29 October 2007

Victory by Blimp

War starts at midnight: Roger Livesey (Blimp)
and Deborah Kerr (“Johnny”) in
Colonel Blimp

Paris being the sort of place where the passing of an artist is commemorated with exhibitions, I was able to return to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1943 Technicolor epic, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the other day. The screening paid homage to the leading lady, Deborah Kerr, displayed in the full blooming flower of her luscious youth. She portrays three incarnations of a particular ideal of British womanhood: a feisty governess, a genteel hostess, and best of all, a spunky soldier in the women’s Army who hates her given name, Angela, and announces, “My friends call me Johnny.”

I hadn’t seen the film since 1980, when Powell visited the Brown campus with a cartload of his richly imagined films, only a few years after I’d met Deborah Kerr, his muse. Thus Colonel Blimp is the rare movie in which I “know” the responsible parties, and as such it commands my attention. But it’s also a war movie, and a satirical depiction of a class of English society taught “to fight like gentlemen,” who discover that history has moved on and that the modern enemy are no gentlemen at all. Though I remembered the film with admiration and affection, I hadn’t anticipated that Colonel Blimp would speak to me so directly about current events, and the war that America is fighting today.

Colonel Blimp is a propaganda film, like several that Powell and Pressburger produced during World War II: one of the finest of these is The 49th Parallel, a passionate plea to Canada to come to the aid of the Empire, even though the Nazi threat appears (and underscore “appears”) so far distant that it’s somebody else’s problem altogether. And on its surface, Colonel Blimp is an attempt to boost wartime morale by poking fun at fuddy-duddy attitudes. The leading character was born in a comic strip, and predictably enough he’s full of hot air, clinging to old orders.

Somehow Powell and Pressburger turned Blimp into a shrewdly observed, fully dimensional, human figure. A veteran of the Boer War and World War I, he’s brought out of retirement at the dawn of World War II — and almost immediately returned to the inactive list when he declares he’d rather see Britain lose the war than fight dirty, the way the Germans do. He’s frequently brought short by a younger generation, including “Johnny” Cannon’s boyfriend, who are more willing to do what it takes to win — even citing Pearl Harbor as a model for a surprise attack.

Strong advice: Anton Walbrook as Theo

Later in the film, Blimp’s best friend, a German refugee and a gentleman and retired army officer himself (portrayed by the always wonderful Anton Walbrook), gives him some straight talk. “You’ve been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman, in peace and in war,” he says. “But Clive! Dear old Clive, this is not a gentleman's war. This time you're fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain: Nazism. And if you lose, there won't be a return match next year, perhaps not even for a hundred years.”

This is of course the argument being espoused by Vice-President Cheney, among others, in the current struggle. Preemptive strikes, secret prisons, eavesdropping on one’s own citizens and imprisoning them without due process or proper legal defense, and the adoption of Nazi and Soviet interrogation methods: all these things are justified, we are told, by the need to defend the nation from an inarguably deadly enemy.

Yet the passing of 64 years has made it possible to view Colonel Blimp in a different light, and I suspect the same light will shine eventually on the positions taken by the current U.S. administration. In World War II, Britain and America played mostly fair, and we won anyway — though we couldn’t know the outcome when Powell and Pressburger made their movie. We know more now about the Nazi tactics, too, than we did in 1943, and we have a better grasp of what it would have meant to employ them: we know, for example, that the Nazis were weakened by, not strengthened by, those tactics. And we know that we would not want to be like the Nazis in any way at all. We can tell the world that we are not Nazis, and the world hears us.

For on a more purely philosophical basis, the more you behave like your enemy, the less distinction there is between you. When the enemy is (as the Nazis were, as Al Qaeda is) bent not merely on conquering you but also on converting to you to his philosophy, you hand him victory every time you behave as he would. Quite a lot of unpalatable practices are justified in the pursuit of defense, but if you cross a line, you are defending buildings, not a nation. You are defending lives, perhaps, but not the worth of those lives. And you make it more difficult for the people you’ve saved, and their children and grandchildren, to hold their heads high, as free and righteous citizens.

This is not at all the message that Powell and Pressburger intended to send in a propaganda film made at the height of wartime. But it’s the message I heard, not least because the filmmakers made a figure of fun a character so sympathetic — you understand why he makes his arguments, whether or not you agree with them — and also because I believe that the spirit embodied by Deborah Kerr is worth not merely defending but preserving.