The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

For the moment, set the title aside. There is no character named “Colonel Blimp” in this film—we will come to him later. Instead, our hero, if that’s the word, is Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey).

We find him, fat and comfortable, in a Turkish bath. He is a caricature of himself, a grotesque parody of the kind of self-satisfied stiff-upper-lip officer who led the British military into so many ill-advised imperial adventures.

Naked and soft, bald and round, a wild bushy moustache extending forth from his upper lip—the man is the very model of a not-at-all-modern Major General. He is a relic of the turn of the century, a leftover of a British Empire that is rapidly crumbling in the face of Hitler’s relentless onslaught.

The man pointing a gun at the General is the future—young, brash, confident, and willing to “think outside the box” as the saying goes. He is not the General’s enemy—well, not literally, at least. They are both on the same side, and this is but a war game, cooked up as a training exercise in the middle of the real war raging outside. Both men want to defeat Hitler. The difference lies in methods—the old General adheres to a code of conduct and civility from the Old World; the young Lieutenant thinks that in the face of an existential fight against the purest Evil the world has ever seen, no tactics are off the table.

But, in a more metaphorical sense, they are enemies: old versus young, and everything that implies. “You don’t know how I got fat, you don’t know why I grew this moustache, you don’t know anything about my life!” shouts the General—and with that, Powell and Pressburger’s greatest masterpiece unfolds.


To understand quite why this film deserves that emphatic designation “masterpiece”—when there are so many glorious Powell-Pressburger classics from which to choose—we need to take stock of that curious title. As I said, there is no “Colonel Blimp” in the film. So who or what exactly is that title referencing?

A cartoon character, as it happens.

david_low_blimp_18_may_35In the 1930s satirical cartoonist David Low started drawing a series of single panel blackout gags involving a small-minded British military officer called Colonel Blimp. The story goes that Low overheard an actual officer sputtering some jingoistic blather and created the cartoon character to lampoon the self-satisfied idiocy of the man.

The cartoons follow a simple a pattern—Blimp, in a towel at a Turkish bath, spouts some racist, imperialistic nonsense like “Gad, sir! Lord Beaverbrook is right—We must refuse to take part in another World War unless arrangements are made to hold it in the British Empire!” and “Gad, sir! We can’t have a colored man here! It would take the minds of resident stinkers off their struggle for the ideals of the British Family of free and equal peoples!” (Yes, the “Gad, sir!” exclamations and the constant invocations of some social authority like “Lord Beaverbrook” were part of the formula).


It was a sensation. Political commentators took to referring to these blinkered ideas as “Blimpy” statements; poor Colonel Blimp entered the dictionary.

Flash forward to 1943, the darkest hours of the war against Nazism. The filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had been making some anti-Nazi thrillers—part action movie, part propaganda. After Contraband and The 49th Parallel, they started work on another film—one that would take a bit of a turn from the predecessors.


In some regards, the new film hit the same propaganda points as their previous works, or the similar work being done by Alfred Hitchcock at the time—an exhortation that the British public needed to rally everything against the existential threat of Nazism, and to understand that the notions of civility and honor meant nothing in the face of a demonic foe that sent children to the gas chamber.


Except… the new film didn’t just stop its argument there, it went on to illustrate how no war is honorable, when you think about it, and that those Old World codes of honor are really fundamentally silly. War is kill or be killed—you either play that game, or you don’t, but you can’t really pretend that doing that is somehow decent.

In other words, a bit of a full-on satirical bodyslam to some of the deeply held principles of Britishness. Which meant dealing with some of the same stereotypes so famously lampooned by Colonel Blimp. Powell and Pressburger licensed the right to invoke the name and spirit of the Blimp character, and then mapped that onto their wholly original creation of Maj. Gen. Wynne-Candy.


Over the epic span of Wynne-Candy’s life we see him clumsily blunder some international relations (by traveling to Berlin to insult a group of German nationalists to their faces, and then act surprised when they take umbrage); fight a duel (pointlessly, and passionlessly, against a man he’d never met); fall in love; marry someone else; do an awful lot of big game hunting (presented as a metaphor for sexual frustration); and grow old into a role as senior military statesman to a military that has little use for his narrow-minded thoughts.


The woman he falls in love with is more of a concept than a person per se. Costar Deborah Kerr plays this paragon of womanhood, but does so by playing several different characters at different points in time—among other things, this conceit spares Miss Kerr from having the wear the old age makeup her costars did.


The man that Wynne-Candy duels is a German officer of similar temperament (Anton Walbrook as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff) who becomes his best friend. Through Theo’s perspective we glimpse the rise of Hitler’s Germany—although the film takes extreme pains to insist that Theo is himself no Nazi. Nevertheless, Theo provides a window into the German experience of WWI, bitter defeat and humiliation, economic destruction, and the emotional lifeline that Hitler offered those angry, disaffected souls. More importantly, the film displays those attitudes to us in the audience but Wynne-Candy remains resolutely ignorant of them, unable to read even his own “best friend” even when that best friend unambiguously tells him to his face what he’s feeling.


It was here that the film was veering into very dangerous territory: the British General (whose life story seems to parallel that of Winston Churchill in certain key respects) is a foolish Blimpy type, while the German officer is the reasonable voice of humanity.

The War Office wrote a memo to the producers attempting to convince them to abandon the production; when the film was released the government imposed a ban on its distribution overseas. Right wing groups whipped themselves into a frenzy over the perceived shamefulness of a movie that would dare present a sympathetic presentation of a German character (horrors!)


Ironically, these various complaints were actually mirrored in the film itself—at one point, Gen. Wynne-Candy goes to make a speech on the BBC which is then canceled by the government out of fear that his remarks would undermine the war effort by showing too much sympathy to the Germans and too much Old World insistence on fighting clean.

What hard times those were, when even basic human tolerance and decency were seen as liabilities.  Thank goodness we live in a time when this is inconceivable :)


The war against Hitler is over, though. And the beautiful power of this movie—and its powerful beauty—is its ability to understand opposing viewpoints. There is nothing Blimpy about the film, despite the resolute Blimpiness of its main character. Instead the movie models how one can understand and even admire people who think differently than you do; how the ones you love need not be people exactly like you. That’s an enduringly necessary message.

For that matter, the Blimpy-esque character of Clive Wynne-Candy is no caricature. He is a lovingly drawn, fully realized character, whose limitations are presented with context and honesty. When we first find him, in full Blimp mode in the Turkish bath in the opening sequence, we are invited to mock him—but over the subsequent 3 hours we see his life with all its warts and all its glory. As the film cycles back to the opening scene, that context has changed our opinion completely—it’s awfully hard to mock him at the end, even if we still think he’s wrong.

32 Responses The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Posted By Doug : July 16, 2016 11:54 am

I can’t help but be reminded of another Colonel Blimp-type found in a set of novels which will NEVER be made into movies:
Kommandant van Heerden in Tom Sharpe’s “Riotous Assembly” and “Indecent Exposure”.
From the wiki:
“Sharpe moved to South Africa in 1951, where he worked as a social worker and a teacher, before being deported for sedition in 1961. His time in South Africa inspired his novels Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, in which he mocked the apartheid regime.”

Like Colonel Blimp, Kommandant van Heerden is the caricature of the old guard Brit who lives only for Queen and Country, sun never sets, tea and courtesy etc.
Unlike Colonel Blimp, he resides in Piemburg, South Africa and has never been to Great Britain; he wishes with all of his heart to be considered an English Gentleman.
Sharpe’s South Africa books as satire so dark that his pen may well have been dipped in the Devil’s blood. They did get him kicked out of South Africa.

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : July 16, 2016 2:51 pm

Tolerance and decency ARE libabillities when you’re facing an enemy (as we are now) that considers them weakness. Tolerance and decency meant nothing in Nice nor the Bataclan, where victims were, we’re learning, castrated and eviserated while still alive.

This is Theo’s message to “Blimp” and he was right.

It is not to say we should also castrate and eviserate. But being more concerned about imaginary and/or justifiable “Islamophobia” rather than the tortures of a young man having his eyes plucked out because he chose to go to a rock concert, or the summary execution of dozens of gays in Orlando — these attitudes are clealy emboldening the enemy and causing MORE death — precisely the opposite of the peace and love the “tolerant” claim to treasure.

Posted By Leslie Claussen : July 16, 2016 3:41 pm

Snopes to the rescue! These rumors have been verifiably debunked:

Posted By George : July 16, 2016 7:48 pm

Kathy: The U.S. and its allies have killed an estimated 27,000 ISIS fighters in the last two years. That’s not exactly showing weakness. Also, police killed the Orlando shooter, the Dallas sniper, and the Nice truck driver. They didn’t hold those scumbags’ hands.

Unless we start nuking the Middle East — which may happen; Trump has said he’ll ask Congress to declare a world war — I’m not sure what else we can do. Few people want American boots on the ground in Syria, after the Iraq fiasco and the Afghanistan quagmire.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : July 16, 2016 8:30 pm

in re another Michael Powell movie — “Peeping Tom” — which provoked career-ending outrage. You mention that there was an uproar about Powell daring to show a German character as a character, not a caricature — and a sympathetic one. I sometimes think that the uproar against “Peeping Tom” had something to do with the sympathetic portrayal of a serial killer who also had a slight German accent. (And very Aryan in appearance as well.)

Posted By swac44 : July 16, 2016 10:01 pm

The mass killing was bad enough, there’s no need to spread false accounts of torture at the Bataclan which are, to use a Col. Potter euphemism from M*A*S*H, a load of horse hockey.

A TCM movie blog comments section really isn’t the place to apply for a job with Fox News.

Posted By swac44 : July 16, 2016 10:21 pm

As far as the movie goes, got to see the restoration sponsored by Martin Scorsese, which was brought to Halifax by Pressburger’s daughter Angela, who was living here at the time (one of her sons, Andrew Macdonald produced Trainspotting, while another, Kevin Macdonald, directed The Last King of Scotland). What a treat to see it in 35mm, with Angela telling stories about her dad, Michael Powell and Thelma Schoonmaker. Unfortunately, the multiplex theatre was incapable of projecting the film in it’s proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which was something of a disappointment, and we had to make do with a cropped version of the original nearly-square image.

Posted By George : July 16, 2016 10:23 pm

Agreed, swac44. I wish I didn’t have to see Donald Trump’s glowering mug in the CNN ad on this blog. Can’t they just run a picture of Charles Foster Kane, or Edward Arnold in MEET JOHN DOE?

Posted By Doug : July 17, 2016 2:13 am

As with the others, I’m glad the Bataclan rumor is not true. I’ve also noticed the Trump RNC ad- TCM and Morlocks have to pay the bills just like any other entity.
Show of hands, please-ANYONE else read any works of Tom Sharpe? He did have a few of his books filmed, though mostly as TV shows. We’ve all ‘discovered’ films that we’ve enjoyed,hidden treasures. Living in Vegas, walking through a bookstore, I saw a title: “The Throwback”. Bought it, greatly enjoyed it, and now I own most of Sharpe’s works.
His book “Wilt” owed quite a debt to the 1965 Jack Lemmon comedy “How To Murder Your Wife”. Great stuff.

Posted By Tom S : July 18, 2016 6:02 am

One of the things the movie reinforces with Walbrook’s character- and is obviously applicable now- is that in fighting against fascistic forces, one must obviously not try simply to imagine that everyone who looks like them is subhuman scum. Colonel Blimp walks a delicate line of reminding one of the humanity of Germans while scoffing at the supposed boundaries of civil warfare, but even there it is complex- the scene where Wynne-Candy leaves a South African comrade to torture a prisoner is not presented with acceptance but as an example of the hypocrisy of his code of honor, which will allow him to do such things by keeping his hands clean of the direct dirty work. Certainly at no point does the movie imply that surrendering one’s own humanity in attacking an enemy, even a terrifying and unbelievably destructive one like the Nazis, would be a good trade.

I fail to see how sabre-rattling against Islam as a whole- or trying to include horrors like the one that happened in Orlando in the fight against ISIL- is productive in any way, but it _is_ undoubtedly dehumanizing to those who let themselves embrace it. It also, not coincidentally, leads them to be absurdly credulous about horror stories told regarding those they have dehumanized.

Posted By robbushblog : July 19, 2016 4:43 pm

Great, great movie. I consider it my third favorite P&P production behind BLACK NARCISSUS and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

And I’m for leaving political discussions off of the Morlocks’ page, whether they be left, right, center or other. Let’s talk about movies, folks. This ain’t Facebook or Reddit.

Posted By swac44 : July 21, 2016 4:46 pm

It’s not so much a discussion as one person screaming at the rest of us. And this isn’t the right soapbox.

Posted By Autist : July 21, 2016 5:03 pm

I agree that this is not the proper forum for a political discussion, but it’s also not the proper forum for spreading misinformation. The claim that the founders of Snopes were arrested is false:

If you look at the bottom of the article that was linked to, it says the following: “EDITORS NOTE: This political satire column originally appeared in the Peoples Cube.” I’m tempted to call it an urban legend, but it’s just an outright lie.

Posted By George : July 22, 2016 8:34 pm

I’ve noticed an increasing tendency, especially online, for people to use movie discussions as an excuse to score political points. (Not so much on this site, but on others.) I agree that it has become tiresome and out of place.

Right-wingers gleefully bashed last winter’s HATEFUL EIGHT and HAIL, CAESAR! (without bothering to see either), citing their lackluster box office as “proof” that audiences reject the “anti-American” views of Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and George Clooney.

We’re seen how the new GHOSTBUSTERS, a fluffy summer comedy (like the ’84 original), has somehow become ground zero for the culture wars and gender wars.

And there are lefties who see old movies through the lens of contemporary racial and sexual politics. I’m sorry, but a movie made decades ago is (probably) not going to reflect current views of female or minority empowerment.

I don’t mind this on an occasional basis, but it has become so prevalent that it is now really annoying.

Posted By robbushblog : July 22, 2016 8:52 pm

I’m a right-winger and greatly enjoyed both THE HATEFUL EIGHT and HAIL, CAESAR! Boxing people in isn’t always so easy, but I agree with you on people using movies to approach political conversations. It’s annoying. I like to keep the two separate, unless the whole point of the movie is to approach politics, or if the subtext is so obvious as to be not “sub” at all.

Let’s just keep it about movies.

Posted By robbushblog : July 22, 2016 8:52 pm

In my previous post, the “!” was used by the Coen Brothers in the title of their film. I was not yelling at you, George.

Posted By George : July 22, 2016 11:25 pm

Understood, Rob. I was trying to point out that people on both sides of the aisle have used movies to make political points — whether it’s people on the left promoting political correctness, or people on the right looking for any excuse to demonize Clooney or Tarantino (especially after QT’s comments about cops).

It’s different when a FILMMAKER uses a movie to promote a political view. Then we have to talk about it, as you said.

Posted By Flora : July 23, 2016 12:11 am

You are so right George.

On both sides.

I use movies and TV as examples for things as I am such a big fan that I literally have things memorized and say things like:

Remember how when when such and such actor in this film did this?

But because there is an election going on in the USA while Canada has already had their election and I have family in the US, I got sucked into reading off topic threads and talking politics.

That is not why I joined TCM sites.

I only joined to share my friend’s website.

How did I end up obsessed with something over which I have no control?

I finally figured out a way to stop it.

I had to become mean and nasty to my friend on my profile so everyone would read it and I would be banned as I had humiliated myself and wanted no more warning points.

I had no respect.

So I wanted to be banned.

It is a sad day when someone WANTS to be banned, instead of how I was banned from the website Hubpages where I was banned for talking about my mental health during mental health awareness.

Frankly, the overall website has far too many options for me as I am easily distracted by lit up notifications and thousands of threads within one category.

With Morlocks, it is much easier to follow as there is a new blog and you must subscribe to it, and you have the option of unsubscribing.

There are No private messages.

Yes indeed.

When movie makers, singer/songwriters, authours etc. make a political film it means something.

Bowling for Columbine for example.

I wish people would not demonize anyone who is famous for free speech.

John Lennon was murdered because he said in “Imagine” – “imagine no possessions.”

He was talking about eliminating causes for war.

Someone decided that rivh people should shut up about posessions and killed him.

Posted By Doug : July 23, 2016 12:53 am

“HAIL, CAESAR!” had me grinning all the way through. Haven’t watched “Hateful Eight” yet-waiting for a snowstorm.

Posted By Autist : July 23, 2016 1:52 am

“John Lennon was murdered because he said in “Imagine” – “imagine no possessions.” He was talking about eliminating causes for war. Someone decided that rivh people should shut up about posessions and killed him.”

Again, this is no place for either political arguments or misinformation. Lennon was killed by a nut.

Posted By George : July 23, 2016 4:00 am

I’d like to ban the word “problematic” from movie discussions. It usually describes a movie from decades past that doesn’t jibe with current attitudes toward race, gender or sexual orientation. Well, of course it doesn’t reflect current attitudes! It’s an OLD MOVIE.

Take all those ’70s movies where black and white characters casually drop the “N” word. That would be insensitive today, but it was historically accurate; a lot of people were still using that word in the ’70s. The movies were reflecting an unpleasant reality. So I don’t want them banned or equipped with “trigger warnings.”

Posted By Flora : July 23, 2016 7:07 am

Autist: That was my whole point.

Posted By Autist : July 23, 2016 2:50 pm

Oh, OK. Sorry!

Posted By David Kalat : July 24, 2016 4:56 pm

Wow, so this “debate” rages on, huh?

I’m not against political discussions with respect to films–I don’t know how to engage with movies except through the lens of my own values, and I believe movies work as windows into the attitudes of the cultures that made them. Every movie is in some dimension political. I also pointedly invite these kinds of debates by deliberately including provocative language as bait.

But I really don’t see what Kathy’s trying to drive at–Colonel Blimp and my essay about it are about how to find the humanity in your opponents, and the importance of recognizing that common humanity even as you steel yourself to fight them.

I’m a short-timer here so I’ve got nothing left to lose, might as well say my mind: if the thing that distinguishes your enemy is that they are monsters, then you can’t possibly defeat them by being more like them. All you do is turn yourself into a monster too, and then you’re just like them. We will win this fight not by turning into our enemies but by being better than them. You defend civilization by being civilized.

Posted By George : July 24, 2016 8:22 pm

There are many, many political sites where Kathy could debate people about this. Her recent posts have departed from any discussion about a movie.

Posted By Emgee : July 24, 2016 8:38 pm

You’d think the name MOVIE Morlocks would be sufficient. Please keep all future posts on the topic of movies or get thee hence.

Posted By Doug : July 25, 2016 12:19 pm

“I’m a short-timer here so I’ve got nothing left to lose” …but…why…how…?
Time marches on and so do all of us.
To Kathy-I may be politically to the right of Rush Limbaugh (I said MAY), but I leave that suit in the closet when visiting Movie Morlocks. Arguing politics on a non-political site engenders antipathy; you can’t ‘argue’ anyone out of their beliefs; that goes for religion and the New York Yankees also.
Come to Morlocks, discuss the movies and movie criticism, but save the political arguing for Facebook or wherever else you go.

Posted By Flora : July 25, 2016 5:39 pm

RE: Doug:

You do not know how right you are in regards to what you said in regards to me, these blogs, and Facebook. I am a woman. I am a writer and I was trying to keep track with various closed groups so that I could figure out how to get a hold of ASCAP in terms of my later father’s music. Not a lot of money. Maybe a couple hundred a year – and real people in the music busines got my contact info.

An I had fb contact with friends who no longer live near me, and I followed some of my favourite actors’ pages.

That was fine.

But because of the political election coming up a lot of trending topics were the election coverage and not just satire videos by people like Jon Stewart.

Just like with my issues I mention in my earlier long winded – no I’m putting myself down – essay or tirade if you prefer about my frustration with the fact that the TCM forums seem to take place entirely off topic threads about politics all over the world.

As a FEMALE fan of movies, music etc who was on these social media sites for non-political comments outside talking about films about politics, this was so much a problem that I felt like I was being stalked in the online world – ie facebook – because I was constantly being tagged by a man whom I have never met in person but instead on writing sites.

This is a male.

FEmales are not safe online on sites like Facebook because men can say not only derogatory things but frightening things.

You will notice in all my posts thaat I never give you a blog address. I have several.

But I am not talking movies there. I’m talking about my own life.

So I do not give you one.


I will focus on exactly what you say about Blimp:

Yes indeed you see in this film and various others where the filmmakers try to humamize both sides because by humanizing both sides you try to make sure that there is compassion for the sick, injured, civilians caught up etc. and not just the maan in uniform.

If you don’t, then you – character or real person-

Start to de-huminize people.

Alright and perhaps necessary if you are a member of the military in charge of the president and only interested in saving his life.

But NOT okay if you are a person in a drafted war surrounded by people in higher ranks, people in shell shock which is the original term for PTSD which started to be used because there are a variety of causes of trauma.


They are really talking shell shock.

Posted By George : July 25, 2016 9:09 pm

It’s getting harder to avoid political comments, because of the unique — not to mention bizarre — nature of this political year. This is the most divisive and polarizing election year I’ve lived through since 1968 (the first election year I remember).

Posted By Fred : February 3, 2018 8:30 am

I sure wish some moderator had gone thru and edited out all the political comments entered here. Usually I enjoy reading the comments because I learn even more about the movie and its maker, the actors, etc., but not this time. It’s like everything on TV nowadays—somebody’s always got to interject their political views into the program (even the freakin’ weather!) and I always feel like somebody just farted in church. So much flatulence so often is really off-putting.

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2018 12:46 pm

As much as I detest political discourse being injected into every aspect of life these days, I also dislike the deletion of comments. I prefer a free and open exchange.

Posted By Fred : February 4, 2018 7:10 am

I don’t. I don’t want to engage in a political discussion every time someone opens their yap, including me.

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