The Rear-View Mirror: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

My mother was an emigrant from England. Since both my parents were from countries other than the one where I was born and where I’ve always lived, I always felt to some extent that wherever I was from, it was elsewhere – and if pressed on the matter, I would have said that I felt a connection to England and to the UK that I didn’t feel to the place my father came from. However, over the last few years I’ve very much had both an opportunity and a reason to re-examine my feelings towards the UK. Probably it started before then, but ever since the summer of 2016 it’s been impossible to avoid the escalating conversation/shouting match/toxic circle-jerk that, at its core, seems to be about identity: what does it mean to be British? What does the UK want to be? What does it want to represent in the world? Does it want to look forward or backward, outward or inward?

I’m finding it impossible not to connect The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, that wonderful film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, to those questions, and I’m finding it equally impossible not to think that the film’s protagonist, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), presents an answer to them – possibly unwittingly – that I find vastly preferable to those that most supposed patriots come up with. When we first see him, the man is something of a joke: he is an overweight man with a walrus mustache, and his girth is as much the result of too many good meals as it is of Wynne-Candy being full of hot air. Military rank aside, he is something of a blimp indeed, and he represents a Britain that is conservative, nostalgic and not a little full of itself.

As the film progresses, though, this impression is, well, not so much negated but Colonel Blimp becomes more layered, and so does what he stands for. We get to know him as a man of principles, but also as a man prone to illusions and to delusion, both about the world and about himself. He is a man of loyalty, but he is also unable to adapt to changing times. He is sweet and sad, noble and silly, and he is all of these things at the same time. Powell’s film was intended to be a propaganda piece, but its gentle yet perceptive send-up of a certain kind of Brit and a certain idea of what the country was didn’t please people, in particular the government and its Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who tried to stop the production of the film. It couldn’t exactly have helped at the time that the film featured as one of its most sympathetic characters a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook).

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp understands that affection and ridicule do not contradict one another. It is an antidote to the sort of patriotism that likes to shout, “Love it or leave it!” For this reason, I suspect it would be misunderstood or outright disliked by those that I fear are winning the battle for the soul of Britain and whose decisions will determine what the UK is for years to come. Which is all the more reason to watch the film again and take its lessons to heart.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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