Thursday, July 23, 2009

Film Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

A Technicolor epic, 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp holds its own against any Hollywood offering from the same era. Though based on a popular comic strip, the filmmakers fleshed out the character and made a point to bring him to life in believable fashion. A well-intentioned, but slightly bumbling figure, Major General Wynne-Candy finds that his naive earnestness often comes at the expense of his pride or his ability to not have the wool pulled over his eyes by those far less motivated to strictly follow the rules. In its nearly three hour running time, the audience observes nearly a half century of his life, including military adventures, tragic romance, pervasive friendship, and shooting wars. Discerning a larger meaning beyond retelling the plot is no easy feat. Indeed, the film's meandering plot and lengthy running time makes reviewing rather difficult, but the film's back story is far more compelling.

Then Prime Minister Winston Churchill hated the film and tried desperately to stop the film from being screened. Though the Prime Minister could not prevent it from being shown to domestic audiences, he did manage to block its export to other countries, particularly the United States, whose movie theaters were not allowed to screen the film (albeit in a truncated fashion) before native audiences for two years, after which the War had ended. While Americans in particular have a tendency to deify Churchill as some sort of tour de force of noble purpose whose eloquent rhetoric and far-sighted foreign policy decisions saved the Free World from the demonic pestilence of Fascism, what they are less inclined to take into account is his unfortunate refusal to see the world in anything less than resolutely evil black or virtuously pure white. This regrettable tendency is in large part a reason why British voters threw Churchill and the Conservatives out mere months after the war had been won, substituting the old lion in favor of Clement Attlee and his Labour party.

From the distance of more than fifty years, one can hardly understand Sir Winston's extreme reservations. Though not specifically a propaganda film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp takes several swipes at German brutality, German hypocrisy, as well as one large salvo against what it believes to be the folly of Pacifism and the futility of maintaining dignified rules of conduct in a world that no longer follows the honor code. Though staunchly Pro-British, the film is mildly critical of conventional military tactics, believing that only the adoption of Total War can produce victory for the Allied cause. Churchill's reservations, in particular, rested upon a German character whose virtuousness and spirited opposition drove him to reject Nazism and as a result, flee his native land. Apparently, the Prime Minister believed that informing audiences that not every German was an unquestioning disciple of Der Fuhrer was a dangerous assertion and that he much preferred every Hun be reduced to a one-dimensional caricature of robotic inhumanity instead. The Anti-Nazi German, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, is in many ways calmer, more collected, and more rational than Major-General Candy. Perhaps what got under Churchill's skin the most was that the main character seemed loosely based on him, particularly mirroring his start as a figure in the public eye by means of being a daring, headline grabbing fighter during the Boer War.

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