War, propaganda and conservative values - 3

Posted by Helen Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bear with me. These musings will be worth reading, particularly when they are turned into an article for the Journal.

The theme of what is English or what is important to all the countries, Britain, America and those of the Empire and Commonwealth, understandably, preoccupied many of the film-makers. The ideas are there in straightforward war films like “In Which We Serve” – duty of service but also private affection and love of those close to one with little emotion displayed – or “The Way Forward”, which shows the birth and growth of the new, more democratic army, with even the officer, played by David Niven, being one who had risen from the ranks.

The most successful if somewhat eccentric of the “what we are fighting for” films are those made by Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger (himself a Hungarian), such as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, a strongly argued case for ordinary decency that uses the image, created by David Low and so despised by the Left, of the bumbling old-fashioned colonel, out of date in the brave new world. The film makes it clear: being out of date is not the worst thing that can happen to one, if it means adhering to old-fashioned honesty and decency.

Churchill did not like the film and, I think, I can understand why. The trouble with Blimp is that he is not terribly bright, while the only highly intelligent decent man in the film is his German friend, played by Anton Walbrook, who escapes from Nazi Germany and tries, without much success, to warn his British friend of the evil that is brewing in that country. I can imagine that Churchill was not too keen on any film that perpetuated the great British assumption that intelligence is somehow bad and suspect.

The Powell-Pressburger films deserve a posting all to themselves but I do need to mention their most audacious attempt to build up a picture of England as the country that is worth fighting for with the true values that needed to be carried on beyond this battle against evil: “The Canterbury Tales”.

While Churchill was not very fond of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” he was, predictably, enamoured with the various historical films of those years, his favourite one being “That Hamilton Woman”, which Tory Historian has never seen, despite it stellar cast.

It is normal for countries to produce historical films during a war and even as one looms on the horizon. What the historical theme might be depends largely on the way that country sees itself. Most of the British ones dealt with the previous times when the country faced up to a strong enemy on the Continent, the two favourite topics being the Spanish Armada and the Napoleonic Wars.

Another film Churchill was rather fond of was “The Young Mr Pitt”, also seen by Tory Historian on that Bank Holiday week-end (one to remember, clearly). Film critics, of whom Tory Historian is most definitely not one, tend to be a bit sniffy about this film. Oh dear, they say, it is so simplistic. We know so little about the reality of the political battle between Fox and Pitt. Not enough is made of the great battles won by Nelson. And, honestly, how … well, really, … how one-sided.

War films do need to be simplistic to a great extent. You can’t afford to let doubts creep in when the country is at risk, as it was when “The Young Mr Pitt” was made in 1941. Unusually for Reed, the shooting and the post-production took a long time and the film was not released till 1942 by which time the United States, part of the targeted audience, was at war.

If “Night Train to Munich” was a pre-Dunkirk film, this one is definitely post-Dunkirk. The mood is mostly dark, though, clearly, there are a few victories reported, notably that of the Nile and Trafalgar. Pitt, we have to remember, died when the Continental menace still loomed large.

“The Young Mr Pitt” is a remarkably skilful film, with quick episodes following one another to give an impression of the great prime minister’s career rather than a historical dissection of it. It is not inaccurate, merely impressionistic.

There is a clear link to Churchill, Pitt the Younger being the one man on whom the salvation of the country depends, as the scene where his temporary successor Addington is harassed by MPs shows. There is, also, the clearly designated American connection, it being of great importance to show that Britain at all times fights for the principles the United States was founded on and lives by.

At the very beginning of the film we see Pitt the Elder, the Earl of Chatham, speaking in the House of Lords against the war with the Colonists, proclaiming: “You will never conquer America.” He refers the ideas of liberty, the language and religion that the two countries have in common. This is echoed later by the younger Pitt, when he denounces revolutionary and Napoleonic France as being inimicable to English ideas of liberty and wanting to impose its language and its irreligion on this country.

That, in a way, is the summary of what Britain is fighting for: her language, her religion, her ideas of liberty.

Unlike other war-time films, this one does not show the people en masse in a good light, taking its cue from Shakespeare and his fears of the mob. Individuals, like the two pugilists who support Pitt through thick and thin, or William Wilberforce (played by John Mills) who longs for peace but has to accept war, come out well. Even Fox offers to serve under Pitt when it becomes clear that nothing but all-out war will serve Napoleon’s purposes.

But the people – oh the people are fickle. If there is a victory, they support Pitt. As soon as things go wrong, they throw bricks at his windows and rotten eggs at his carriage. One wonders whether this was a realistic picture of the mood in Britain in 1941 (without the bricks and the rotten eggs).

The film hinges on the great Robert Donat’s performance. Carol Reed had enticed him back to film-making because they both considered this to be important war work. He himself was of English, Polish and German descent, which accounts for the slightly odd surname but, like Leslie Howard, managed to play the quintessential English hero with no difficulty.

In “The Young Mr Pitt” his performance is superb and all the film’s shortcomings are swallowed up in that. He plays the aged Earl of Chatham as well as Pitt the Younger, whom he takes through from his early political years, when the bouncy young man can barely control his elation at being made prime minister at the age of 24 and has pillow chases up and down the stairs with the young siblings of Lady Eleanor Eden with whom he is obviously in love, through the hard-working, hard-drinking dark days, to the triumph of his post-Trafalgar speech at the Guildhall. The shadow of his early death hangs over that event and Pitt’s defiant toasting of his friends with wine rather than the medication poured out to him by his doctor.

As I have mentioned in a previous posting, Pitt the Younger is presented as a romantic hero, the man who sacrifices his personal happiness and his life to his country and the idea of liberty, which his country represents. The country’s liberty and that of its individual people, that is what Britain fought for in the Napoleonic Wars and that is what it was fighting for in 1941. A simple, comprehensible, and all-embracing idea.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. I can see your point about Col. Blimp, I suppose, since it was a little too subtle to work as war propaganda. But. I don't think Clive Candy, the embodiment of British decency, is actually depicted as stupid. The whole point is to show that the initial impression in the opening scene of a foolish old man is incomplete and mistaken. He got the VC in South Africa. He goes to pre-Great War Germany and doesn't put up with their nonsense, and he knows how to handle himself in a duel, courageously, even though he’d rather not do it. He has a lot of virtues, and does not seem stupid. His service in WWI is not dwelled on, but he is depicted as having served honorably and professionally, though not willing to torture prisoners. By the end he is an old man, but even then he is depicted as being able to train his Home Guard unit with skill. In fact, the sense is that his side would have won the war game if the other team had not cheated. He is brave, decent and given that he is past his prime, competent. He is self-effacing, and he wears all this very lightly. He is an idealist, and the film says that the war was not one which is suitable for idealists. Too true. But it manages to say, at the same time, that it is unfortunate that idealism must give way to brutality to fight Germany, and that it is a loss that this is true. The "smart" German, Theo von Kretschmar-Schuldorf, played, I agree, brilliantly by Anton Walbrook, is after all Clive’s friend. Theo does not seem to consider Clive to be stupid. Ignorant of the scope of the evil in Germany, yes, but not stupid.

    “The Life and Death of Col. Blimp” is my favorite, and I simply cannot let my dear friend General Wynn-Candy be referred to as stupid, when that is not really what Powell and Pressburger were depicting.

    And you absolutely must see “That Hamilton Woman”.

    And you must tell us what you think of “49th Parallel”.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. Hi Lex,

    We shall continue this debate for a long time. All I can advise readers is to see the film and decide for themselves. You are right about the war game - Candy's side would have won it if the little oik who led the other side had not cheated. But the point is that by this time Britain was not fighting an enemy that kept to the rules. Still, General Wynn-Candy is a hero and must be seen as such. Why, in your opinion, did Churchill not like the film?

    Can I make a confession? I have not seen "49th Parallel" either. Shall do as soon as possible. Same applies to "That Hamilton Woman".

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. Churchill did not like the film because he wanted the British to be portrayed as heroic and successful, to unambiguously cheer people up during rough times. Powell and Pressburger showed, in part, how Britain had gotten itself into a fine mess indeed. Churchill did not want to show people that part of the blame for the dire situation was Britain's own national character, its false notion that others believed in fair play and, as we would now say, positive-sum solutions, its lack of wisdom and insight about the rest of the world. Theo, the decent German, has to explain it to them. Theo remembers a room full of distinguished men who wished only to see Germany "on its feet again", not understanding that Germany on its feet was not a trading partner and a neighbor but a mortal enemy. Olivier, as the one-armed Nelson (yes you must see that one) pounding the table and saying you have to "stamp out" dictators was more Churchill's speed -- straightforward war propaganda. Not false, but perhaps overly simple. Churchill legendarily stormed into Anton Walbrook's dressing room, between acts of some play he was performing in, after "Blimp" came out. Walbrook, a German emigre, told Churchill that Britain was the only country in the world where a movie like "Blimp" could be made during a war, and that was something to be proud of. Gen. Wynn-Candy is indeed a tragic hero, in the strict sense. He is a man who embodies a kind of greatness, but whose very sense of fair play and decency and "honest soldiering" are his tragic flaw, outdated due to the absolute barbarism of the Nazi enemy. He loses absolutely everything, his command, his dignity, his home, the women he loves, without a grumble -- pure stiff upper lip. And then, at the end, having lost everything, we see his eyes light up as the "victorious" British troops from the wargame march past. He is still the happy warrior, and he won't change, and the passing of people like him is a loss for Britain and the world.

    49th Parallel is worth seeing. There are only a few Archers films left I have not seen.

  7. Anonymous Says:
  8. I suppose col. Blimp touches on the "English" virtues of fair play and decency but their greatest film is undoubtedly Canterbury Tale. It is well worth seeing today just for its documentary style footage of 1940s Kent and bomb damaged Canterbury. However, its spiritual content contains a message for all people in all times.

  9. Helen Says:
  10. Can't argue with that, f.r. "Canterbury Tales" is a very fine film and its theme is fascinating.

  11. Anonymous Says:
  12. "A Canterbury Tale" is a brilliant movie, with a remarkably theistic, if not religious, untertone. Still, I think it has not aged as well as "Blimp". But both are very much worth seeing.

  13. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

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