The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
The Life and Death of
Colonel Blimp

theatrical poster
Directed by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Produced by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Written by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Starring Roger Livesey
Deborah Kerr
Anton Walbrook
Music by Allan Gray
Cinematography Georges Perinal
Editing by John Seabourne Sr.
Distributed by General Film Distributors
United Artists
Release date(s) 10 June 1943 (1943-06-10)
Running time 163 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £200,000

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a 1943 film by the British film making team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger under the production banner of The Archers. It stars Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr and Anton Walbrook. The title derives from the satirical Colonel Blimp comic strip by David Low but the story itself is original. The film is renowned for its Technicolor cinematography.



The film begins in 1943, the middle of the Second World War. Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) is the leader of a Home Guard squad in a training exercise. He is "captured" in a Turkish bath by soldiers from the opposing side, led by the young lieutenant "Spud" Wilson. Wilson has struck pre-emptively, breaking established conventions of war, as he believes this is how the Germans fight. He ignores Candy's outraged protests that "War starts at midnight!" and they scuffle and fall into a bathing pool.

The film segues back forty years to 1902 when Candy was a young lieutenant, and begins an extended flashback starting with his days as a young and impetuous officer. The flashback lasts for most of the film following Candy's life, eventually leading back to the altercation in the Turkish bath.

Boer War

In 1902, Candy is an officer on leave from the Boer War in South Africa, where he has been awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry. Through a friend, he receives a letter from Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), a woman he has never met who is working in Berlin as an English teacher. She complains that a German named Kaunitz is spreading anti-British propaganda about the Boer War, and she wants the British embassy to do something about it. When Candy brings this to his superiors' attention, they refuse him permission to intervene, as he is a soldier, not a diplomat – but he decides to act anyway.

Candy and Edith go to a fashionable café, where he recognises Kaunitz as a former spy and double agent who had been captured in South Africa by his division. He confronts Kaunitz who, during their exchange, spits in his face. Provoked, Candy manages to inadvertently insult the entire Imperial German Army officer corps, creating a diplomatic incident. As a result, he is forced to fight a duel with a German officer chosen by lot: Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) – although the German privately disapproves of duelling. In order to avoid a diplomatic crisis, the duel is officially said to be over Edith's honour.

After the duel, Candy and Theo become friends while recuperating from their wounds in the same nursing home. Edith visits them both regularly and although it is implied that she has feelings for Clive,[1] she becomes engaged to Theo. Candy is delighted and leaves for home, but soon realises to his consternation that he loves her himself.

The film then moves forward to the First World War, showing the passage of time through a montage of trophies from Candy's hunting trips all over the world from 1903 to 1914; the last "trophy" is a German helmet labelled "Hun – Flanders" and dated 1918.

First World War

As a Brigadier General in the First World War, Candy believes that the Allies won the war because "right is might",[2] even though it is implied in one scene that the Allies use unsportsmanlike methods to extract information whilst Candy's back is turned.

By chance, he meets a nurse, Barbara Wynne (Kerr's second role), at a convent where he is sent for dinner and is surprised by her striking resemblance to Edith. Attempting to learn her identity once he is back in England, he stages a party for Yorkshire war nurses, in the (successful) hope that he would meet her again. He courts and marries her despite their twenty-year age difference. Upon entering their house, Barbara makes Clive promise that he will "never change." Candy swears not to until his house is flooded and "this is a lake."

Concerned for the welfare of his friend, Candy tracks Theo down at a prisoner of war camp in England after the Armistice. Candy greets his friend as if nothing has changed, but is snubbed. Later, on his way back to Germany to be repatriated, Theo apologises and accepts an invitation to Clive's house. He remains sceptical of the assertions of the officers and government officials he meets there that his country will be treated fairly, and he returns to Germany with little hope.

Once again, time moves forward in a montage. Candy's wife dies between the world wars of an undisclosed cause. Candy is retired in 1935.

Second World War

In 1939, at an immigration office in wartime England, an older and sadder Theo relates to an official questioning him how his children had become Nazis and were estranged from him. Before the war, he had refused to move to England when his wife Edith wanted to; by the time he was ready, she had died. As with Barbara, the cause of her death is not revealed. Candy shows up in time to vouch for Theo and save him from internment.

After dinner, Candy reveals to Theo that he loved Edith and only realised it when it was too late. He admits that he never got over it, and shows Theo a portrait of his dead wife Barbara. Theo does not immediately see the similarity, as he and Edith had grown old together, and his memories are of an older Edith. Theo then meets Clive's driver, Angela "Johnny" Cannon (Kerr's third role), who reveals that Candy had personally chosen her out of 700 other women. Theo is amused by the resemblance between her, Barbara, and Edith.

Candy, who has been restored by the War Office to the active list, is engaged by the BBC to give a radio talk regarding the British Army's retreat from Dunkirk. Candy plans to say that he would rather lose the war than win it using the methods employed by the Nazis – but this sentiment ensures his talk is cancelled at the last minute. Theo reads the speech beforehand, realises that this would happen, and urges his friend to accept the need to fight and win by whatever means are necessary, since the consequences of losing are so dire.

Now apparently irrelevant, Candy is sent back into retirement, but, at Theo's and Angela's vigorous suggestions, he turns his energy to the Home Guard, Britain's secondary line of defence against invasion. Another montage, this time taken from Picture Post dated September 19, 1942, illustrates how Candy's energy and connections are instrumental in helping to build up the Home Guard. His resolve does not waver even when his house is bombed in the Blitz (in which his batman-turned-butler is killed) and is replaced by an emergency water supply cistern. He moves to his club, where he relaxes with his staff officers in a Turkish bath before the scheduled beginning of a training exercise he has arranged.

The film has now come full circle. The brash young lieutenant who captures Candy is in fact Johnny's boyfriend. He had used her as an unwitting spy to learn about Candy's plans and location. When she discovers this, she tries to warn Candy, but is too late. Candy is held prisoner for a few hours and is humbled by the incident.

Theo and Johnny find Candy sitting in a park across the street from his old house. He recalls that when he had visited Germany against orders, he had been given a severe dressing down by his superior in the War Office. Afterwards, the man had invited him to dinner. He declined, but had often regretted doing so. He then orders Johnny to invite her boyfriend to dinner and "he'd better accept".

Clive remembers the promise he made years ago to Barbara that he would "never change" until his house is flooded and "this is a lake". Seeing the water cistern, he realises that "here is the lake and I still haven't changed". The film ends with Candy saluting the new guard as it passes by playing a patriotic song in his honour.[3]


  • Ursula Jeans as Frau von Kalteneck
  • James McKechnie as Spud Wilson
  • David Hutcheson as Hoppy
  • Frith Banbury as Baby-Face Fitzroy
  • Muriel Aked as Aunt Margaret
  • John Laurie as Murdoch
  • Neville Mapp as Stuffy Graves
  • Vincent Holman as Club porter (1942)
  • Spencer Trevor as Period Blimp
  • Roland Culver as Colonel Betteridge
  • James Knight as Club porter (1902)
  • Dennis Arundell as Café orchestra leader
  • David Ward as Kaunitz
  • Valentine Dyall as von Schönborn
  • A. E. Matthews as President of Tribunal
  • Carl Jaffe as von Reumann
  • Albert Lieven as von Ritter
  • Eric Maturin as Colonel Goodhead
  • Robert Harris as Embassy Secretary
  • Arthur Wontner as Embassy Counsellor
  • Theodore Zichy as Colonel Borg
  • Jane Millican as Nurse Erna
  • Reginald Tate as van Zijl
  • Captain W. Barrett as The Texan
  • Corporal Thomas Palmer as The Sergeant
  • Yvonne Andre as The Nun
  • Marjorie Gresley as The Matron
  • Felix Aylmer as The Bishop
  • Helen Debroy as Mrs.Wynne
  • Norman Pierce as Mr. Wynne
  • Harry Welchman as Major Davies
  • Edward Cooper as B.B.C. Official

Cast notes:


According to the directors, the idea for the film did not come from the newspaper comic strip by David Low but from a scene cut from their previous film, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, in which an elderly member of the crew tells a younger one, "You don't know what it's like to be old." Powell has stated that the idea was actually suggested by David Lean (then an editor) who when removing the scene from the film, mentioned that the premise of the conversation was worthy of a film in its own right.[5]

Powell wanted Wendy Hiller to play Kerr's parts but she pulled out due to pregnancy. The character of Frau von Kalteneck, a friend of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, was played by Roger Livesey's wife Ursula Jeans; although they often appeared on stage together this was their only appearance together in a film.

Further problems were caused by Prime Minister Winston Churchill who, prompted by objections from James Grigg, his secretary of state for war, sent a memo suggesting the production be stopped. Grigg warned that the public's belief in the "Blimp conception of the Army officer" would be given "a new lease of life".[6] After Ministry of Information and War Office officials had viewed a rough cut, objections were withdrawn in May 1943. Churchill's disapproval remained, however, and at his insistence an export ban, much exploited in advertising by the British distributors, remained in place until August of that year.[6]

The film was shot in four months at Denham Film Studios and on location in and around London, and at Denton Hall in West Yorkshire. Filming was made difficult by the wartime shortages and by Churchill's objections leading to a ban on the production crew having access to any military personnel or equipment. But they still managed to "find" quite a few Army vehicles and plenty of uniforms.


The film was released in the UK in 1943. Due to the British government's disapproval of the film, it was not released in the United States until 1945 and then in a modified form, as The Adventures of Colonel Blimp or simply Colonel Blimp. The original cut was 163 minutes. It was reduced to a 150-minute version, then later to 90 minutes for television. One of the crucial changes made to the shortened versions was the removal of the film's flashback structure.[7]

In 1983, the original cut was restored for a re-release, much to Emeric Pressburger's delight. Pressburger, as affirmed by his grandson Kevin Macdonald on a Carlton Region 2 DVD featurette, considered Blimp the best of his and Powell's works.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp underwent a complete restoration similar to that performed on The Red Shoes. With fundraising spearheaded by Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, the restoration work was completed by Robert Gitt (assisted by Barbara Whitehead) at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The restored version premièred in New York on 6 November 2011 followed by a screening in London on 30 November.


The film was heavily attacked on release mainly because of its sympathetic presentation of a German officer, albeit an anti-Nazi one, who is more down-to-earth and realistic than the central British character. It should be noted that sympathetic German characters had previously appeared in the films of Powell and Pressburger, for example The Spy in Black and 49th Parallel, which were also made during wartime.

Although the film is strongly pro-British, it is a satire on the British Army, especially its leadership. It suggests that Britain needs to "fight dirty" in the face of such an evil enemy as Nazi Germany.[8] There is also a certain similarity between Candy and Churchill and some historians have suggested that Churchill may have wanted the production stopped because he had mistaken the film for a parody of himself (he had himself served in the Boer War).[9][10] Churchill's exact reasons remain unclear, but he was acting only on a description of the planned film from his staff, not on a viewing of the film.

Other critics comment:

What is it really about?
Colonel Blimp is as unmistakably a British product as Yorkshire pudding and, like the latter, it has a delectable savor all its own.
New York Times, March 30, 1945
It addresses something I've always been profoundly interested in – what it means to be English ... it is about bigger things than the war. It takes a longer view of history which was an extraordinarily brave thing for someone to do in 1943, at a time when history seemed to have disintegrated into its most helpless, impossible and unforgivable state.
Stephen Fry, interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, 2003

The film provoked an extremist (and unintentionally funny) pamphlet The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp by "right-wing sociologists E. W. and M. M. Robson," members of the obscure Sidneyan Society:

[A] highly elaborate, flashy, flabby and costly film, the most disgraceful production that has ever emanated from a British film studio.

In recent years, particularly after the highly successful re-release of the film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has been re-evaluated critically[11] and is today regarded as a masterpiece of British cinema. The film is praised for its dazzling Technicolor cinematography (which, with later films such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, would become The Archers' greatest legacy), the performances by the lead actors as well as for transforming, in Roger Ebert's words; "a blustering, pigheaded caricature into one of the most loved of all movie characters".[12]

The film currently has a rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.


  • Michael Powell once said of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that it is
... a 100% British film but it's photographed by a Frenchman, it's written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech; in other words, it was the kind of film that I've always worked on with a mixed crew of every nationality, no frontiers of any kind."[13]
At other times he has also pointed out that the designer was German, and the leads were Austrian, Scottish and Welsh.
  • David Mamet has written: "My idea of perfection is Roger Livesey (my favorite actor) in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (my favorite film) about to fight Anton Walbrook (my other favorite actor)."[14]
  • A close copy of the portrait of his wife Barbara shown by Candy to Kretschmar-Schuldorff when they meet at the start of the Second World War was used as a prop in the film The League of Gentlemen in which Roger Livesey appears as a former army officer turned con-man who makes his living by posing as clergymen of various faiths.

See also



  1. ^ This is suggested by Michael Powell in the DVD commentary track.
  2. ^ Moor, Andrew (2005). Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces (Cinema and Society). London: I. B. Tauris. p. 76. ISBN 1850439478. 
  3. ^ The death of the old ideas is the death referred to in the title. The final shot is a close-up of the motto on the tapestry used as the background in the opening scene which states "Sic Transit Gloria Candy" (Thus passes the glory of Candy), parodying the well-known saying, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi — "Thus passes the glory of the world", i.e., fame is fleeting.
  4. ^ Erik at the Internet Movie Database, Spangle at the Internet Movie Database
  5. ^ Michael Powell, commentary on the Criterion Collection Laserdisc (also available on the Criterion DVD)
  6. ^ a b Aldgate, Anthony; Richards, Jeffrey (1999). Best of British. Cinema and Society (2 ed.). London: I. B. Taurus. ISBN 9781860642883. 
  7. ^ As may be seen in the shortened version available at some national libraries like the BFI
  8. ^ As is shown in the film in Theo's speech to Clive after Clive's broadcast is cancelled
  9. ^ Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1994). Ian Christie. ed. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-14355-5. 
  10. ^ A. L. Kennedy (1997). The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. BFI. ISBN 0-85170-568-5. 
  11. ^ Chapman, James (March 1995). "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: reconsidered.". Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. pp. 19–36. 
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 27, 2002). "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)". 
  13. ^ Ian Christie, "Powell and Pressburger", 1985; in David Lazar, Michael Powell: Interviews, 2003. ISBN 1578064988
  14. ^ David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla, 2007, p. 148


Includes the contents of Public Record Office file on the film
  • Christie, Ian. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (script) by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-571-14355-5.
Includes the contents of Public Record Office file on the film, memos to & from Churchill and the script showing the difference between the original and final versions

External links

DVD reviews
Region 2 UK – Carlton DVD
Region 2 France – Warner Home Vidéo / L'Institut Lumière
  • Review by John White at DVD Times (UK)
Region 1 USA – Criterion Collection
DVD Comparisons
  • DVD Beaver comparison of Carlton & Criterion releases
  • Celtoslavica comparison of Carlton & Criterion releases

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