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Sarah Parnaby

Gone to Earth

Monthly Film Bulletin August 1985, Volume 52, Number 619, pp.256-257

Great Britain, 1943
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

[Other film credits omitted]

1942. In an invasion exercise due to start at midnight, Lieutenant "Spud" Wilson, commanding the second battalion of the Lancashires, decides to demonstrate how modern war should realistically be conducted by attacking the 'enemy', the Home Guard commanded by General Clive Wynne-Candy, at six instead. Although Wilson's girlfriend Angela (nicknamed "Mata Hari") tries to warn the general (she is also his driver), Wynne-Candy is surprised in his Turkish bath and attacks Wilson when the latter implies that his old-fashioned ways are impeding the war effort ... In 1902, just back from the Boer War with a VC, the young Candy is told by a fellow officer of an English governess, Edith Hunter, who has written from Berlin complaining of the propaganda about British behaviour in the war being spread by a German officer, Kaunitz. With the reluctant agreement of Colonel Betteridge, [Betteridge didn't agree to it - "It's a secret from him too."] Candy goes to Berlin, meets the brisk and forthright Edith, and insults Kaunitz in a night-club. [In the café Hohenzollern] Candy is challenged to a duel on behalf of the German officer corps, and both he and his opponent, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, are wounded. While they are recuperating together, Theo falls in love with Edith. Candy gives them his blessing (though he realises that he too is in love with Edith [Well, when he gets home he realises he is]), and returns to England. On the Western Front in 1918, Candy meets a nurse, Barbara Wynne, and at the end of the war rejoices in the fact that England has won by decent and honourable soldiering (unaware of the means a South African fellow officer has used to extract information from German prisoners). He marries Barbara (who closely resembles Edith), but is hurt when Theo, whom he has tracked down to a POW camp, refuses to acknowledge him. They are later reconciled, but Theo berates the English for believing that affairs between nations can be conducted in a sportsmanlike fashion. Barbara dies in 1926, and Theo (who loses Edith in 1933) eventually flees the Nazis and enters Britain as a refugee with Candy's assistance. Recalled from retirement with the outbreak of war, Candy causes embarrassment with a radio speech (which is cancelled), [As the speech was cancelled, how could it cause embarrassment?] warning against the adoption of Nazi-type techniques in the name of 'total war'. He wins renown as the head of the Home Guard, a new concept in self-defence, though Theo continues to worry that his gentlemanly notion of war will make no headway against the Nazis ... Sobered by the incident with Wilson, though reassured by Angela (herself a double for Edith/Barbara), Candy considers that it may be time to change.

Churchill's famous opposition to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has probably done most to crystallise the image of Powell and Pressburger's wartime epic as a subversive thrust at the military establishment. Interestingly enough, in the 'Blimp file' of official correspondence on the subject, opposition from all government agencies is fiercest at the production stage, when the reasons are necessarily theoretical - mainly that the film was going to resurrect "an imaginary type of Army officer which has become an object of ridicule to the general public". Once the film is completed, the opposition fades, to the point where even the Minister of Information decides that it is "too boring" to do any damage except to the people who made it. Only Churchill (and there is no indication that he even saw it) continues to worry away at the film throughout 1943; seized with an idée fixe that in the end makes him seem an ideal Powell-Pressburger character himself, one who found in the film (or his image of it) the proper sporting ground for his bulldog temperament.

For if there is one thing that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp resists, it is being cast in any anti-establishment role. Its restlessness, its élan, its stylistic variety and dazzle have more to do with a quest for an establishment role that is worthy of it. The film is an implicit demonstration of the conservative impulse behind much formal experimentation in art - the anger at what is outmoded, at what has lost its power to enshrine those values considered eternal. It also goes to the heart of Powell-Pressburger's particular paradox vis-à-vis political/national allegiances and an apparently free-floating cinematic determination to attack something . Their collaboration seems to involve such an inextricable criss-cross of un-, anti- and ultra-Englishness - is Powell the Englishman's Englishman who understands more about his compatriots than they could ever accept?; is Pressburger the foreigner with the most sublime, mystical, overarching view of his adopted home? - that it is hard to decide whether they are insiders trying to cut their way out of hidebound traditions or outsiders trying to revitalise those traditions.
[Or is it the other way around? Powell being the Englishman with the world view (rare at the time) and Pressburger being the foreigner who understands us better than we understand ourselves]

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp may come on with a great deal of animus, the sense that it is attacking some deep-rooted canker in the military establishment that is impeding the war effort, but its energies are actually profoundly integrationist, conciliatory; its movement not thrusting but circular. It is also intrinsic to the Powell-Pressburger paradox that their films should have such an un-English stylistic attack (the opening sequences here of motorcycle despatch riders racing through the countryside could be strong competition for The Wild One or The Wild Angels ) when their aim is usually to re-establish some ideal or fantasy of Englishness. The oppositions set up by Colonel Blimp consequently have a kind of unreal, skewed dimension, as if the conduct of the war really did depend on the question of whether an old-fashioned, gentlemanly, playing-fields-of-Eton approach should apply, or a much more ruthless realpolitik, the all-out-to-win tactics implied by the term 'total war'.

As a strategic consideration of the Second World War, or of the military history of the first half of the twentieth century, this is a fantasy akin to The Thief of Bagdad. And as is appropriate to a fantasy, its oppositions prove chimerical, illusory, easily blending or reversing in effect. If Candy at the beginning is viewed as a hidebound, tradition-bound, class-bound old fogey, those same qualities are assumed by the rest of the film to be synonymous with moral rectitude, honour and decency ("Clean fighting, honest soldiering have won" as Candy announces at the end of the First World War, and Powell and Pressburger seem to concur with his view of a war in which only the dirty Hun used poison gas). Similarly, the film approves the initiative and daring of "Spud" Wilson, the boyish enthusiasm with which he pulls off a manoeuvre by cheating a little - and then worries (or pretends to) that there's something of the Nazi mentality about it. Or is it just efficient German-type soldiering? One thing that makes the film's argument so ambiguous, mystical and difficult to grasp is that it conflates too many qualities - of political ideology and national character, for instance - and assumes that military conduct can be discussed in purely spiritual terms, without reference to political or historical circumstances, or even to technology.

If Blimp is a very ambiguous - chimerical - figure in the two wars, in between he virtually ceases to exist. Of this the film seems to be quite ironically aware, though its irony insists more on the poignancy of a real soldier having no place in peacetime: the inter-war years are summed up by a series of montages (in one of which the death of Blimp's wife, Deborah Kerr's second, barely noticeable incarnation, is noted) and the accumulation of hunting trophies in his sepulchral study (where the wife's portrait eventually finds its place). The parade of women - the same but different - through Blimp's life may be the film's most inspired and most ambiguous move. In their interchangeable background function, they are on the one hand a reproach to the blindness, the exclusivity of this military tapestry. On the other, the interplay of their diversified characters with Candy's bulldog role gives the film's image of a chivalric place that is forever England an emotional completeness which it would not otherwise have. (Though it is unclear whether or not the last of these roles, that of the driver Angela who prefers to be called Johnny, should be taken as a further reproach to the equalising tendencies of total war.) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is in a sense playing at soldiers, playing at myths of nationhood. What gives it such uncanny power as a myth in its own right is that it uses its own disrespect for narrative, visual and thematic decorum to create a national fiction that is too 'ecstatic', contradictory and shifting to be called propaganda.

Richard Combs

(This film was originally reviewed in the M.F.B. No. 114, p.61.)

Copyright © The British Film Institute, 1985

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