The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: The War Film Churchill Tried to Ban

The script for The Archers recasts Colonel Blimp as Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy and presents him in the then 1943 as the rotund and mustachioed caricature familiar from Low’s drawings. A longer flashback goes 40 years into the past and finds Candy as a youthful sub-commissioned officer on leave from the Boer War, the Victoria Cross gleaming on his chest. Tracing this soldier’s life over the next four decades, through three wars and two failed romances, Powell and Pressburger explore how Candy’s reactionary worldview is shaped and consumed by his experiences as an unquestioned servant of the British Army. As Powell wrote in a letter to actor Wendy Hiller, reproduced in the Ian Christie-edited edition of the film’s screenplay: “Disillusionment is born, not born. Let us show that their aversion to any form of change stems from the very qualities that made them invaluable to the in action; that their lives, so full of activity, are equally full of frustration…”

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The institution upset him

The authorities of the Ministry of Information and the War Office were appalled by the project and refused any official support. According to SP Mackenzie’s book British War Films 1939-45, Secretary of State for War PJ Grigg wrote to Powell in June 1934: “I am fed up with the theory that we can best improve our reputation in the eyes of our own people or people. the rest of the world by pointing out the faults that critics impute to us, especially when, as in this case, the criticism no longer makes sense.” A summary of the script reached Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who wrote to Information Secretary Brenden Bracken: “Pray suggest to me the necessary measures to stop this foolish production before it goes any further.”

“Churchill sometimes had a bee in his bonnet about things he didn’t fully understand,” Richard Toye, professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of Winston Churchill: A Life in the News, tells BBC Culture. “He often had tough, repressive instincts when it came to the media, but he didn’t always follow them, and others stood in his way to try to get him to understand.”

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Indeed, Bracken was uncomfortable with Churchill’s request and replied that he had “no power to suppress the film”, warning that “the Government would have to assume very far-reaching powers to stop it”.

“Bracken’s position was that British propaganda was focused on the differences between democracy and dictatorship, and that the suppression of the film would have been done by the Nazis,” James Chapman, professor of film studies at the University of Leicester and author of the film. The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, says BBC Culture. “Even in times of war, a democracy must be strong enough to allow dissenting voices to be expressed.”