top of page
  • Charles Drazin

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: “You stay just as you are till the floods come . . .”

When The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had its premiere at the Odeon, Leicester Square, on 10 June 1943, the title hero – or rather, the title fool – had already long been a household name in Britain. Created in 1934 by the Evening Standard cartoonist David Low, Colonel Blimp was intended to typify what Low perceived as a disposition in the British establishment to “mixed-up thinking, to having it both ways, to dogmatic doubleness, to paradox and plain self-contradiction”.  An  example of the sort of thing the Colonel would come out with was: “We need better relations between Capital and Labour. If the trades unions won’t accept our terms, crush ’em.” Although such nonsense seems rather tame by the standards of what we routinely scroll through online today, the widespread presence of addled thinking in high places seemed very dangerous during the crisis-ridden, conflict-threatened decade of the 1930s.


Less than two years after his creation, the London Times would note that Blimp had already “passed into the mythology of our country to share the timeless existence of beings like Sherlock Holmes”. So he was a wonderful character to carry into a movie.


David Low emphasised that Blimp “does NOT represent a coherent reactionary outlook so much as slapdash stupidity”. It meant that there was a basis on which Powell and Pressburger could build the Colonel into a lovable, sympathetic and even an occasionally wise old fool. Attending the premiere, Low enjoyed what he thought was “an extremely sentimental film about a glamorous old colonel whose romantic attachments nearly – but not quite – obscured the conclusion that if Britain followed his out-of-date ideas in modern war, we should all be blown to blazes”. 


Low admired the film but doubted its effectiveness as propaganda. So did the British government. The War Office disapproved of the making of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and would not give its cooperation, although this was a blessing in disguise. Their refusal to release Laurence Olivier from his military service in the Fleet Air Arm led to the casting in his place of Roger Livesey, who brought a warmth to the title role that hugely enhanced the film’s long-term appeal.


Sitting at the front of the Dress Circle on that first night in the Odeon was the man whom some people considered to be Britain’s Blimp-in-Chief, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He was about the same age as Blimp, looked a lot like him and had even encouraged the idea that he himself had been a bit of a dunce at school. This wasn’t really true, but his long career had certainly known many moments of dogmatic doubleness and paradox.

Churchill loved movies and wasn’t going to miss out on the most expensive, talked-about British movie ever made, even if it happened to be one that he had tried to stop. On his arrival at the cinema, he gave his habitual V-sign to the waiting crowds.   He seemed more than usually cheerful. The war was going well at last after a very long time of not going well at all. In North Africa Rommel’s army had been defeated and, now that there was no longer any serious threat of invasion, the church bells in Britain had started to ring again.  It was the end of the beginning.


With its message that Britain must, for the sake of its survival, fight the war “by every means that have existed since Cain slugged Abel”, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was curiously out of step with this new mood of confidence.  It had a tone of desperate urgency that belonged to the time when it had been conceived, in late 1941, well before the war had begun to turn Britain’s way with the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942.

In these welcome new circumstances the film’s message that the British army needed to be as nasty as the Nazis had become embarrassing. It suggested an ethical disregard, which undermined the case that Britain was fighting a just war. There’s even a scene in the film where a British officer, ordering a surprise attack before the agreed start time of a military exercise, makes an approving reference to Pearl Harbor, a date that the US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had said would “live in infamy”.


Churchill’s attendance at the premiere was a society event that The Tatler covered. He can be seen sitting in his leopard-skin seat with a cigar, looking particularly severe.  It was no surprise, really, that he regarded the picture as poor propaganda, which he tried to prevent from being shown in the United States.

Indeed, his dogmatic stance was a good example of his Blimpery. Ignoring advice that he should  just let the matter go, he insisted that every effort be made to ban the export of  the film, but in the end only ended up scoring an own goal. “As a result of our illegal ban on this wretched film,” wrote his Minister of Information,  Brendan Bracken, “Colonel Blimp has received a wonderful advertisement from the Government. It is now enjoying an extensive run in the suburbs and in all sorts of places there are notices – ‘See the banned film!’”


After a few months of digging his heels in, Churchill eventually allowed the film to be exported. But while The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp lived in Britain – where it won a warm, appreciative reception – it died in America, when it finally opened there badly out of date in March 1945. So few people went to see the film, with its running time of over two and a half hours, that its distributor, United Artists, withdrew it in August 1945 and cut it by an hour in order that it could be double-billed in local theatres.  But it did not save the fortunes of a film that  was so markedly out of keeping with the peacetime emphasis – as a new postwar order began to be built under the auspices of the United Nations – of respecting rules rather than flouting them.


Over time its deeper quality would make the film relevant again. As Low observed: “Blimp will survive: he will continue to live as long as there is a human race. Stupidity never dies. And I’m afraid he will be quite a useful symbol when we begin to tackle the problems of the post-war world.” But there were also positive reasons to hope that Blimp, as Powell and Pressburger depicted him, would never die.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp could well be my favourite Powell and Pressburger film, but, stupid or not, I have the same attitude as Blimp to any suggestion that the end can ever justify the means. Still ringing in my ears are the words of someone I knew and much admired, who was born in the early years of the last century. Although she had lost a brother in WW1 and lived through WW2, she often used to say, “Life isn’t fair, but you must be fair.” Even if life is now as frightening as it was in the 1930s when Blimp first stepped into the world, these words still seem to me to be true. How to live up to them is every generation’s challenge, but, in the midst of the  “total war” of 1943, Powell and Pressburger recognised that, for all Blimp’s foolishness, the notions of decency and fairplay that he represented were still vital. It is why his wife Barbara tells him: “You stay just as you are. . . till the floods come. . .”


bottom of page