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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP

IF 'MÜNCHHAUSEN' MAY be seen as a Nazi film with a hidden message of liberalism and humility, then what about 'Blimp,' a British film with a liberal anti-establishment reputation gained largely as a result of the enemies it made in the war cabinet?

'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' is the story of a British officer, Clive 'Sugar' Candy. We first meet him in old age in 1942 as the Home Guard force under his command is defeated in an exercise by a young army officer, Lieutenant 'Spud' Wilson. Breaking the rules of the exercise, Spud and his young soldiers capture Candy and his fellow Home Guard officers in a state of undress in the Turkish Baths of the Royal Bathers' Club. When Spud shows his contempt for Candy and his fellow elderly overweight officers, Candy responds 'You laugh at my big belly, but you don't know how I got it! You laugh at my moustache, but you don't know why I grew it! How do you know what sort of man I was when I was as young as you are, forty years ago.'

Blimp frames

And the extended flashback of his life begins, taking us from the Boer War through adventures in Berlin in 1902, thwarted romance, a duel and a friendship with a German Officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, World War One and marriage, interwar years of Empire, ending with World War Two and the challenge of how to fight Nazism.

'Blimp' is seen by some as a stout defence of holding to moral values even in wartime, by others as an argument against following rules when fighting 'total war'.

The confusion, along with the film's troubles with government, began with the name 'Blimp'. The seed of the story lay in an unused scene from an earlier film, a dialogue between youth and age. At some point Powell and Pressburger made a connection between their character Clive Candy and David Low's character 'Colonel Blimp'.

David Low, a left-wing cartoonist working in the Evening Standard, had conceived his Colonel Blimp as a satire of right-wing little Englander appeasers throughout the British establishment, a very different character to Powell and Pressburger's warm romantic image of Clive Candy.

Though his target was much broader, David Low's Colonel Blimp character was often seen as being particularly aimed at the army, and the term Blimp became synonymous with outdated attitudes in the British military. So it was that when Sir James Grigg at the War Office received a request for the army's coöperation with the 'Blimp' film, alarm bells rang. He denied the film any help from the army, and brought his concerns to Minister of Information Brendan Bracken, and to Churchill.

Churchill's opinions were very much in line with Grigg's, that 'the film would give the Blimp conception of the Army a new lease of life at a time when it is already dying from inanition,' and that it was 'of the utmost importance to get stopped.' (1) but from the MOI came concerns that today look more serious, concerns that the film could be seen as arguing that the rule of law could be set aside in wartime.

From the MOI's report on the script submitted prior to production:

'...[the filmmakers] suggest in the end that Germans can only be defeated with their own weapons.'

'...The script exaggerates the fair play idea to the point of ridicule and does not show those ways in which it has a constructive value. For instance, in the 1917 sequence, Candy fails to get information from the German prisoners: the tougher personality is more successful. It would have been equally 'true' if an instance had been selected in which humanity in dealing with individuals had in fact been more efficient than threats.'

'...This is one of the scenes which suggests confusion of mind on the part of the authors, unless they merely wished to say that we must become like Germans before we can win the war. If this is what they wished to say - and I don't think it is - then it is a film we can only deplore. It is more likely that their own minds are in conflict and they have rather wantonly played with ideas - some of which are a trifle 'daring' - in order to stimulate people to think or (a less generous interpretation) inject sensational elements for Box Office purposes.'(2)

The scene that so concerned the MOI was one where British troops stage a mock execution of German prisoners in order to make them talk. Powell and Pressburger altered this scene of prisoner abuse during editing, making it less clear what the nature of the abuse was, but the meaning of the scene was not changed or clarified.

The mock execution

Prisoner: 'This is against all international law.'

The mock execution, cut from the final film.

So what was it that Powell and Pressburger were trying to say? In a response to the MOI's script report, Powell and Pressburger wrote:

'What are the chief qualities of Clive Candy? They are the qualities of the average Englishman: an anxiety to believe the best of other people; Fairness in fighting, based upon games: Fairness after the fight is over: A natural naïvité engendered by class, insularity and the permeability of the English language.'

'We think these are splendid virtues: so splendid that, in order to preserve them, it is worth while shelving them until we have won the war.'(3)

The question was, and and still is, whether setting aside such values is the way to defeat fascism, or the first step on the way to embracing fascism.

FURTHER READING

In 2003 , during a parliamentary debate on the War on Terror, Dr Julian Lewis MP, a Conservative Shadow Defence Minister, invoked Powell and Pressburger's 'Blimp' in support of his argument that the rules of peacetime can be set aside during war, even to the extent of allowing torture of terrorist suspects under certain circumstances. You can read his comments here.

Steve Crook's Powell and Pressburger Pages website has a big section on 'Blimp'. It includes this piece on how Low lost control of his monstrous creation. And this 1985 article by Richard Combs reviews the film's reviewers, and their sometimes wildly contradictory interpretations of the film. However it's left to Stephen Bourne to tell of Colonel Blimp - a gay icon.

SOURCES

(1) Ian Christie (editor), Powell & Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Faber and Faber, 1994, p. 42-43.

(2) ibid. p. 33.

(3) ibid. p. 37.

Pressburger and Kaestner

On the next page:
PRESSBURGER AND KÄSTNER:
life, work, and friendship.


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