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Less Sophistication at the second showing

Richard Combs: Critics on Powell
The Listener 17th October 1985
[When the restored version of Blimp was released]

     During the recent revival of interest in veteran British film director Michael Powell, critics have, almost without exception, enthusiastically expressed admiration for his work. Richard Combs wonders how clear-sighted this reappraisal is.S

     Michael Powell was a problem for his time, and he remains one for ours. 'What is it really about?' the vexed critic of the Observer, C.A. Lejeune, asked about The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943. The query is echoed in responses, a year later, to Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale: 'Their besetting weakness - lack of coherent purpose in their stories - is more pronounced than ever' (News Chronicle); '... in effect an elaborate, beautiful and often witty piece of muddle' ( Sunday Times). All that, of course, is behind us now. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, handsomely reminted and reissued recently, has received ecstatic reviews; A Canterbury Tale, part of the BBC's season to celebrate Powell's 80th birthday, is now accepted as one of his and Pressburger's crowning achievements.

     But there is something wrong here, something strangely misapplied, even wilfully wrong-headed, disingenuous and obscurantist about the recent celebrations of Powell. How far, for, instance, do the new reviews of Colonel Blimp go towards answering Lejeune's question? There has been a bewildering variety of answers, depending on whether one takes Powell's Blimp figure, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), to be the butt of the film's criticism or the embodiment of its ideals. Compare and contrast: 'The film's message, that calcified respect for tradition and hierarchy (the values for which Britain was ostensibly fighting) was in fact standing in the way of our winning the war, did not find favour with High Command 1 or government' (Guardian ); 'Blimp's crime is to abide by the rules of the game, to want to wage war honourably. He complains about Germans bombing children in our streets; no wonder Churchill, who was to authorise precisely that at Dresden within a year [sic], was queasy] about the finished film' (Sunday Times) .

     In the first instance, Candy is the representative of a military establishment whose fuddy duddy ways are frustrating a realistic defence against the Nazis; in the second, he is the representative of a military order whose honourable codes are an embarrassment to a government establishment whose realpolitik is prepared to condone Nazi methods of warfare. Not only does Candy switch roles here between fool and hero, but the question of who, in a larger sense, is responsible for Britain's misconduct of the war (and in what way it is being misconducted) is very confusing. Neither of the above interpretations could be called wrong, because the film allows ample room for both these and other points of view - including the dissolution of all issues to do with the war, the military and the English character in a kind of chivalric splendour, 'a heraldic tapestry of an eccentric figure on a horse, at once aptly evoking Bayeux, St George, Quixote and Blimp' (Financial Times).

     Whether the film's ample contradictions might be considered productive or not, the curious thing about these recent reviews is that they scarcely acknowledge that there is any contradiction. Colonel Blimp's curious amalgam of epic storytelling, pamphleteering abuse of a nebulously defined Establishment, and rather schoolboyish exaltation of the English character distinct from all its establishments, is treated as a perfectly consistent account of how we fought the Second World War (and even further back, the First World War and the Boer War). That the film is both serious and penetrating is often assumed from the government opposition (particularly and personally from Churchill) to its making, though the opposition (except from Churchill) faded away once the film was shown, probably because any potential subversiveness is thoroughly defused by its contrariness.

     But the film cannot really be accounted for without its contradictions being taken into account. And although many reviews have explicitly or implicitly pooh-poohed C.A. Lejeune's complaint, none of the recent encomiums to Colonel Blimp have come close to answering it. A slightly more sophisticated tack has been to deny that the question has any validity, because it is based on assumptions about the film ('about what British cinema may permissibly be') which are not applicable. These assumptions have to do with realism, with the well-made film and the well-ordered narrative, which Colonel Blimp, as a fantasy, runs athwart, shimmering instead with paradoxical images of history, of England and Englishness, of character type and cultural meaning. In the best overall account yet of Powell, Powell, Pressburger and Others (BFI Publishing 2.95), Ian Christie has written: 'Blimp is an epic in several rather different senses of the term: while its scope and dramaturgy recall Brecht's epic theatre, it also functions as a "national epic", incorporating its authors, its audiences (then and now), their history, their culture.'

     But this may be allowing Colonel Blimp enough rope, if not to hang itself, then to drift unreasonably free of its immediate concerns. The film is not just a context, it is also a particular story, with a number of quite realistic themes and arguments which just happen to run at cross purposes. The 'fantasy v. reality' excuse was also invoked and dismissed by one .reviewer of the day, James Agate, in the Tatler: 'In a word the film lacks reality. But neither is it fantastic. It pretends reality one minute, relapses into comic opera the next, and is sentimental whenever it gets the chance.' Agate also suggests the limitations of the film's attack on Candy, setting him up as a figure of fun who then too quickly becomes a sterling sort of chap and an endearing old duffer: 'Any French or Russian director would have jumped at the chance of showing Candy messing up one military operation after another, and making stepping stones to promotion out of the lives he had sacrificed by his stupidity. Not so the directors of this film, which contains no flick of irony from start to finish.' The film, in fact, never attacks Candy on any substantial ground at all, whether military (the image of him at the beginning, caught with his pants down in a Turkish bath, is soon contradicted by a flashback showing him as a feisty young soldier), social or political. The latter two, indeed, are where Powell and Pressburger seem most closely, sentimentally, to identify with their hero. Certainly his 'place' here is never questioned or examined - one tiny but extraordinary scene shows Candy courting a nurse he has met during the First World War in the grounds of her home, which is (realistically? ironically? fantastically?) a rolling country estate. The Powell-Pressburger mysticism about England could easily be seen as underpinned (in the words of critic Raymond Durgnat) by a 'high Toryism'. What the film leaves unexamined, of course, one might expect contemporary re-evaluation to delve into. But in this significant respect, the recent reviews are less sophisticated than their 1943 counterparts. The irony is that wartime writers should have looked askance at this fantasy of Englishness, of the noble and victorious tradition of clean, decent soldiering (James Agate: 'And there is nobody to tell him that the only time when clean fighters can beat the other sort is when they outnumber them'), where today's reviewers have taken it in, lock, stock and barrel, for the greater glory of British Film Year.

     it is this connection which explains much of the recent distortion, the blindness, with which Powell and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp have been taken up. Powell's celebration of Englishness, with its personal idiosyncrasy, its mysticism, its heraldic and chivalric stiffness and its ultra-conservatism, has been widely admired as an exemplar of English cinema. The oddness of the equation might be illustrated by the strangeness of the political bedfellows Colonel Blimp has created: from Time Out ('A 21-gun salute and full formation flypast for Michael Powell') to the Daily Mail ('... it sweeps one back to a time when there was real grace, and decency, and heroism, when the Empire was a source of pride and when to be born British was to have won first prize in the lottery of life').

     The incongruity points to one of the murkiest areas of the Powell revival, where an implicitly left-wing, revisionist approach to film history takes up with a subject not operating at all on the same political wavelength. Churchill's opposition to the film has landed Colonel Blimp with the label 'subversive', as if that must inevitably mean it is anti-Establishment in its attitude to the military hierarchy; but Colonel Blimp only upbraids the hierarchy (in very confused terms) for not being a better, more efficient, more ruthless, or more soldierly establishment. Its examination of English vices and virtues is nowhere near as pointed, as perceptive, as 'realistic', as in The Bridge on the River Kwai, though it is possible that Powell's own 1950s war films (The Battle of the River Plate , Ill Met by Moonlight) were, after the fact, more coherent and penetrating on the subject. A Canterbury Tale, his wartime film aside from the war, is an incomparably better film than Colonel Blimp, though there again, the current hoop-la of revival and backing Britain forces an emphasis on the 'Englishness' of Powell (as my own piece on the film in The Listener two weeks ago unhappily illustrates) as though it had somehow been vindicated by the fashions of film criticism and re-evaluation.

     It is easy to see why the 'discovery' of Powell should be such a plum in the British film renaissance, and his 80th birthday and the reissue of Colonel Blimp both plums of British Film Year. With Hitchcock dead (and half American anyway), Powell is the grand old man (or spryly twinkling genie) who supplies what no amount of hype could manufacture - a sense of history and continuity, and a sense of great understanding of film, of cinematic nous, which has been the hardest tradition to maintain here. There is also a measure of guilt assuaged, guilt over the ill-treatment Powell has had at times in his own country, especially after the critical savaging of Peeping Tom. But if Powell has not had the clear public image and popular fame of Hitchcock, he has not suffered lifelong neglect. At different periods of his career, he has been very much in the public eye - but only one eye at a time, as if his mysterious, multifarious cinema could never be looked at head on, never taken in all at once. What the current revival of interest has done is not so much corrected that Cyclopean gaze as turned the other eye.

     A new book on Powell and Pressburger, 'Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger' by Ian Christie (Waterstone 17.95), will be published next month. [This article was published in October 1985, Ian published this book in 1985 and it was updated and reprinted in 1994]

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