which chronicles the military career of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) from the turn of the century to World War II. The film begins in the 'present' (1943) with a military exercise in which the Home Guard is supposed to be defending London against the regular army. Lieutenant 'Spud' Wilson (James McKechnie) of the Second Battalion, the Loamshires, is instructed to "make it like the real thing". Acting on his own initiative, he decides to attack at six o'clock, rather than at midnight, when the exercise is supposed to start, and therefore striking before 'war' is declared - "just like Pearl Harbour!" Having found out from his girlfriend 'Johnny' Cannon (Deborah Kerr) where 'Sugar' Candy, commanding the Home Guard, will be at that time - she is the General's driver - Spud and a group of his toughest men arrive at the Royal Bathers' Club and take prisoner Candy and the other elderly officers. Candy is surprised by the pre-emptive strike, which goes against what was agreed beforehand ("But you damned young idiot, war starts at midnight!"). A confrontation occurs between Candy and Spud ("Ah yes, you say war starts at midnight. How do you know the enemy says so too?") in which Spud makes insulting remarks about Candy's age. Candy feels insulted by Spud's impudence and fights with him, whereupon both men fall into the Turkish bath.

A long flashback then narrates Clive Candy's military career, starting in the same Turkish bath in 1902 where the young Lieutenant Candy, recently returned from the Boer War with a Victoria Cross, is seen upsetting an elderly officer through his youthful exuberance. Responding to a letter from a Miss Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), an English governess in Berlin, live goes there, on his own initiative and against the orders of the War Office, to correct the anti-British propaganda being put about. His rash actions almost cause a diplomatic incident, and after insulting the Imperial German Army he is obliged to fight a sabre duel with Lieutenant Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Recovering from minor wounds in a nursing home, Clive and Theo become friends. Theo marries Edith, with whom Clive is secretly in love.

Clive's military career continues, and by the end of World War I he is an acting Brigadier-General on the Western Front. At the Armistice of 1918 he expresses his faith in the British way of warfare ("Clean fighting, honest soldiering have won the day"), but this is contrasted with the brutal pragmatism of a South African officer whose methods of interrogation are rather more successful than Clive's own. After the war, Clive meets up again with Theo, a prisoner since 1916, but finds him bitter about the ruin of his country and contemptuous of the British attitude of 'forgive and forget'. Clive marries a young nurse, Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr), who is the spitting image of his first love Edith, but he is widowed after seven years of marriage.

Retired in 1935, Clive is again pressed into service as a Major-General upon the outbreak of war in 1939. At the same time Theo arrives in England as a refugee from Nazism: Edith has died and their sons have become Nazis. Theo meets Candy's driver 'Johnny', who bears a strong resemblance to Edith. In the aftermath of Dunkirk, Clive is due to give a BBC 'Postscript' radio broadcast, but it is cancelled at the last moment and he is replaced by J.B. Priestley. The script for Clive's talk was thought defeatist: his old-fashioned view, that it is better to fight honourably and lose than to fight by dirty means and win, is seen as an outmoded philosophy in the age of total warfare. Clive is retired again, but finds a new lease of life commanding the Home Guard. He appears several times on the cover of Picture Post between 1940 and 1942, lecturing the Home Guard on the art of soldiering.

Back in the Turkish bath in the 'present', Spud Wilson voices the new way of thinking in warfare, in contrast to the traditional view, when he tells the old generation of officers: "We agree it's very fine to win the last battle, but we much prefer to win the first". At the end of the film, seeing in Spud a reflection of his own impetuous youth, Clive makes sure that the young officer will not be disciplined for his unauthorised action and decides to ask him to dinner. The film ends with Clive saluting the march-past of the Loamshires while a military band plays 'The British Grenadiers'.

The Origins of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
The film was the brain-child of the film-making team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who had made a number of films together which had achieved a good degree of both critical and popular success: The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). The case of 49th Parallel is particularly significant, given the later official objections to Colonel Blimp, since it was partly financed by the Ministry of Information, the government department responsible for, amongst other things, propaganda. It was supported by Duff Cooper, then Minister of Information, and the MOI had provided a sum of £60,000 - half the final budget - towards its production [2]. By 1942, Powell and Pressburger had set up their own production company, calling themselves The Archers, and were working under the benevolent patronage of J. Arthur Rank, who was by this time the most powerful and dominant figure in the British film industry. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was to be the first film which Powell and Pressburger made for Rank.

According to Michael Powell's memoirs, the idea for the film originated with a scene from One of Our Aircraft is Missing "which depicted the conflict between intolerant youth and experienced age." There was to have been a clash between two members of the bomber crew stranded behind enemy lines - young pilot John Haggard (Hugh Burden) and the older baronet-turned air-gunner Sir George Corbett (Godfrey Tearle):

The old man goes on to tell him that they are very much alike. They are two editions of the same man. Sir George was just like this young idealist when he was in his twenties, and John will be an old Blimp like him when he is in his fifties. David Lean [the film's editor] persuaded us to drop the scene from the final cut, arguing: "It's got nothing to do with the plot. It's the sort of idea you could make a whole film about." So we did. [3]

The theme of youth versus age is explored in the clash between Clive Candy and Spud Wilson at the beginning of Colonel Blimp: "How do you know what sort of a fellow I was when I was as young as you are, forty years ago?" Clive asks the young officer as he shoves him into the Turkish bath.

Powell and Pressburger decided to explore their theme by putting on the screen the fictional story of 'Colonel Blimp'. Powell later explained that decision thus: "It was probably because the whole idea seemed to chime together and the thought of dramatising the life of Colonel Blimp appealed enormously, because at that time Blimp was a household word" [4]. The shooting script for the film held in the Reference Library of the British Film Institute and dated June 1942 bears the title The Life and Death of Sugar Candy, after the nickname of the central character [5]. However, it appears that from the outset their intention was to make a film about 'Colonel Blimp'. 'Colonel Blimp' was a bombastic cartoon character created in 1934 by David Low, a left-wing New Zealand-born political cartoonist, who paradoxically worked for the Evening Standard, which was owned by the Tory newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook. The character was invented in order to satirise the British 'Establishment' and the political outlook of the ruling elite. According to Low's autobiography: "I decided to invent a 'character' typifying the current disposition of mixed-up thinking, to have it both ways, to dogmatic doubleness, to paradox and plain self-contradiction" [6]. Low also said that he dreamed the character up while observing the obese incumbents of a Turkish bath, and made him a colonel because he had just read a letter in a newspaper from an old cavalry officer saying that mechanised troops should continue to wear spurs. 'Colonel Blimp', instantly identifiable by his rotund figure and walrus moustache, and always wearing only a towel around his waist, was a symbol of political reaction and military incompetence. The very name of 'Blimp' passed into folklore, and it came to be identified with any establishment figure who was perceived as a reactionary or die-hard. Low used the character to ridicule the Conservative Party in particular; and significantly, given Winston Churchill's later objection to the film, 'Blimp' had sometimes appeared in the same cartoons as Churchill himself, for example in satirising his opposition to the India Bill of 1935 [7]. The established character of 'Colonel Blimp' was perfectly in line with the intention of Powell and Pressburger's film, which was to show "that Colonel Blimp was a symbol of British procrastination and British regard for tradition and all the things which we knew and which were losing the war" [8]. The film was to urge commitment to the philosophy of total war, rather than playing it "by the National Sporting Club rules" (to use Spud Wilson's phrase). A dedication in the shooting script (though not in the finished film) makes its intentions clear:

This film is dedicated to the New Army of Britain, to the new spirit in warfare, to the new toughness in battle, and to the men and women who know what they are fighting for and are fighting this war to win it. [9]

Powell and Pressburger approached David Low, who agreed they could use the name of his character subject to certain conditions. In Low's own words:

When Michael Powell proposed to make a film epic about him, and Emeric Pressburger, his script-writer partner, spun his tale of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp into my fascinated ear, I was too dazed with admiration of Emeric's phenomenal power of story-telling to find any reason for not agreeing. I woke up in time, however, to make two stipulations: that Blimp had to be proved a fool in the end, and that they, Powell and Pressburger, took all the responsibility ... Amazing chaps, both blending social ideas with entertainment in their own medium for their own public. A different blend, a different medium and a different public from mine. I did not interfere. [10]

Thus having acquired Low's support and his permission to use 'Colonel Blimp', Powell and Pressburger were able to proceed with the production of their film. Its three main stars were Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr and Roger Livesey. Walbrook, who received top billing, was an Austrian emigre who had come to Britain in 1937 and had become a major star through his role as Prince Albert in the two Herbert Wilcox-Anna Neagle biopics of Queen Victoria, Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938). During the war, he starred in the hugely popular romance Dangerous Moonlight (RKO, 1941; dir. Brian Desmond Hurst), and had played the leader of the Germanic Huttite community in Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel. His star persona as a cultured foreigner was perfect for the role of Theo: "The part of Theo was written by us for Anton Walbrook," Powell said in his memoirs [11]. Deborah Kerr, then a rising young actress of 22 who had recently received critical plaudits for her role as Sally Hardcastle in Love on the Dole (British National, 1941; dir. John Baxter), was given the triple female role of Edith/Barbara/Johnny after the original choice, Wendy Hiller, had to withdraw due to pregnancy. For the all-important role of the 'Blimp' character, Clive Candy, Powell had originally wanted Laurence Olivier, but when he was refused release from the Fleet Air Arm to act in the film, the part went instead to Roger Livesey. Livesey was a husky-voiced character actor who had appeared mainly on stage, but who had also played supporting roles in some of Alexander Korda's films during the 1930s, such as Rembrandt (1936) and The Drum (1938); he later appeared in two other Powell-Pressburger films, I Know Where I'm Going (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Powell was of the opinion that the substitution of Livesey for Olivier would alter the tone of the film considerably: "The only change was that instead of having a vicious, slashing, cruel, merciless Colonel Blimp we had a dear old bumbler and of course everybody loved that" [12]. Perhaps mindful of the remarks made by critics upon the film's release, he added: "It blunted the message a good deal". The production designer was the German Alfred Junge and the cinematographer was the Frenchman (Georges Perinal). The film went into production at the Rank-owned Denham Studios in the summer of 1942. By this time, however, the project had run into opposition from the Government, which objected to the film and tried to stop it from being made.

The Historiography of the Colonel Blimp Affair
The historiography of the attempt to suppress The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp falls neatly into two parts: before and after the publication of 'The Colonel Blimp File' in 1978. Before the documentation from the Public Record Office (PRO) was discovered, the only accounts of the government intervention came in the form of memoirs and personal reminiscences, principally from Powell himself, though filmmakers, like politicians, are prone to lapses of memory, or re-cast past events with the benefit of hindsight. Powell recounted the circumstances surrounding Colonel Blimp on several occasions, but each time there are slight discrepancies in what he had to say, particularly with regard to where precisely the objections to the film originated. For example, when interviewed by Kevin Gough-Yates in 1970, Powell said that the opposition to the film came from the Ministry of Information:

Then we ran into trouble with the M of I who read the script and said they thought it was defeatist - they never did appreciate the fact that as an artist or storyteller you have to show what's bad before you can show what's good. You can't go out saying we're bound to be alright because we're British. You've got to show the bad bits first. Propagandists never do. They said: "We don't think you should make this film". [We said]: "Go and fuck yourself!" They said: "All right. But you can't have Laurence Olivier". "You're going to stop us making it? "Oh no, we're not going to stop you, after all this is a democracy. But we advise you not to make it and you can't have Laurence Olivier because he's in the Fleet Air Arm and we're not going to release him to play your Colonel Blimp". So we came out of the M of I and Emeric said to me "What shall we do?" and I said: "We'll play Roger Livesey". [13]

This anecdote is interesting for the way in which it suggests the MOI attempted an informal censorship of the film by "advising" Powell and Pressburger not to make it. However, Powell does not go so far as to name the people at the MOI with whom he and Pressburger had this conversation, though in the light of a similar account he was to give later, the most likely candidates would appear to be the Minister himself, Brendan Bracken, Churchill's close friend and colleague, and Jack Beddington, the Director of the Films Division of the MOI.

Powell's next version of events came in an interview with David Badder in the same issue of Sight and Sound which saw the publication of 'The Colonel Blimp File'. He still suggests that the main opposition to the film came from the MOI, particularly from Jack Beddington, the former publicity officer for the Shell petroleum company who was now responsible for the Government's film propaganda policy. However, he also implies that the MOI were acting more at the behest of other departments:

I'm sure it was with Jack that we had most of the rows about Colonel Blimp. They weren't really rows, simply that we were determined to make the film and they were equally determined that we shouldn't. Beddington and Brendan Bracken were probably laughing like hell in their offices, but they had to do what they were told and follow the policy of the War Office and the Cabinet. [14]

The subtle differences in Powell's different accounts of the episode thus indicate a shifting perspective in his own recollections. First (in 1970) he said that the opposition came from the MOI and does not mention the War Office at all. But then (in 1978) he suggested that opposition did come from the War Office but that it was channelled through the MOI. This distinction may not seem important per se, but it was to have a bearing on the later interpretation of the Colonel Blimp affair by the historians Nicholas Pronay and Jeremy Croft.

Powell's memoirs, published in 1986, mark a further shift in his recollection of events. In this version the MOI at first raised no objection to the film; instead, the main stumbling block was the War Office:

Approved by the Ministry of Information, the script went up to Sir James Grigg, the Minister of War, who had to approve our borrowing of Army material: uniforms, guns, transport, etc. I don't know whether he himself actually read the script, but he must have had a scathing report from touchy underlings. He turned our request down point blank, and sent a memo to Churchill and Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, telling them what he thought of it. The fat was in the fire. [15]

It was only due to Grigg's opposition that the Ministry of Information then became obstructive:

The Ministry were a little startled at Grigg's choleric memo, which smacked rather too much of one of the scenes in the film. They sent for us and told us Grigg's reaction, and said that if we couldn't get War Office support then we couldn't have Laurence Olivier in the film. This was a facer, but I had feared as much and was prepared for it.

"Do you forbid us to make the film?" I asked the Minister and Jack Beddington.

"Oh, my dear fellow, after all, we are a democracy, aren't we? You know we can't forbid you to do anything, but don't make it, because everyone will be really cross, and the Old Man will be very cross and you'll never get a knighthood". [16]

In one respect this passage is similar to Powell's account of 1970, for the way in which the men at the MOI (here identified as Bracken and Beddington) attempted an informal censorship of the film. However, the statement in his memoirs that the script was initially approved by the MOI flatly contradicts his version of 1970 when he said the MOI objected to the script.

The discovery of a file on the film in Churchill's papers in the PRO was the most important development in the historiography of the film, in that it revealed for the first time the full extent of the Prime Minister's personal involvement. As Powell himself wrote, the discovery of the file "caused a mild sensation, both in England and in America, because it was quite obvious that Churchill would have stopped the film if he could" [17]. The question of who 'discovered' the file itself caused a minor controversy. In his introduction to 'The Colonel Blimp File' in Sight and Sound in 1978, the film historian Ian Christie claimed to have come across it while researching in the PRO with his colleague Laurence Hayward [18]. However, as Anthony Aldgate subsequently pointed out, documents from the file are quoted in Paul Addison's book The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War (1975), three years before the publication of the full file [19]. The material from the PRO has since been supplemented by extracts from Powell's own papers, included by Ian Christie as background material for the published screenplay of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which came out in 1994 [20]. The Powell Papers have been donated to the British Film Institute by his widow Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, but are not yet available for consultation by researchers. 'The Blimp Files', as Christie calls them, are an important new source of evidence which reveal that Powell had been in contact with both the War Office and the MOI for some months before Churchill became involved in the affair.

The first thing to emerge from 'The Blimp Files' is that the filmmakers had meetings with both Bracken and Beddington (along with other men in official positions) while they were still deciding their film subject [21]. In view of all the accounts of official opposition to the film, it is surprising to discover that some men in official circles were favourably inclined towards the project when they saw the first story treatment in May 1942. "I think the idea is excellent", said Lord Vansittart, a friend of Churchill [22]; and Vincent Massey, High Commissioner for Canada and brother of the actor Raymond Massey, wrote:

I read the scheme of 'Colonel Blimp' with much interest and I like it. I am writing to Sir James Grigg at the War Office and telling him that he will receive from you in due course a copy of the scheme and that after that you would like to see him. I am sure you will find him sympathetic to the ideas you have in mind. [23]

However, Massey's prediction that Grigg would be sympathetic proved false. On 22 May, Grigg wrote to Powell:

I have now had an opportunity of reading the narrative of 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' and I have been considering very carefully whether it is the sort of film to which the War Office could give its support.

I am bound to say that I don't think it is. Its chief weakness seems to me that it revolves around a character that is more fictitious than real ... I cannot help thinking that at a time when public confidence in the Army and its leaders is justifiably increasing, it would be a pity to divert attention to a caricature. And after all Colonel Blimp is only a caricature. [24]

It was Sir James Grigg, therefore, who first objected to the proposed film, on the grounds that it gave an inaccurate picture of army officers. "We respect and understand your views about 'Colonel Blimp' and we shall change the title", Powell replied [25]. This explains why the shooting script, written in June 1942, was entitled The Life and Death of Sugar Candy. But this cosmetic change did not satisfy Grigg, who told Powell that "I find myself in complete disagreement with the basic idea underlying 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' [sic] ", adding that he disliked the way in which the film story was critical of the British military establishment:

To be quite frank I am getting rather tired of the theory that we can best enhance our reputation in the eyes either of our own people or the rest of the world by drawing attention to the faults which the critics attribute us, especially when, as in the present case, the criticism no longer has any substance. [26]

While the War Office was strongly opposed to the film, it seems that the MOI was at first quite equivocal. A report on the screenplay for The Life and Death of Sugar Candy, made by an S. G. Gates of the MOI early in June 1942, adopts a fence-sitting posture:

The film script raises a great many points some of which are controversial. Although this does not prevent the Ministry from supporting the film the very fact that controversy is aroused suggests that the support is bound to be more limited than if the film was cast iron for all markets and in all circumstances. We should certainly hesitate to prevent the expression of opinion even if this opinion appeared ambiguous to a minority, but we must be very careful not to appear to stand behind and support a film which can be taken in the wrong way by a fair proportion of people. [27]

By the end of June, however, the MOI had come around to the War Office's line of thinking. Gates told Powell on 25 June:

Much as I regret having to say this, I am afraid that we cannot bring ourselves to feel that the public interest would be served by the production of the film as it stands, nor do we see how it could be rendered of positive value from the point of view of national propaganda, by alterations in the dialogue or in the treatment of individual sequences.

The Ministry cannot, therefore, see its way to recommend the temporary release from the Fleet Air Arm of Laurence Olivier to enable him to play in the film; nor would it be able to recommend the provision of Service facilities. [28]

It seems that Powell then appealed directly to Brendan Bracken, who apparently liked the idea personally but disapproved officially: "I have read enough to know first that it would make an amusing and very entertaining film and second that it would not make the sort of film which this Ministry could properly support", the Minister wrote on 7 July [29] .

The evidence of 'The Blimp Files' (the Powell Papers) therefore shows that the main opposition to the film in its pre-production stage came from the War Office, while the MOI was opposed to it but less hostile. By the time that the story is taken up again some two months later in the PRO's 'Colonel Blimp File', the film had started shooting. The first document in the file is a letter from Grigg to Churchill, dated 8 September 1942, which begins with a covering note: "I attach, as directed, a note on the Blimp film, which is in the course of being produced and which I think it of the utmost importance to get stopped" [30]. This opening remark is illuminating in that it suggests that Churchill was already aware of the film and wanted more information on it. Grigg's lengthy letter then explains in detail why the War Office objected to the film. Again, his main argument was that they thought it presented a negative and incorrect image of senior officers in the British Army:

The War Office have refused to give their support to the film in any way on the ground that it would give the Blimp conception of the Army officer a new lease of life at a time when it is already dying from inanition. Whatever the film makes of the spirit of the young soldier of today, the fact remains that it focuses attention on an imaginary type of Army officer which has become an object of ridicule to the general public. In the opening scene Candy is shown as Blimp himself complete with towel and everything. Whatever it may do elsewhere the film has made a character built up by twenty years [sic] of brilliant cartooning into a figure of fun, and there is an inescapable suggestion that such a man is a type or at any rate an example of those who have risen to a high command in the Army in the period preceding this war.

Therefore, the evidence from the PRO underscores the opposition of Grigg and the War Office to the film. However, the incident took on a new colour with the Prime Minister's own personal intervention. After receiving Grigg's hostile letter, Churchill responded by dispatching one of his famous 'prayers' to Brendan Bracken:

Pray propose to me the measures necessary to stop this foolish production before it gets any further. I am not prepared to allow propaganda detrimental to the morale of the Army, and I am sure the Cabinet will take all necessary action. Who are the people behind it? [31]

Thus it is evident that Churchill himself was also adamant that the film should be stopped. This is perhaps the most remarkable thing to emerge from 'The Colonel Blimp File': the fact that the Prime Minister took such a close interest in the film is testimony not only to his concern for the minutiae of all aspects of wartime policy, but also to the importance which he attached to the cinema as a means of influencing the people through propaganda. Indeed, Churchill's hostility to the film ran so deep that in a later memorandum, having been informed by Bracken that the MOI "has no power to suppress the film", he suggested that the Minister of Information could be granted "any special authority you may require" to stop the film from being made - an indication of the extraordinary lengths to which Churchill was prepared to go to get the film cancelled [32]. The War Cabinet decided on 21 September 1942 to defer consideration of the question until it was possible to see a rough cut of the film [33]. When the relevant officials saw the finished film, they apparently raised no objections to it. The War Cabinet minutes of 10 May 1943 recorded:

The Secretary of State for War [Grigg] said that the film had now been seen by representatives of the War Office and the Ministry of Information, who took the view that it was unlikely to attract much attention or have any undesirable consequences on the discipline of the Army. In the circumstances, he had reached the conclusion that the right plan was to allow the film to be shown. [34]

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was premiered at the Odeon, Leicester Square, on 10 June 1943 before going on general release [35]. Churchill saw the film at a special screening the night before, along with Grigg and Bracken. Powell himself was not present at the screening, but according to his memoirs, "We were told privately by the MOI that there would be no official banning of the film, but that pressure would be brought upon Rank to persuade him not to export the film" [36]. In this case, Powell's memoirs are corroborated by the official documentation, which shows that Churchill felt strongly that the film should not be exported. "I think you should certainly stop it going abroad as long as you possibly can," he instructed Bracken on 11 July 1943 [37]. This was done by refusing to allow the normal air transport facilities, and as a consequence the film's overseas distribution was delayed by several months in the summer of 1943. However, Bracken was clearly very uncomfortable with what he described as both an "unorthodox expedient" and an "illegal ban". He tried to mollify the Prime Minister, telling him: "As the film is so boring I cannot believe it will do any harm abroad to anyone except the company which made it" [38]. In the event, Churchill finally bowed to pressure from Bracken and withdrew his obstruction. The final document in the file is a note from B.C. Sendall, an official at the MOI, to Churchill's secretary T. L. Rowan, dated 21 September 1943, which states that "the Prime Minister finally authorised Mr Bracken to withdraw his ban on the export of the film" [39].

Three Interpretations of the Colonel Blimp Affair

This discussion of the historical sources relating to the attempted suppression of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is necessary because the evidence of 'The Colonel Blimp File' has had a strong bearing on the post-1978 historiography of the film. The incident has been analysed three times - by Ian Christie, by Anthony Aldgate, and by Nicholas Pronay and Jeremy Croft - and on each occasion a rather different interpretation of the events has been suggested.

1. Ian Christie

In addition to the publication of 'The Colonel Blimp File', Ian Christie also provided his own discussion of the incident in his book Powell, Pressburger and Others (1978). Although his reading of the film itself in terms of its propaganda content is useful and analytical, his conclusions about the attempt to suppress it are open to question. Christie suggests that the incident "provides further evidence of Churchill's autocratic control over all aspects of the war machinery" [40]. This is a curious conclusion, for the fact is that Churchill was unable to suppress the film despite his best efforts to do so. Rather than suggesting he had "autocratic control" of the war machinery, the incident actually shows that even the Prime Minister's powers during the war had practical limitations.

2. Anthony Aldgate

A more satisfactory account of the history of Colonel Blimp is provided by Anthony Aldgate in his chapter on the film in the book, co-authored with Jeffrey Richards, Best of British: Cinema and Society 1930-1970 (1983). The approach to the film is empirical and contextual. Aldgate uses both 'The Colonel Blimp File' and the accounts given by Powell in the interviews of 1970 and 1978 to reconstruct the attempt to suppress the film, and his largely empiricist methodology keeps him from drawing wild conclusions. The most useful element of his interpretation, however, is that he contextualises the film in the debate about 'Blimpery' which existed at the time. Although 'Colonel Blimp' himself had made a temporary disappearance from the Evening Standard in February 1942 (he did not reappear for some sixteen months), accusations of 'Blimpery' in the running of the war effort remained and indeed "reached a peak between the spring and autumn of 1942" [41]. Events such as the fall of Singapore and the infamous 'Channel Dash' of the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were humiliating reverses for British military fortunes. And even closer to home, questions about 'Blimpery' in the Army were raised in the House of Commons by the Labour MP Mr. F. W. Pethick-Lawrence and caused some considerable embarrassment for the Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg. Given this political context, it is hardly surprising that Powell and Pressburger's film should be viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Government. It was the perceived existence of 'Blimpery' in a wider context, therefore, that in Aldgate's opinion "helps to explain the nature of the official reaction to the film of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and why the film came to be construed as 'negative propaganda" [42].

Aldgate's contextual approach also enables him to explain why the War Office withdrew their objection to the film in May 1943. By this time, the tide of the war had turned in Britain's favour and there was much less talk of 'Blimpery' in the war effort. Aldgate therefore concludes that "in the final analysis The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was just another victim of wartime circumstance" [43].

If there is any criticism to be levelled against Aldgate's account, however, it is that he does not fully explain why the attempt to suppress the film in 1942 failed. Furthermore, he emphasises Grigg's role in the incident but rather underplays Churchill's own involvement. Aldgate argues that it was Grigg who sparked off the controversy, and that only through the War Secretary's initial letter of 8 September 1942 did Churchill become involved. He writes: "it is difficult to believe that the film would have caused such a furore without Grigg's initially hostile intervention. For he was dead set against the film from the outset, for reasons which are obvious, and cast it in a sufficiently bad light for Churchill's anger to be aroused in turn" [44]. While it is true that Grigg's letter does seem to have prompted Churchill into action, it must also be remembered that the letter was in response to a request from Churchill for information about the film. And furthermore, Churchill continued to oppose the film long after the War Office had withdrawn its objections.

3. Nicholas Pronay and Jeremy Croft

In their article 'British Film Censorship and Propaganda Policy during the Second World War' (1983), Nicholas Pronay and Jeremy Croft suggest a very different interpretation of the Colonel Blimp affair. Arguing that the Government could have suppressed the film if it had really wanted to - "There can be no doubt that if the MOI and Bracken had wanted to prevent that film being made they could have done so many times over" [45] - Pronay and Croft go on to construct an elaborate scheme behind the film's production. They argue that because Powell and Pressburger had made 49th Parallel, which was "secretly" sponsored by the MOI, they were in fact not at odds with the Ministry when it came to the aims of film propaganda. The intention behind Colonel Blimp, they suggest, was to make "secret" propaganda aimed at the Americans to show them that the 'Blimp' stereotype of the British officer was no longer at all accurate: "The film proposed was to show to the Americans, whose soldiers were to come over in large numbers, that the British Army had shed its ineffective, upper-class, 'Blimp' officer attitudes, and that it had become essentially a 'democratic' citizen army and that it had also acquired the necessary mental attitudes to become an efficient, tough fighting force, capable of matching the professionalism of the Germans" [46]. It was therefore essential that the film should not appear to be official propaganda, and so an elaborate camouflage was constructed by Brendan Bracken which depended on the War Office and Churchill objecting to the film. Thus, according to Pronay and Croft, the MOI did not really try to discourage the film at all: the refusal to release Laurence Olivier from the Fleet Air Arm was not an attempt to obstruct the film, but because such a move would have made it look as if the film had official sanction, which was the last thing that Bracken wanted. The allocation of precious Technicolor film stock could not have occurred had the MOI not secretly approved of the film. The story that there was a ban on the export of the film was leaked to the Evening Standard in June 1943: this newspaper was owned by Lord Beaverbrook, "Bracken's only personal confidante in the latter years of the war" [47]. The ban on the film would then be reported by American correspondents, thereby creating "far more advance publicity and interest in it than would have been possible to achieve by any other means, and establishing conclusively the credentials of the film as being anything but official British propaganda" [48]. Finally, the fact that the ban finally had to be lifted provided "a wonderful demonstration for Americans that Britain was indeed a genuine democracy, in which not even an apparently all-powerful Prime Minister such as Churchill had the power to suppress a privately made film" [49].

The Pronay-Croft thesis is imaginative, but too clever by far. The intention behind their interpretation is to construct a reading of British film propaganda which bears out Stanley Baldwin's old dictum that "propaganda work is very like anti-submarine work ... you cannot disclose to your adversaries how you are doing it" [50]. However, like so many 'conspiracy theories', there is insufficient evidence to support the conclusions that are reached. The fact that Brendan Bracken destroyed all his private papers, for example, proves nothing: there may be no evidence to refute the theory, nor is there any to substantiate it. Moreover, Pronay and Croft make a number of assumptions that are either questionable or simply incorrect. In the first place, the MOI's financial involvement in 49th Parallel was not a "secret", as they claim. In answer to a question in the House of Commons on 18 December 1940, Duff Cooper, then Minister of Information, announced openly that the Ministry had already invested over £22,000 in the project [51]. Furthermore, the MOI's involvement was known in America, where the Motion Picture Herald declared: "The partial financial involvement of the British Ministry of Information might be noted by the cautious showman" [52].

Pronay and Croft state that David Low's 'Blimp' cartoons were "still appearing" in Britain at the time of the film's production, when in fact 'Blimp' himself was absent from the Evening Standard between February 1942 and June 1943. In their description of the film's producers as "a newly formed production company, The Archers, with no apparent capital worth speaking of" [53], Pronay and Croft ignore the fact that Powell and Pressburger had all the financial muscle of J. Arthur Rank behind them. Curiously, Pronay and Croft seem to deny that Colonel Blimp was actually made for Rank: "Indeed, if it was produced by the Rank Organization (British Films), which was recognized by Americans as being as fully integrated into the wartime scheme of things as MGM was in their own country, the cloven hoof would obviously have protruded and negated the purpose of the exercise" [54]. But the film was financed by Rank, as several documents in 'The Colonel Blimp File' make clear [55] . Finally, in discussing the "unusual and lengthy correspondence" between Churchill and Bracken, Pronay and Croft make their least tenable claim: "Brendan Bracken was not in the habit of writing extended memoranda to Churchill, in whose living room he habitually slept" [56]. Even allowing for the fact that what ministers say to each other does not necessarily correspond with what they are prepared to put down on paper, this claim is patently ridiculous: not only is it a truism that close friends in government do write memoranda to each other, but to claim that Bracken did not do so overlooks the existence of many other memoranda from Bracken to Churchill to be found in the PRO [57].

There are also a number of more general objections to the Pronay-Croft thesis. In trying to construct Bracken as some sort of Machiavellian figure manipulating both the War Office and the Prime Minister, Pronay and Croft ignore the obvious embarrassment which Churchill's obstruction caused for his Minister of Information. For example, to quote from Bracken's memorandum of 5 August 1943:

As a result of our illegal ban on this wretched film, 'Colonel Blimp' has received a wonderful advertisement from the Government. It is now enjoying an extensive run in the suburbs and in all sorts of places there are notices - 'See the banned film!'

If we had left that dull film alone it would probably have proved an unprofitable undertaking, but by the time the Government have finished with it there is no knowing what profits it will have earned. [58]

This is not the language of a man who had connived to create an elaborate camouflage around the film in order to distance it from official propaganda. Furthermore, if the film was secretly approved by the MOI, then it makes nonsense of Powell's own repeated accounts of a meeting with Bracken and Beddington at which they tried to persuade him not to make it. If the Pronay-Croft thesis is to be accepted, then Powell's own recollections and memoirs serve as a part of the cover-up, which seems highly unlikely.

A further broad objection to the Pronay-Croft interpretation concerns the purpose of the film. Although the film certainly was intended, at least in part, to demonstrate to American audiences that the British Army was no longer full of 'Blimps', there is no evidence to support Pronay and Croft's assertion that this idea originated with Bracken and the MOI. Instead, it was a line of argument which Powell himself used in defending the film against the War Office. To quote again from Grigg's letter of 8 September 1942:

The producer claims that the film is intended as a tribute to the toughness and keenness of the new Army in Britain and shows how far they have progressed from the Blimpery of the pre-war Army. From this point of view he urges that it would be valuable propaganda for the USA and the Dominions bec ause in showing that we are conscious of any faults which we may possess, we are telling the rest of the world that the faults are being eliminated. [59]

Moreover, PRO documents show that at this time the MOI was considering another feature film to depict the modern, professional British Army. Bracken wrote to Noel Coward on 9 October 1942: "I hope you will consider very carefully my suggestion that you should make a film about the Army. I have never seen a really good film about the Army, and I am sure that you could make one which would be as resounding a success as In Which We Serve" [60]. Although Coward declined, the project did eventually come to fruition as The Way Ahead (Two Cities, 1944; dir. Carol Reed), in which both the MOI and the War Office were closely involved through the provision of facilities and the release of service personnel (David Niven, Peter Ustinov, Carol Reed and Eric Ambler) to take part in the production [61]. The Way Ahead was very much an officially sanctioned film about the British Army in a way that Colonel Blimp was not. There is evidence that people in the Films Division of the MOI were very pleased with The Way Ahead once it had been made. Arthur Calder-Marshall, for example, wrote a warm letter to Carol Reed, stating: "I want to tell you how extremely enthusiastic I am about The Way Ahead. It is the only picture which I have seen which gives a true sense of the Army and which keeps the social values right" [62]. It would be straining the evidence rather too far to suggest that The Way Ahead was made in direct response to Colonel Blimp, but it is clear that it showed the Army as both the MOI and the War Office wanted it to be shown: the film would hardly have been necessary had Colonel Blimp been an 'official' picture with the MOI's secret approval.

Censorship and the State
If the interpretation offered by Pronay and Croft is to be discounted, then the historian must look for another answer to the question of why the Government was unable to suppress The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Pronay and Croft assert that the MOI could have stopped the film from being made if it had really wanted to do so. But did the state really have the means to suppress the film? To answer this question it is necessary to place Colonel Blimp in the context of British film censorship during the war.

Censorship as exercised by the British Board of Film Censors had of course relaxed somewhat during the war, exemplified most famously by the Board's decision in 1940 to pass the screenplay of Love on the Dole, which it had rejected in the 1930s as being too socially divisive [63]. The Board was able to prevent the release of a particular film by withholding a certificate, which effectively meant that cinema exhibitors would not be able to show it. The Board did have a long-standing regulation which forbade "the presentation of British officers and forces in disgraceful, reprehensible or equivocal light" [64] , but this had been relaxed during the war, evidenced by the release of The Next of Kin (Ealing, 1942; dir. Thorold Dickinson), a feature film showing how a Commando raid on the French coast suffered heavy casualties due to the 'careless talk' and general laxity of several British officers. The representation of the officers in The Next of Kin was far more damning than the 'Blimp' characterisation in Powell and Pressburger's film. It does not seem that the Board raised any objections to Colonel Blimp, which was released with a 'U' certificate [65]. In any case, the attempt to suppress Colonel Blimp concerned not the BBFC, but the censorship powers of the Government.

It was the Prime Minister himself who most wanted to stop the film's production. This was not the first time that Churchill had personally interfered in film matters, for he had also had certain objections to both Ships with Wings (Ealing, 1941; dir. Sergei Nolbandov) and The Next of Kin. According to the memoirs of Michael Balcon, Head of Production at Ealing Studios, Churchill saw Ships with Wings at Chequers one weekend "and was insisting that the release should be held up, if not cancelled altogether, on the grounds that it would cause 'alarm and despondency', as the climax was something of a disaster for the Fleet Air Arm" [66]. In the event, Churchill left the decision to the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, who raised no objection to the film. Balcon writes of the incident: "I suppose the PM had no powers to stop the film but I would not have cared to put his authority to the test" [67]. The case of The Next of Kin, which had been made in co-operation with the War Office, was similar. Churchill thought it showed too many British casualties and too few German ones. According to a note in the PRO from 'F.D.B.' (apparently one of the Prime Minister's secretaries) to S. Redman of the War Office: "The Prime Minister is prepared to leave the whole matter to the Secretary of State's judgement, but thinks that it would be a good thing if a few more dead Huns could be shown" [68]. Some very small alterations were made voluntarily by the film-makers to reduce the number of the British dead. The director Thorold Dickinson recalled: "Supervised by two of Churchill's brigadiers I cut the minimum from the battle scenes ... thirty pieces of film running in all twenty seconds" [69]. In both these cases, therefore, Churchill's objections were to specific details in the finished films, and they were resolved without any great problems. However, the case of Colonel Blimp was a very different matter, for Churchill's objections ran much deeper: rather than wanting cosmetic changes, he objected to the film as a whole and wanted to stop its production.

In order to have suppressed Colonel Blimp as Churchill wanted them to do, the MOI would have to possess both the power and the will to do so. Bracken - who as the Minister concerned presumably knew the extent of his own powers - told Churchill that the MOI did not have the necessary power: "The Ministry of Information has no power to suppress the film. We have been unsuccessful in discouraging it by the only means open to us: that is, by withholding Government facilities for its production" [70]. This was corroborated by Sir James Grigg, who told the War Cabinet: "There was no existing Defence Regulation under which the film could be suppressed" [71]. However, Pronay and Croft disagree, arguing that the film could have been stopped under Defence Regulation 39B, which made it an offence "to endeavour, whether orally or otherwise, to influence public opinion (whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere) in a manner likely to be prejudicial to the defence of the realm or the efficient prosecution of the War" [72]. The wording of this Regulation is very vague, and it is hard to see how it could have been applied in the case of Colonel Blimp. Given that the film shows how the modern British Army is no longer led by the 'Blimps', who have all been pensioned off into the Home Guard anyway, it could hardly be judged "prejudicial to the defence of the realm or the efficient prosecution of the War". Indeed, the film itself urges a more single-minded commitment to the winning of the war, through the character of Spud Wilson. Moreover, even if it had been possible to apply Defence Regulation 39B, then surely the finished film would have to be viewed in order to make a judgement about it. It would therefore have been very difficult, if not impossible, for the Government to have stopped the film at the production stage. This was in fact realised by the War Cabinet, which decided on 21 September 1942 that the film should be seen by officials at the rough-cut stage, and if they thought it "undesirable" then the film would be "withdrawn" through a "friendly agreement" with J. Arthur Rank [73]. Quite what this "friendly agreement" would entail never became known, for when the officials saw the finished film they raised no objection to it.

It was therefore outside the MOI's authority to suppress the film; it is also evident that the Minister concerned did not have the will to do so. This is evidenced by Bracken's refusal to adopt the "special authority" offered to him by Churchill. Bracken's position is made clear in his tactful memorandum to Churchill of 15 September 1942:

I am advised that in order to stop it the Government would need to assume powers of a very far-reaching kind. These could hardly be less than powers to suppress all films, even those based on imaginary stories, on grounds not of their revealing information to the enemy but of their expressing harmful or misguided opinions. Moreover it would be illogical for the Government to insist on a degree of control over films which it does not exercise over other means of expression, such as books or newspaper articles. Nothing less, therefore, than the imposition of a compulsory censorship of opinion upon all means of expression would meet the case, and I am certain that this could not be done without provoking infinite protest. [74]

Herein lies the crux of Bracken's dilemma: the film could only have been suppressed by adopting more extensive powers than the MOI already had, but that would involve such a massive increase in the state's censorship apparatus that it would be akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. Moreover, to adopt the necessary powers would have been highly controversial and politically inadvisable, a fact that Bracken seems to have appreciated rather more than Churchill did. Britain was, after all, a democracy, and much of the MOI's propaganda contrasted this with the totalitarian Nazi regime. But "the imposition of a compulsory censorship of opinion upon all means of expression" would have made the British Government appear just as repressive as the enemy it was fighting. To suppress all dissenting voices - and Colonel Blimp was after all only one such example - would have smacked of Fascism and would have been a negation of all the MOI's propaganda about what the war was being fought for in the first place. After all, Bracken had done much to correct the initially negative reaction of the press to the MOI, which had been dubbed the 'Ministry of Disinformation' by critics early in the war. The concern which he voiced about the Colonel Blimp affair is that of a man afraid that all the good work he had done in building up confidence in the MOI might be shattered by the Prime Minister's heavy-handed intervention. In this sense Pronay and Croft are correct in their description of Churchill as "acting intuitively, and more in his former capacity as a subaltern in the 4th Hussars and as a brigadier on the Western Front in 1917 than as the Prime Minister in 1942" [75].

The Minister of Information did not wish to adopt the extensive extra powers that would have been necessary to stop the production of Colonel Blimp. Given this, all that he and the War Office could do was to withhold facilities for its production, but this did not hinder the filmmakers in any serious way. In order to understand how the film came to be made despite the official obstruction, the historian has to rely (with all due caution) on Powell's accounts of the film's production. In the 1978 interview with David Badder, Powell stated that "everything we had on the screen in the form of khaki uniforms and trucks is stolen. We could have been shot for it, I suppose, but nobody minded about a little thing like that then!" [76]. In his memoirs, he added more details:

I have often been asked how we managed to obtain military vehicles, military uniforms, weapons and all the fixings after being refused help by the War Office and the Ministry of Information. The answer is quite simple: we stole them. Any prop man worth his salt - and we had one of the best - would laugh at the question. There may have been one or two forged passes too. Who knows? It was all part of the war effort. The Archers were famous now, and we had friends in all sorts of quarters, high and low. We didn't sneak around the by-streets with our Army trucks either, but came careering into London, down Western Avenue, through and round Marble Arch to Berkeley Square. Our commandos jumped out of their trucks and ran into the Royal Bathers' Club, watched benevolently by a single policeman. The Royal Bathers' Club was the name I had given to Blimp's own club. We should have made James Grigg a member. [77]

Under wartime conditions, as film historian Charles Barr has shown, film producers had to "indent in triplicate" for any materials they needed which were subject to rationing [78]. Colonel Blimp was a picture made on an epic scale, and required much in the way of props, costumes and set-dressings. Such items as military uniforms and prop dries would presumably have been available at Denham Studios anyway from other films: the British Film Producers Association had agreed to a system whereby rationed materials would be re-used wherever possible. The most difficult things for Powell to acquire would probably have been the army vehicles and the necessary petrol coupons, but even so he got them. It must be borne in mind that The Archers had all the financial muscle of J. Arthur Rank behind them - Colonel Blimp had, by British standards, the relatively large budget of £208,000 - and so money was not a significant problem. [79]

One question which does arise from the production of the film concerns the allocation of Technicolor film stock. Film stock was subject to rationing during the war, and as Technicolor stock was not produced in Britain then it must have been imported from the United States. Pronay and Croft imply that the allocation of Technicolor stock was a sign of the MOI's secret approval: if the MOI had really objected to the film, then the stock would have been denied. This is not necessarily the case. In the first instance, the control of film stock was a matter not for the MOI, but for the Board of Trade, which had to grant a licence for any stock imported from abroad. It did not follow automatically that the Board would refuse film stock for projects opposed by the MOI. Pronay and Croft themselves quote PRO documents, in a footnote, which show that when the Board of Trade was asked by the MOI that it "would not give a licence in cases where the Ministry objected to their so doing", the Board would reply only that it would "pay due regard to the advice [sic] of the Ministry of Information" [80].

There are two other possible explanations as to how the necessary stock allocation came to be made, though both are a matter of speculation. On the one hand, if the licence had not been granted, the incident might have been leaked to the press, which would have been politically embarrassing for Bracken. On the other hand, it may simply be that the stock allocation was made before the controversy surrounding the film started. Powell's memoirs state that the decision to make The Archers' next film in Technicolor was taken early in 1942, when the MOI was pleased with One of Our Aircraft is Missing [81]. The application for Technicolor stock would have to be made some considerable time before the film started production, and so it may be that the necessary licence had been granted by the Board of Trade before Grigg and Churchill knew of the film and raised their objections to it. Then, the Technicolor stock allocation could only have been revoked through a politically embarrassing volte face, which was the last thing that Bracken and the MOI wanted, and hence Colonel Blimp was made in Technicolor.

It has been suggested that the film was cut for its general release due to pressure from the Government. In 1978, for example, Powell said:

I don't know whether Blimp was ever shown in its complete version. ... More or less right away, the Rank people, they loved the picture but decided it was too long for commercial release in wartime and asked us to cut it. I've got a feeling that all the opening scenes with the young soldier bursting into the Turkish bath were lopped and the film made into a straightforward narrative story instead of being mostly in flashback. That may have been partly because of opposition from Churchill and the War Office, because it is a much less abrasive story. [82]

This view is supported by Ian Christie, who writes: "In retrospect, it seems likely that Churchill's hostility helped to bring about the drastic cutting which Powell and Pressburger's epic suffered" [83]. However, there is again no evidence to support this view. Indeed, Powell's statement that the film was cut "more or less right away" once again illustrates the fallibility of personal memoirs. When the film was released for its first run it was shown at its full length anyway - the credits in the Monthly Film Bulletin state its running time at 163 minutes [84] - and many of the press reviews were to comment on its extraordinary length. Furthermore, there is evidence from people who saw the film at the time that it was shown in its original narrative form. One of the respondents to a Mass-Observation questionnaire in 1943, for example, commented on "the flash-back technique" [85]. What seems most likely is that the film was cut for its subsequent re-issues, but there was nothing unusual about this practice.

Colonel Blimp and the Critics
What kind of critical reception greeted The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp when it was released in Britain in 1943? Of all the historians to have discussed the film, only Anthony Aldgate has considered its critical reception at all, albeit in a single footnote [86]. It is necessary to consider contemporary reviews of the film in order to assess how its propaganda content was perceived at the time.

As a large-scale, prestigious Technicolor production, Colonel Blimp understandably attracted a lot of attention and created much expectation even before it was released. On 19 December 1942, for example, the photo-journal Picture Post had Deborah Kerr on its cover, in costume from the film, and carried an article by Robert Graves entitled 'Cartoonist's Joke Becomes a Film Hero' which used stills from the film and reproductions of some of Low's cartoons to accompany a humorous sketch about how "Blimpery is an age-old feature of our history" [87]. And in April 1943, still two months before the film's release, the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly had an article on the film which suggested that it was keenly awaited because of its controversial theme:

Above all, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp dares to be provocative - it is perhaps the first such film of the war - in its handling of the complex British character and its attitude towards war. The film's vital theme that we must forget chivalry and sportsmanship to fight the enemy successfully and its dedication to the new aggressive spirit of the Allied Armies is a challenge to those among the democratic peoples who are only just awakening to the meaning of total war. [88]

The film was shown to the trade on 8 June 1943, and two weeks later a double-page advertisement in Kinematograph Weekly declared boldly that "Colonel Blimp gets the Greatest Praise ever given to a British Picture" [89]. The reviews quoted in the advertisement all heap superlatives upon the film: "The most brilliantly satisfying entertainment" (The Cinema); "a great entertainment and one of the outstanding British films" (Daily Film Renter); "a magnificent piece of film-making" (Ernest Betts, Daily Express); and "the best entertainment yet from British studios" (Richard Winnington, News Chronicle). However, the advertisement quotes only the most favourable extracts from them - hardly surprising given that its intention was to sell the film to cinema exhibitors.

In fact, Colonel Blimp met with something of a mixed reception from the critics. There were two main criticisms: (first) that it was too long; and (second), that its message was not entirely clear. But the critics also appreciated that it was on the whole a well-made and entertaining film, that its technical standards were very high, and that it was well acted. For example, the doyenne of contemporary British film journalism, Miss C. A. Lejeune of the Observer, wrote:

'Blimp's' worst fault - apart from its title and its length, which is two-and-three-quarter hours and quite absurd - is an unclarity of purpose. It is a handsome piece. It is frequently a moving piece. But what is it about? [90]

William Whitebait, film critic of the New Statesman, seemed to appreciate the film rather than actually enjoy it, writing:

Why three hours of it? Why in Technicolor? Why this and that? One has more than enough time for doubts, and for long stretches the slowness of this piece is not concealed by surface liveliness. [91]

Whitebait clearly found the film boring, also mentioning "some flagging in the middle years", though he concluded that it was "an intelligent, warm, spectacular and well-intentioned film". The Monthly Film Bulletin, the film review journal published by the British Film Institute, was rather more favourable, though its praise was qualified: Its message may be obscure, but its emotional appeal is high ... The colour is admirable; the script, and its delivery by the actors, brilliant; and the English atmosphere of understatement well maintained throughout. Each individual part is carefully built up and the film as a whole (if a trifle unsatisfying in retrospect) repays the evident care which has been lavished upon it. [92]

The general critical reaction is best summed up by the Evening Standard: "This is not a great picture, but it is exceptionally good entertainment" [93]. The mixed reception accorded the film is understandable given the context of contemporary British film journalism, which was dominated by the realist discourse and which preferred documentaries and films made in the documentary style [94]. A lavish, Technicolor epic such as Colonel Blimp, with its elements of fantasy and pageantry, would never fit easily into a critical tradition which preferred the sober realism of films like In Which We Serve, Fires Were Started, Millions Like Us and San Demetrio - London - which were all on general release in 1943.

One must also examine how the 'Blimp' character of the film was seen by critics in relation to the original of Low's cartoons. There was a general critical consensus that the characterisation had been softened considerably, with the reactionary lunatic of the cartoons becoming the loveable buffoon of the film. There was some disquiet on the left that the cutting edge of Low's satire had been blunted due to this. An article in the New Statesman lamented:

O Low! O Low! What induced you to offer up your character to be made unrecognisable under a thick coating of technicolor sugar, to be laughed at, loved and made piteous as just a dear sentimental doddering old fool? [95]

However, the reaction further to the centre and right of the political spectrum was more positive. A. J. Cummings of the liberal News Chronicle, for instance, wrote: "For my part I fell in love with Blimp - a witty and quite sensible soldier, who would lose a war with dignity and might win it with a little luck" [96]. And even the leading newspaper of the establishment, The Times, found much to like in the character. Approaching its review, as it often did, from a somewhat oblique angle, The Times said:

The title of this very long, serious and most intelligent film is ludicrously misleading. Colonel Blimp is identified in the public mind with the comic figure of Low's exuberant, fancy and satiric pencil, but here is nothing of caricature and little of that exaggeration natural in the cinema. Low's choleric creation in a bath towel has certainly many acquaintances among the Brass Hats, but it is the toppers of the City and Westminster with which he is most intimate. He represents, indeed, less an archaic attitude towards a changing nature of war than a reactionary stubbornness in the face of political and economic problems; the film leaves politics alone and concentrates on drawing a series of full-length academic portraits in colour of an officer and a gentleman over the 43 years of the present century.

There is the man, say Messrs Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in effect - take him or leave him - and the discriminating audience will take him. [97]

The comments on the film which follow are fairly representative of the press as a whole: the reviewer goes on to praise its "literary quality" and describes it as "a film which triumphs through its sheer intelligence", but also criticises its "muddled message" and remarks upon "the puzzling lack of purpose from which the film as a whole would seem to suffer".

Perhaps the most interesting review came from the film journal Documentary News Letter, organ of the progressive left-wing documentary movement, which elected Colonel Blimp as its 'Film of the Month' in September 1943. That is not to say that the review was particularly favourable, however. In line with the general critical consensus, it considered the film to be of "inordinate length" and that it tried to impress through "mere size, rather than symmetry or grace." However:

the interesting thing about Blimp is not so much the film as its philosophy of life, and the propagandist slant which it puts forward.

Having agreed therefore that it is too long, has the best acting and the worst colour seen for a very long time, and one sequence (the duel) which is real movie, let us pass to a consideration of what factors have contributed to the sublime un-Englishness of the whole affair. [98]

The journal considered that the film's depiction of England was a false one. On the one hand, "the Blimp of this film is the Englishman that a certain type of emigre would like to think exists" but does not exist in reality; while on the other hand, "not one single ordinary person, such as you may meet in the street or a bus in England, has anything more than a walking-on part in the entire film". The film therefore presented an unrealistic, romanticised and essentially upper-class picture of England. Furthermore, the journal believed that the central character in the film was so far removed from Low's original creation that it had significant implications upon the film's meaning:

there is something highly disturbing in the very sincerity with which our pseudo-British gent is presented. Not only is he not Low's Blimp; he is the very reverse - an apologia for the upper-class specialists who misguided this country into the mud of Munich and the disasters of 1939-40.

The review is interesting in that it shows how a film with a propagandist intention could be read against the grain depending on the political and ideological position of the critic. Low's 'Colonel Blimp' had pointed an accusing finger at the Chamberlain appeasers of the 1930s, some of whom, still in power, were perceived as 'Blimps' themselves. But Documentary News Letter thought that the film actually defended 'Blimp' and his breed, and did its best "to reassure the reactionaries by making it clearer that they are, as they themselves so often suspected, the salt of the earth". Of course, that had not been Powell and Pressburger's intention at all, for they had set out to show "that Colonel Blimp was a symbol of British procrastination and British regard for tradition and all the things which we knew and which were losing the war" [99].

If Documentary News Letter had misgivings about the film's propagandist message, there were those on the right who were even more critical, though for rather different reasons. The Daily Mail disapproved so strongly of the film's representation of army officers that it carried a front-page article by G. Ward Price under the headline 'Blimp Film Must NOT Go Abroad':

To depict British officers as stupid, complacent, self-satisfied and ridiculous may be legitimate comedy in peace-times, but it is disastrously bad propaganda in times of war ... In such times as these, when the respect and confidence of other countries are of vital importance to us, we cannot afford to put out a burlesque figure like this Colonel Blimp to go around the world as a personification of those British officers who gave and are still giving such good service to their country. [100]

By far the most hostile reaction to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, however, came not from a newspaper or a film journal, but from the right-wing sociologists E. W. and M. M. Robson, who made a vitriolic attack on the film in a pamphlet entitled The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp (1944). The Robsons were members of the Sydneyan Society, whose self-proclaimed purpose was "to help enlighten public opinion on the effect of film, radio and television on the minds of nations" [101]. The Robsons termed Colonel Blimp "the most disgraceful production that has ever emanated from a British film studio" [102]. Their main objection: Colonel Blimp was "a vivid example of how the living, breathing germs of World War Three are being carefully hatched" [103]. The Robsons believed that the Germans were basically an aggressive race who were bent on conquering the world, and that even in defeat they would plan their next attempt. They thought the film too sympathetic to the German point-of-view:

The final effect of this film is to present us to the world as mild, foolish softies and the Germans as the hard done by victims of superior caste. This film might well be the first step towards a national preparation for this country to become an aggressed upon nation for the third time. [104]

They particularly disliked the characterisation of Theo: he was supposed to be a 'good' German, but for the Robsons there was no such thing. Yet The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp was more than just an expression of xenophobia: it actually displayed some of the ingrained attitudes and assumptions that the film had set out to challenge. For example, in their description of Spud Wilson's actions at the start of the film, the Robsons exhibit the same inability as Clive Candy to understand the point:

Although we are given to understand that "The war (i.e. the manoeuvres) starts at midnight", some whipper-snapper of an officer takes it into his head to disobey the order, by starting the "war" on his own six hours earlier than the scheduled time. It all seems to take place on the spur of the moment. Since the directive accompanying the order says "Make it like the real thing," this bright young spark of a Second Lieutenant thinks, as the Japanese thought (but were mistaken), that he can win by fighting the Jap way and thinking the Jap way. "All right," says he, with boisterous neuroticism, "we'll make it like the real thing - Pearl Harbour". We are then asked to assume that British soldiers, knowing that their Subaltern was disobeying orders, would follow this cock-eyed officer into an adventure of his own creation. He will personally set the whole idea of the exercise at nought by capturing the Commander-in-Chief in his Turkish bath ... If we can assume that a Second Lieut. can chip off a piece of the British Army to do with just as he jolly well pleases, irrespective of the wider plan thought out by his superiors for the purpose of testing out the Army at every joint; if we can assume all this, we can swallow everything that follows [105] .

With its failure to comprehend the reason for the young officer's actions, its condemnation of his tactics, its disavowal of initiative and its implicit assumption that fair play in warfare is still the right course, this passage could almost have been penned by Clive Candy himself. It displays those same stubborn and blinkered attitudes that Powell and Pressburger had set out to expose, and thus suggests that Colonel Blimp was still very much alive and well in certain parts of British society.

Colonel Blimp's Audiences
If The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp met with a mixed reception from British critics, it was a big success at the box-office and seems to have been popular with cinema audiences. The most reliable guides to British box-office returns are the estimated annual surveys made by R. H. 'Josh' Billings for Kinematograph Weekly. His list for 1943 has the Hollywood melodrama Random Harvest in first place; the most successful British film, in second place overall, was Noel Coward's In Which We Serve. Colonel Blimp came in fourth overall, behind Casablanca in third place, and was therefore the second most successful British film of the year. Billings named the film as the most popular at the box-office during the month of July, writing: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was well ahead of its rivals, and, by reason of its provocative and persuasive subject matter, unique footage and superb Technicolor photography, made British screen history" [106]. It seems that the controversy around the film helped its box-office performance considerably, while the film's success in turn created pressure for the Government's export ban to be lifted. According to a telegram from Hodge of the Air Ministry to Sendall of the MOI, they had been told by Rank that "it has broken all previous box-office records for the Odeon circuit of cinemas. In view of this, it is becoming practically impossible to maintain our illegal ban" [107]. There is very little evidence to suggest any significant regional variations in the box-office success of the film. Julian Poole's study of the Majestic Cinema in Macclesfield, near Manchester, shows that it was the fourteenth most successful film of 1943, with 10,366 paid admissions to see it; although this was down on the film's position nationally according to Billings, it still represented a big success for the Majestic, if not actually a record [108].

That Colonel Blimp was successful at the box-office is not in doubt. What is a largely unknown factor, however, is the reaction of audiences to the film. Did they like it? Did they see it as entertainment or as propaganda? It is possible to make some general observations. The most useful source is a comprehensive survey of film preferences undertaken by the social survey organisation Mass-Observation in November 1943. 220 people across the country responded to the question: 'What films have you liked best during the past year? Please list six films in order of liking and give your reasons for liking them' [109]. Some caution has to be exercised in using this source, for the respondents to the survey included a higher proportion of middle-class cinema-goers than the population as a whole, but it is still the most valuable extant source for analysing audience tastes and preferences. By far the two most popular films among the respondents were In Which We Serve (which 54 people named as one of their favourites) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (which was named by 49 respondents). The fact that these two films were the most popular is significant, for they shared some common characteristics: both were British, both concerned the war, and both portrayed elements of the British class system.

It is instructive to examine the opinions on the film given by those respondents who named Colonel Blimp as one of their favourites. In general, it was seen as an example of quality entertainment, albeit entertainment with a serious theme. It was praised for its high technical standards and the quality of its acting; several people remarked favourably upon the use of colour. The following remarks are typical:

Colonel Blimp: I liked it because it attempted to depict a character against a background of recent English history. It was amusing yet the motif was serious and thoughtful. It was a cartoon of thirty years of recent life. [110]

At last a British film that's able to compete with Hollywood efficiency and technical competence. Pleanty of pleasantly subtle touches and a quite intelligent story and all so expertly done that I should like to see it again. [111]

I consider this the best film that I have ever seen. I especially liked its modern sequences with the speed of modern life compared to the slower, older sequences. The flash-back technique also appealed to me. [112]

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, because it provided a diversionary glimpse of an English character that has its faults better known than its virtues, and which provides good, sensible entertainment. [113]

I like a film that is long and this is the longest film I have seen for some time. I thought the technicolour excellent. The story and characters portrayed [were] most true to life. [114]

Col. Blimp for its splendid characterisation and its almost perfect Technicolour putting American colour to shame. [115]

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was a grand film, interesting on account of the period of time it covered. Films of the immediate past are always attractive to me, probably because they bring back memories. This film also seemed to be well-produced. The story was easy to believe in, though there were many unexpected 'twists' in it. [116]

Col. Blimp impressed me greatly - perhaps the best I have ever seen - technically, for its movement, its Englishness and its colour. [117]

In this admittedly small sample, the film was very well-liked by both men and women, and by people of different ages and social backgrounds. There were a few respondents who were less enthusiastic. One woman, for example, naming it as one of her favourite films, had certain reservations about the way in which the story was told:

I am not fond of technicolour films, though I must admit that the colour of Colonel Blimp was the most pleasing of any I have yet seen. The presentation of the story was unnecessarily involved. There was no need to have the Home Guard scenes both at the beginning and the end of the picture. The three periods were uneven in merit - I much preferred the German scenes pre-1914. The girl in the Berlin scenes was exquisite - not so good as Mrs Blimp. Again there was no 'oomph' or 'it'. [118]

One respondent explained why he did not rank the film as one of his favourites, considering it "good in parts but not good as a film and very bad as the story of Blimp" [119].

The Mass-Observation survey also illustrates how popular perceptions of the film could differ from the opinions of the critics. Significantly, given Documentary News Letter's view that it gave an unrealistic picture of England and English characters, a number of respondents commented on how believable they thought the film:

Well acted, it gives a good view of an English character. Unfortunately this character is often misunderstood. [120]

This again appealed to me as being very true to life; and like Dangerous Moonlight, it was an attempt to understand a problem or, rather, a character. [121]

Other respondents made similar remarks: one woman said it was "about life as we know it" [122], and one man said that the "characters seem real" [123]. Mass-Observation respondents proved closer to box-office figures than most critics. Finally, a couple of respondents mentioned the word 'propaganda':

Colonel Blimp. I liked this film because its propaganda was subtle and good, because the Edwardian scenes, in Germany, particularly the duel, were delightful and showed a pleasant touch of humour, and because of the splendid character acting of Livesey and Walbrook. [124]

Very good, true picture of the official English attitude towards the various problems of this war: e.g. the old-young generation of soldiers; the attitude of non-hatred; ... [and] propaganda that doesn't clash with reality too much. [125]

But even those respondents who recognised the propaganda content of the film seem to have thought it not too intrusive. The fact that other respondents did not mention the propaganda element does not necessarily mean that they did recognise it, of course, simply that they regarded the film first and foremost as a piece of quality entertainment. And it is in those terms - as high-quality entertainment - that Colonel Blimp seems to have been viewed by British cinema audiences in 1943.

Colonel Blimp in America
The release and reception of Colonel Blimp in the United States is an interesting epilogue to the history of the film. Given that the film was intended, at least in part, for American audiences, its American reception is highly relevant. It is also useful to examine the reaction of the American critics to such an 'English' film at a time when some British films were having an impact in America.

The first reviews of the film in the American trade press appeared before the film had even made the journey across the Atlantic. Variety's London correspondent reviewed the film immediately after its trade showing on 8 June 1943, though the review did not appear for two weeks. It followed the trend of the British critics in appreciating the film's quality but expressing reservations about its extreme length:

Here is an excellent film whose basic story could have been told within the normal feature limits, but which, instead, is extended close to three hours. Longer or shorter, this panorama of British army life is depicted with a technical skill and artistry that marks it as one of the really fine pix to come out of a British studio.

This is the longest picture ever made in England. It was carefully and intelligently written, directed and produced, and should rank as an important feature in America. [126]

The Motion Picture Herald reported that the film was being held up for export: "This film was refused an export licence last week by the British Government. It cannot, therefore, be released in the United States at this time" [127]. Its reviewer recognised that the film was a major prestige production, but like the British critics detected a certain obscurity in its message:

Made at a considerable budget, in Technicolor, presented with a flourish of trumpets and some rolling on the kettledrum, this is ostensibly one of the major British films of the War, aiming, maybe, to be the British Film of the War. It is a magnificent production, scrupulously made, consistently human, spectacular and discursive - but withal somewhat obscure in its ideas.

Noting that the film "idealized" both its 'Blimp' figure and his German friend, the Motion Picture Herald opined that it presented "an odd entertainment pattern to the wartime British and American publics", but concluded that it was "a prestige achievement and will arrest [sic] considerable public attention. Properly put over it should, in the appropriate locations, net considerable money."

Despite the generally favourable reactions of the American trade press at the film's British release, it took two years for the film to cross the Atlantic. It was not released in the United States until March 1945, barely a month before the end of the war in Europe. Thus, even after the export ban on the film had been lifted, it sat on the shelves for eighteen months before it was picked up for American distribution. What might have been an important message in 1943, when the United States was in the process of sending troops to Britain, had become far less urgent two years later, by which time the war against Germany was nearly over. From this perspective, the film's American release was simply too late to fulfil its aim. The substantial delay in its American release suggests that American distributors did not have faith in the film's box-office potential. In order to place the American reception of Colonel Blimp in context, it should be noted that it came at a time when a number of British films had achieved considerable success in the United States. For example, Henry V (Two Cities/Rank, 1944; dir. Laurence Olivier) had received both critical acclaim and box-office success. Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel - retitled The Invaders in America - had won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and one of their later productions, the ballet film The Red Shoes (1948), was to take in $5 million at the US box-office [128]. However, the case of Colonel Blimp (the abbreviated title used by the American distributors) was somewhat different.

The initial critical reaction to Colonel Blimp in the United States was mixed, rather as it had been in Britain. The film premiered at the Gotham Cinema in New York on 29 March 1945 [129]. Interestingly, the version of the film first shown in America was neither the 163-minute original British version (as recorded by the Monthly Film Bulletin) nor the shortened 120-minute British re-release version, but a 148-minute version that appears to have been prepared specifically for American release [130]. Thomas M. Prior, who reviewed the film for the New York Times, described it as "impressive, if not always consistent, entertainment". He seemed to think it was better in parts than in the whole: it had "several distinguished individual scenes which will long remain in fond memory", but the story "bogs down for considerable stretches". He concluded that its quintessential Britishness was its most attractive quality: "'Colonel Blimp' is as unmistakably a British product as Yorkshire pudding and, like the latter, it has a delectable savor all its own" [131]. James Agee, the film critic of The Nation, also had mixed feelings about the film because it changed the cartoon 'Blimp' into a softer character:

In the English-made Colonel Blimp, David Low's lovingly malicious archetype - and by every implication every Tory - has been relieved of all selfish motives for his actions and of nearly all dangerousness or even obstructiveness in those actions. This is annoying, and worse; but at the same time the movie's characterization of an innocent, brave, honourable, and stupid man is, within its own limits, so persuasive and so endearing, and so rare to movies, that I am at least as grateful as I am annoyed. If Low's and the movie character were blended, Blimp would be a great tragi-comic figure. Lacking that, I wish some publisher would get out a twenty-five-cent volume of the cartoons, to brace and extend the picture among the many people who otherwise will get their only idea of Blimp through the gentlest kind of Technicolor. There is nothing brilliant about the picture, but it is perceptive, witty and sweet-tempered. [132]

A similar point was made by Manny Farber in The New Republic:

Colonel Blimp is a gentle character study of an English army man named Clive Candy that is based on David Low's much less optimistic cartoons and much less admirable cartoon character. In the cartoons Blimp personifies all that is wrong with the English Tory; as Candy in the movie he can hardly make a mistake, and actions he is criticized for - such as wanting to fight the Nazi as a gentleman - are readily understood by him and corrected, causing no trouble. [133]

The opinions of these two influential American film critics ran along similar lines to those of British journals such as the New Statesman, in regretting that the film had softened the 'Blimp' of Low's cartoons.

The American trade press tended to praise the quality of the film, but expressed reservations about the extent of it potential audience appeal. Film Daily, for example, declared:

Top-ranking British Picture in Magnificent Technicolor Designed Principally for Class Audiences.

Insofar as the United States is concerned, Colonel Blimp will have its principal appeal in the larger theaters catering to class audiences.

Its success in so-called sub-subsequent runs is dubious, despite the fact that the picture has been produced on a lavish scale, is flawless technically and has drama, comedy and suspense. It may be regarded by some as being "too British" in dialogue, but there again the reaction depends on the type of audience which sees it. As a whole, however, the picture proves anew that Britain can produce films on a quality par with Hollywood. [134]

Colonel Blimp was regarded by the trade as too parochially 'British' to be a winner with the general American cinema-going public, but as a piece of quality cinema it might appeal to "class audiences" who were more likely to appreciate it.

Despite the favourable comments of some American critics, Colonel Blimp performed very badly indeed at the American box-office, taking only $305,943 [135]. Why was it so unsuccessful in the American market? One explanation was offered by Richard Griffith in an article for the British Film Institute's quarterly journal Sight and Sound in January 1950. Discussing the release of British films in the American market, Griffith laid the poor performance of Colonel Blimp at the door of its American distributors, United Artists, who made severe cuts:

Colonel Blimp was an unmitigated disaster. Too long for the ordinary double-feature program, it was drastically cut by United Artists, thus alienating the intelligentsia who were eager to see it because of the warm critical praise given the original version. In aiming at the mass market, United Artists had lost the only audience the film could possibly have pleased ... I much doubt that Blimp achieved a thousand bookings here. [136]

Given that Griffith estimated the film would need "at least seven thousand bookings" to recover its distribution costs, then the performance of Colonel Blimp was indeed an "unmitigated disaster". United Artists seem to have aimed the film at the wrong type of audience, while denying "class audiences" the opportunity to see it at its full length. Furthermore, the promotional policy adopted by United Artists to sell the film to exhibitors was inappropriate. They tried to sell it as a bawdy romance. The advertising line on the posters for the film read: "The lusty lifetime of a Gentleman who was sometimes Quite a Rogue! Duelling - hunting big game - and pretty girls - life's a grand adventure with Colonel Blimp!" [137]. Powell wrote in his memoirs that "we didn't feel that United Artists understood the film", and in particular he objected to an idea by Arthur Kelly of United Artists for the film's promotional strategy:

Esquire magazine, labelled ostentatiously as "the magazine for men", had invented a cartoon figure of a lecherous little man who peeped through keyholes and up girls' skirts and dressed as a man-about-town, in their pre-war issues, and was now in uniform for the duration. This character shared some of Colonel Blimp's physical appearance: he had a heavy moustache and rolling eyes, but his sole reason for existing was to chase girls and make lecherous innuendoes, all of which were as popular as could be expected.

Arthur had hit on the idea of using this well-known image to popularize our own Colonel Blimp, quite missing the point of David Low's immortal character. He was extremely hurt when we criticised his brainchild. [138]

United Artists emphasised the romantic interest of the film, with Deborah Kerr being promoted more than the two male stars. This was probably a reaction to the fact that most of the critics had praised Miss Kerr's performance and commented upon her beauty: the New York Times, for example, had described her as "a lovely and talented actress" [139]. However, this promotional policy did little for Miss Kerr's refined 'English Rose' beauty, far removed from the steamy sexuality of such Hollywood stars as Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner or Jane Russell. For example, writing in the magazine Rob Wagner's Script in November 1945, the critic Herb Sterne was critical not only of the promotional strategy used to sell the film, but even more so of the cutting which it had suffered at the hands of both the distributors and the Hays Office:

Colonel Blimp, whether it retains the original British prefix of The Life and Death of _____, or masquerades under the American box-office enticer of The Loves and Adventures of _____, is a distinguished endeavour. It is possible to overlook the raffish advertising vouchsafed the film in these bucolic parts. But it is impossible to forgive our native censorship pundits the dialogue deletions demanded, and the US releasing organization, United Artists, for the sixty minutes of footage sheared from the original prior to its showing this side of the Atlantic. However, despite the mutilative measures visited upon the work, it retains sufficient value to intrigue patrons of eclectic leanings. [140]

One consequence of United Artists' handling of the film, however, was that the company found themselves in court when Rank complained to the Federal Trade Commission about the way in which they had distributed it. According to The Times of 14 June 1947:

The Federal Trade Commission has accused Mr Charlie Chaplin, Miss Mary Pickford, and their associates in United Artists Incorporated of misleading motion picture exhibitors and the general public by failing to reveal to them in its advertisements of the British film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that the film had been materially revised, its length being cut from 14,700 ft to about 8,400 ft.

In its complaint the Commission said that this cutting was done after the respondents had put an original full-length picture "through the usual publicity routine". After the cut was made, substantially and materially changing the film and the story it carried, the respondents, the Commission said, continued to advertise and distribute the picture without any announcement of the change and continued to use in advertisements the laudatory comments which were contained in reviews of the complete and original production. [141]

In the long court proceedings which followed, United Artists' chief witness, Harold Arlen, was contemptuous of Colonel Blimp: he said that it had not recouped its distribution costs, and suggested that the company's cutting had actually improved the film, which, like other British pictures, "contained too much padding and too much tea drinking" [142]. The incident did nothing to help relations between Rank and United Artists, which had been deteriorating steadily for some time. Indeed, at the end of 1946, Rank had ended his arrangement with United Artists and turned instead to Universal-International to release his films in the United States.

What conclusions can be drawn from this reconsideration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? In the first place, the failure of the British Government's attempt to suppress Colonel Blimp illustrates some of the limitations that existed in the British system of censorship. Whether or not the film could have been suppressed is a controversial question: did the War Cabinet have the power to stop the film, or did it have the power to stop it but elected not to do so? The answer is no longer in doubt: the Government did not have the authority to suppress the film under the Defence Regulations as they existed: this much was stated at the time by both Brendan Bracken and Sir James Grigg. If the film was to have been suppressed, it would have necessitated the adoption of additional powers of censorship - the "special authority" that Churchill offered Bracken - not available under normal circumstances. The War Cabinet could have changed the Defence Regulations, of course, to enable them to stop the film, but this did not happen. That it did not happen, and therefore the reason why the film was not suppressed, was due to Bracken, who resisted Churchill's offer of additional powers. This was not because he had engineered some Machiavellian scheme behind the film, but because he feared the possible political consequences of taking such drastic and heavy-handed action. The last thing that Bracken, as Minister of Information, wanted was "the imposition of a compulsory censorship of opinion upon all means of expression", the very opposite of the image of a democratic Britain that the MOI wanted to project both at home and abroad. Bracken realised that the exercise of censorship in a democracy was subject to certain political considerations which would have made it very unwise to proceed in the manner which Churchill advocated. Therefore, while it may have been theoretically possible to adopt the powers necessary to suppress the film, it would have been politically maladroit. Bracken realised this; Churchill did not.

A second conclusion concerns the propaganda content of the film. Colonel Blimp was intended by Powell and Pressburger to put across a serious theme - that more urgency and less complacency was required in the war effort - while at the same time being a piece of high-quality entertainment. In this respect, the film fulfilled one of the MOI's own dicta, laid down in the Programme for Film Propaganda of January 1940, which stated: "The film being a popular medium must be good entertainment if it is to be good propaganda" [143]. The reception of the film, both by critics and audiences, suggests that they found it entertaining, and therefore in those terms it was a success. However, the remarks made by critics about the film's unclear message suggest that its precise propagandist intentions were not easily discerned. Did the film attack 'Colonel Blimp', or defend him? The critics were undecided. Furthermore, the way in which critics from different sides of the political spectrum reacted to the film shows that 'reading' the narrative and the propagandist message which it contained remains a subjective process closely connected to the ideological perspective of the viewer. The propaganda content of Colonel Blimp cannot therefore be reduced simply to what Powell and Pressburger intended it to be.

Finally, there is one unanswered question about the whole Colonel Blimp affair: why did Churchill object so strongly to the film? His personal opinions about the film are not recorded, and given the present unavailability of the Churchill Papers, the matter remains one for speculation. In his book Images for Battle: British Film and the Second World War, 1939-1945 (1989), Clive Coultass suggests that the film's opponents were put off by its message. He writes: "No doubt it was difficult for some of those who disliked Colonel Blimp to face up to the implications of a new concept of warfare, the acceptability of Pearl Harbour methods, and a matching of Nazi ruthlessness with equal disregard for old fashioned moral codes" [144]. However, this would scarcely have bothered Churchill, who was constantly urging a total commitment to the war effort and who was not above using questionable methods himself. For example, as First Lord of the Admiralty in April 1940 he had authorised the mining of the Norwegian leads (territorial waters) at a time when Norway was still neutral, and - rather more significantly - he had allowed Bomber Command to follow a policy of indiscriminately bombing German cities. A more convincing explanation for Churchill's hostility is that his idea of propaganda was very different from that of the filmmakers. Churchill believed that the propaganda role of the media should be to provide inspiration and promote national unity, and this was the theme that he followed in his own radio broadcasts. To quote Ian Christie: "The basis of Churchill's propaganda thrust was an idealised concept of 'the people' welded into 'one nation'; united in suffering and defiance; with class divisions, historical allegiances, even regional distinctions blurred in their stand against the 'common enemy'" [145]. Colonel Blimp did not fit into this supposed ideological consensus: it presented a very different picture of Britain, one where a hierarchical class system still existed, where the traditional military elite were shown to be out of touch with modern warfare, and where certain sections of society were still unaware of exactly what was at stake in the war. The latter point is made in the film by Theo: "This is not a gentleman's war. This time you are fighting for your existence against the most devilish idea ever concocted by the human brain - Nazism! And if you lose there won't be a return match next year, perhaps not even for a hundred years!" Churchill himself needed no reminder of this, of course, but the fact that such a critique of the British way in warfare should come from (of all people) a German may have been another reason why he disliked the film. Or it may simply have been that he saw in the film's 'Blimp' character something of himself. Ian Christie quotes the American observer General Raymond Lee who in 1940 detected a certain 'Blimpish' quality about the British Prime Minister: "Churchill's strength and the reason he refuses to give ground anywhere is because he himself is a Blimpish character who has a very high intelligence and knowledge of history on top of it" [146]. Such a comment illustrates the sometimes contradictory conceptions of what makes a 'Blimp': Churchill's stubborness, satirised by David Low in the 1930s, was one of his strengths as a war leader. Moreover, there are certain parallels between Churchill and Clive Candy: like Candy, Churchill had been a serving officer in Kitchener's Sudan campaign of 1898; like Candy, Churchill had been involved in the Boer War (albeit only as a war correspondent); and like Candy, Churchill had served as a brigadier on the Western Front during World War I. But if Churchill did see himself as 'Blimp', then it was a view which he kept to himself for the rest of his days.


I would like to thank Charles Barr for commenting on a paper about Colonel Blimp that I gave as an MA student at the University of East Anglia in 1992; Jeffrey Richards and Tony Aldgate both discussed Blimp with me and kindly allowed the use of film stills belonging to them; David Culbert made helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Correspondence: James Chapman, Department of History, Lancaster University, Bailrigg, Lancaster LA1 4YG, UK. Fax: 44. (0)525-846.102.


[1] I. Christie, The Colonel Blimp File, Sight and Sound, 48 (1978). This reproduces verbatim the contents of P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice] file PREM[ier] 4 14/15 'Colonel Blimp'. All future references to this file are taken from this source, though the PRO file itself was consulted to verify the accuracy of the transcript.

[2] For a detailed account of the production of 49th Parallel, including the MOI's involvement, see A. Aldgate, Why We Fight: 49th Parallel, in: A. Aldgate & J. Richards, Britain Can Take It: The British Cinema in the Second World War (Oxford, 1986), pp. 21-43.

[3] M. Powell, A Life in Movies (London, 1986), p. 399.

[4] D. Badder, Powell and Pressburger: The War Years, Sight and Sound, 48 (1978) p. 10.

[5] B[ritish] F[ilm] I[nstitute] Script Collection S 3034:1942 The Life and Death of Sugar Candy.

[6] D. Low, Low's Autobiography (London, 1956), p. 264.

[7] For an analysis of the 'Blimp' cartoons (and others by the same artist), see L. H. Streicher, David Low and the Sociology of Caricature, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 8 (1965). For a more detailed account of Low's life and works, including the history of 'Colonel Blimp', see C. Seymour-Ure & J. Schoff, David Low (London, 1985).

[8] K. Gough-Yates, Michael Powell: in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger (London, 1970), p. 8.

[9] BFI Script The Life and Death of Sugar Candy op. cit., p. 1.

[10] Low (1956) op. cit., p. 273. [11] Powell (1986) op. cit., p. 406. [12] Gough-Yates (1970) op. cit., p. 8.

[13] Ibid. As the passage is the transcript of an interview and is mostly unpunctuated, the punctuation in this quotation is my own.

[14] Badder, Powell and Pressburger (1978) op. cit., p. 11.

[15] Powell (1986) op. cit., p. 402.

[16] Ibid., p. 403.

[17] Powell (1986) op. cit., p. 406.

[18] "It has long been known that there was official opposition to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. But the precise form of the opposition, and the extent to which it involved the Prime Minister himself, only became evident while I was working in the Public Record Office with Laurence Hayward, researching the role of the Ministry, of Information in wartime film production. We were surprised to discover a special file of correspondence on the film between the War Office, the Prime Minister and the then Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken." Christie, Introduction to 'The Colonel Blimp File', p. 13.

[19] P. Addison, The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War (London, 1975), p. 132. See also Anthony Aldgate's letter to Sight and Sound, 48 (Spring 1979), p. 133. I am grateful to Dr Aldgate for sending me a copy of his letter, in which he points out that Paul Addison had quoted from 'The Colonel Blimp File' some three years before it was 'discovered' by Messrs Christie and Hayward.

[20] I. Christie, ed., Powell and Pressburger: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (London, 1994), pp. 3-41. The quotations from Powell's papers which follow (notes 21-29) are all taken from this source. (As well as publishing extracts from the Powell Papers, Christie also reprints here once again the PRO file on the film, pp. 42-53).

[21] In an undated letter to Wendy Hiller, approaching her to take part in the film, Powell told her in some detail about the planning of the film. He writes: "... we had talks with Lord Hailey, the Adviser to the Colonial Office. Also with Lord Cranbourne, the Dominions Minister; with Vincent Massey; with Brendan Bracken; and with the films division of the MOI. Each discussion took the idea a stage further forward".

[22] Vansittart to Powell, 25 May 1942.

[23] Vincent Massey to Powell, 5 May 1942.

[24] Grigg to Powell, 22 May 1942.

[25] Undated draft letter from Powell to Grigg.

[26] Grigg to Powell, 'June 1942'.

[27] 'The Life and Death of Sugar Candy: Report', by 'R.B.', dated 8 June 1942.

[28] S. G. Gates to Powell, 25 June 1942.

[29] Bracken to Powell, 7 July 1942.

[30] PRO PREM 4 14/15. Grigg to Churchill, 8 September 1942. The quotations from official documents which follow (notes 31-34 and 37-39) are all taken from this source.

[31] Churchill to Bracken, 10 September 1942, Prime Minister's Personal Minute M.357/2.

[32] Bracken to Churchill, 15 September 1942; Churchill to Bracken, 17 September 1942, Prime Minister's Personal Minute M.381/2.

[33] War Cabinet 126 (42), 21 September 1942.

[34] War Cabinet 67 (43), 10 May 1943.

[35] The Times, 11 June 1943.

[36] Powell (1986) op. cit., p 434.

[37] Churchill to Bracken, 11 July 1943, Prime Minister's Personal Minute M.459/3.

[38] Bracken to Churchill, 23 July 1943.

[39] Sendall to Rowan, 21 September 1943.

[40] I. Christie, Blimp, Churchill and the State, in: I. Christie, ed., Powell, Pressburger and Others (London, 1978), p. 111.

[41] A. Aldgate, What a difference a war makes; The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, in: J. Richards & A. Aldgate, Best of British: Cinema and Society 1930-1970 (Oxford, 1983), p. 61f.

[42] Ibid., p. 62.

[43] Ibid., p. 73.

[44] Ibid., p. 71.

[45] N. Pronay & J. Croft, British film censorship and propaganda policy during the Second World War, in: J. Curran & V. Porter, eds, British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 160.

[46] Ibid., p. 156.

[47] Ibid., p. 162. The article from the Evening Standard is reproduced in Christie, Blimp, Churchill and the State, p. 108.

[48] Ibid., p. 160.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Quoted in Pronay & Croft (1983) op. cit., p. 155.

[51] Parliamentary Debates: House of Commons, 5th Series, Vol. 367, pp. 1199-2000.

[52] Quoted in Aldgate, (1986) op. cit., p. 43.

[53] Pronay & Croft (1983) op. cit., p. 157.

[54] Ibid.

[55] For example, Bracken's memorandum to Churchill on 15 September 1942 stated: "I understand that the production is financed by General Film Distributors Ltd, the head of which is Mr Joseph Rank".

[56] Pronay & Croft (1983) op. cit., p. 161.

[57] See, for example, PRO PREM 4 99/5 'Propaganda 1939-45', which contains numerous memoranda from Bracken to Churchill, some of them just as lengthy as the documents in 'The Colonel Blimp File'.

[58] PRO PREM 4 14/15. Bracken to Churchill, 5 August 1943.

[59] Grigg to Churchill, 8 September 1942.

[60] PRO [Ministry of] INF[ormation] 1/224 'The Way Ahead'. Bracken to Noel Coward, 9 October 1942.

[61] See V. Porter & C. Litewski, The Way Ahead: case history of a propaganda film, Sight and Sound, 50 (1981).

[62] PRO INF 1/224. Arthur Calder Marshall to Carol Reed, 5 June 1944.

[63] The wartime role of the BBFC. is discussed in J. C. Robertson, British Film Censorship Goes to War Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 2 (1982). The case of Love on the Dole being banned in the 1930s is discussed in J. Richards, The British Board of Film Censors and Content control in the 1930s: images of Britain, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1 (1981).

[64] Quoted in Pronay & Croft (1983) op. cit., p. 150.

[65] Monthly Film Bulletin, 10 (114), 30 June 1943.

[66] M. Balcon, Michael Balcon presents ... A Lifetime of Films (London, 1969), p. 133.

[67] Ibid.

[68] PRO PREM 4 99/5. 'F.D.B.' to S. Redman, 28 March 1942.

[69] T. Dickinson, Notes on 'The Next of Kin' (1978). These unpublished notes were prepared by Dickinson personally for a screening of the film at the University of East Anglia. I am most grateful to Charles Barr for bringing this information to my attention.

[70] PRO PREM 4 14/15. Bracken to Churchill, 15 September 1942.

[71] War Cabinet 126 (42), 21 September 1942.

[72] Pronay & Croft (1983) op. cit., nt 43, p. 352.

[73] War Cabinet 126 (42), 21 September 1942.

[74] Bracken to Churchill, 15 September 1942.

[75] Pronay & Croft (1983) op. cit., p. 158.

[76] Badder, 'Powell and Pressburger: The War Years', p. 11.

[77] Powell (1986) op. cit., p. 406.

[78] C. Barr, War Record, Sight and Sound, 58 (1989), p. 261.

[79] Powell (1986) op. cit., p. 406.

[80] Pronay & Croft (1983) op. cit., nt 19, p. 250.

[81] Ibid., p. 397.

[82] Badder (1978) op. cit., p. 11.

[83] Christie (1978) op. cit., Introduction to The Colonel Blimp File, p. 13.

[84] Monthly Film Bulletin, 30 June 1943.

[85] J. Richards & D. Sheridan, eds, Mass Observation at the Movies (London, 1987), p. 232. The respondent is Male, no. 32, occupation unknown, who lived in Portsmouth.

[86] Aldgate (1983) op. cit., What a difference a war makes, nt 21, p. 74.

[87] Picture Post, 17 (12), 19 December 1942.

[88] Kinematograph Weekly, 1 April 1943.

[89] Kinematograph Weekly, 24 June 1943.

[90] Observer, 13 June 1943.

[91] The New Statesman and Nation, 12 June 1943.

[92] Monthly Film Bulletin, 30 June 1943.

[93] Evening Standard, 12 June 1943.

[94] For a comprehensive analysis of contemporary British film journalism, see J. Ellis, Art, culture and quality: terms for a cinema in the forties and seventies, Screen, 19 (1978).

[95] The New Statesman and Nation, 26 June 1943.

[96] News Chronicle, 11 June 1943.

[97] The Times, 9 June 1943.

[98] Documentary News Letter, 4 (5), 1943.

[99] Gough-Yates, Michael Powell, p. 8.

[100] Daily Mail, 11 June 1943.

[101] E. W. Robson & M. M. Robson, The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp: The True Story of the Film (London, 1944), p. 31.

[102] Ibid., p. 3.

[103] Ibid., p. 4.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Ibid., p. 5f.

[106] Kinematograph Weekly, 13 January 1944.

[107] PRO PREM 4 14/15. Hodge (Air Ministry) to Sendall (MOI), Most Secret Cypher Telegram, 19 August 1943.

[108] J. Poole, British cinema attendance in wartime: audience preference at the Majestic, Macclesfield, 1939-1946, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 7 (1987), p. 23.

[109] J. Richards & D. Sheridan, eds, Mass Observation at the Movies, p. 220. All the quotations from respondents which follow are taken from this source.

[110] Male no. 1 (Insurance clerk, aged 35, Newport), p 222.

[111] Male no. 8 (Wireless operator, Royal Corps of Signals, aged 26, Kent), p. 224.

[112] Male no. 32 (?? Portsmouth), p. 232.

[113] Male no. 5 (Writer, aged 20, Danbury), p. 222.

[114] Female no. 16 (WAAF, ?, RAF Hopton), p. 262.

[115] Female no. 22 (Teacher, aged 51, Chepstow), p. 263.

[116] Female no. 28 (Housewife, aged 53 years, Burnley), p. 265.

[117] Female no. 52 (Journalist, aged 52, London), p. 272.

[118] Female no. 82 (Housewife, aged 46, Bradford), p. 282.

[119] Male no. 10 (Architect, aged 36, in Pioneer Corps), p. 225.

[120] Male no. 114 (Lance-Corporal, ?, Colchester, p. 259.

[121] Female no. 44 (Civil Servant, aged 52, Morecambe), p. 271.

[122] Female no. 15 (Teacher, aged 30, Masham, Yorkshire), p. 261.

[123] Male no. 53 (Medical student, aged 18, London), p. 239.

[124] Female no. 57 (WAAF, aged 33, Leicester), p. 275.

[125] Female no. 87 (Nursery assistant, aged 37, Oxford), p. 284.

[126] Variety, 23 June 1943 (review dated 8 June 1943).

[127] Motion Picture Herald, 10 July 1943.

[128] G. Macnab, J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (London, 1993), pp. 68 & 163; and R. Murphy, Rank's attempt on the American market, in: Curran & Porter, eds, British Cinema History, pp. 170 & 177.

[129] Film Daily, 30 March 1945.

[130] See Ian Christie's filmography (previously used for his own Powell, Pressburger and Others) for Powell's memoirs, p, 681. Furthermore, Christie also discusses the different 'versions' of the film in the published screenplay Powell and Pressburger: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, pp. 68-70.

[131] New York Times, 30 March 1945. - the Full review is available.

[132] The Nation, 31 March 1945.

[133] The New Republic, 30 April 1945.

[134] Film Daily, 21 March 1945.

[135] Macnab (1993) op. cit., p. 164.

[136] Sight and Sound, January 1950, p. 40.

[137] Quoted in Macnab (1993) op. cit., p. 68.

[138] Powell (1986) op. cit., p 531.

[139] New York Times, 30 March 1945. - the Full review is available.

[140] Quoted in A. Slide, Ed. Selected Film Criticism: Foreign Films 1930-1950 (New Jersey, 1984), p. 33f.

[141] The Times, 14 June 1947.

[142] Quoted in Macnab (1993) op. cit., p. 69.

[143] PRO INF 1/687 'Programme for Film Propaganda', p. 4. This document is reproduced as an appendix to Christie, Powell, Pressburger and Others, pp. 121-124.

[144] C. Coultass, Images for Battle: British Films and the Second World War. 1939-1945 (London, 1989), p. 116f.

[145] Christie (1994) op. cit., Blimp, Churchill and the State, p. 114.

[146] Ibid., p. 105.

From: Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 03/95 v15:n1. p19(36)

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