Colonel Blimp and An Inspector Calls

TCM recently showed the 2011 restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and I think it’s entered my pantheon of movies that I’ll watch any time they’re on — even considering its 163-minute running time. Like many an epic (e.g. Citizen Kane), Colonel Blimp brings the audience to understand, to respect — to love — its hero, in all his faults and glories.

A very very abbreviated plot summary: A Home Guard war game is won before it begins when the plucky young commander breaks the game’s rules and launches a preemptive raid on the Turkish baths, capturing and detaining the rival commander — stodgy, walrus-faced Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy — with exactly the same exhilarating energy with which the Dirty Dozen (1967) changed their armbands. Candy is splutteringly apoplectic, especially when the victorious youth insults his paunch and his mustaches. Flashback to the year 1902: a clean-shaven Candy, on a month’s leave from the Second Boer War, needling his superiors. An impulsive trip to Berlin to hunt down an old enemy now spreading British atrocity propaganda. An accidental insult to the honor of the German armed forces; a duel; a scar; a friendship with Theo, his dueling rival; Theo marries his girl. World War I; France; a nurse’s face reminds him of the one who got away; he marries her. Theo is captured, imprisoned, released, brooding on the future of a broken and defeated Germany. Candy’s wife dies. On the eve of World War II, Theo seeks asylum in England; Candy vouches for him. Candy plans a radio speech praising the British spirit, but at the last minute his speech is pulled. There follows a powerful dialogue to which transcription probably cannot do justice.

CLIVE: Does my knowledge count for nothing, eh? Experience? Skill? You tell me.

THEO: It is a different knowledge they need now, Clive. The enemy is different; so you have to be different, too.

CLIVE: Are you mad? I know what war is!

THEO: I don’t agree.

CLIVE: You—!

THEO: I read your broadcast up to the point where you describe the collapse of France. You commented on Nazi methods — foul fighting; bombing refugees; machine-gunning hospitals, lifeboats, lightships, bailed-out pilots, and so on — by saying that you despised them; that you would be ashamed to fight on their side; and that you would sooner accept defeat than victory, if it could only be won by those methods.

CLIVE: So I would!

THEO: Clive, if you let yourself be defeated by them, just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you… there won’t be any methods but Nazi methods! If you preach the rules of the game, while they use every foul and filthy trick against you— they’ll laugh at you. They’ll think you’re weak! Decadent! I thought so myself, in 1919.

CLIVE: I heard all that in the last war. They fought foul then— and who won it?

THEO: I don’t think you won it. We lost it; but you lost something too. You forgot to learn the moral. Because victory was yours, you failed to learn your lesson twenty years ago; and now you have to pay the school fees again. Some of you will learn quicker than the others. Some will never learn it, because you’ve been educated to be a gentleman, and a sportsman, in peace and in war. 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.

Candy (played beautifully by Roger Livesey) seems gradually to come to an understanding that his Boer-era sense of fair play is out of step with the times. Which is not to say that he comes to see his wrong-headedness — I don’t even think he is wrong, not about fairness and honor and all that. But he takes a quiet position in the Home Guard, leaving the strategy and the messaging to other heads. When his home is bombed in the Blitz, he moves into the Turkish baths. And there, as the flashback catches up with the present day, we find him ambushed by the impudent lieutenant and his “gang of awful militia gangsters.” And as the victorious mock army, forty years his junior, marches into London, General Wynne-Candy salutes.

See also:

When Candy’s radio address is cancelled, J. B. Priestley goes on instead; which made me think I should read some of Priestley’s works. Specifically, An Inspector Calls (1945). You can read it here with an Internet Archive account. I highly recommend it.

It’s one of these Shavian socialist-moralist plays, set in a capitalist’s dining room in the North Midlands circa 1912. A rather intimidating police inspector arrives with enquiries regarding the suicide of some poor girl; and it comes out over the course of three acts, in Ten Little Indians style, that this girl used to work in portly Mr. Birling’s factory until she was dismissed for labor-agitating; and then she worked retail until one day the Birling daughter had her fired in a fit of pique—

Well, when I tried the thing on and looked at myself and knew that it was all wrong, I caught sight of this girl smiling at Miss Francis — as if to say: “Doesn’t she look awful” — and I was absolutely furious. I was very rude to both of them, and then I went to the manager and told him that this girl had been very impertinent— and— and— (She almost breaks down, but just controls herself.) How could I know what would happen afterwards? If she’d been some miserable plain little creature, I don’t suppose I’d have done it. But she was very pretty and looked as if she could take care of herself. I couldn’t be sorry for her.

INSPECTOR: In fact, in a kind of way, you might be said to have been jealous of her.

SHEILA: Yes, I suppose so.

INSPECTOR: And so you used the power you had, as a daughter of a good customer and also of a man well-known in the town, to punish the girl just because she made you feel like that?

SHEILA: Yes, but it didn’t seem to be anything very terrible at the time. Don’t you understand? And if I could help her now, I would—

INSPECTOR (harshly): Yes, but you can’t. It’s too late. She’s dead.

Next the jobless girl encountered Sheila’s fiancé Gerald, who took pity on her and “kept” her in a flat in town — until the arrangement was no longer convenient. And then the son of the family, Eric, who first raped and then kept her, until she became pregnant. The girl, alone and scared, appealed to the local Women’s Charity Organization; but the head of the board (by now you’ll have guessed this was Mrs. Birling) didn’t care for her manner, and refused her case…

Priestley’s monologues are affecting, but the cleverest turn of the screw (or twist of the knife in the audience’s gut) comes at the end, when the omniscient Inspector has departed, and all but the youngest generation have reverted to worrying about only themselves. Gerald has the bright idea that perhaps it wasn’t a real policeman after all; perhaps it was all a hoax; perhaps they’re all in the clear. Birling rings up the police station and learns that no inspector by that name exists. Birling rings up the hospital and learns that no suicides at all have come in tonight.

BIRLING: Come on, Sheila, don’t look like that. All over now.

SHEILA: The worst part is. But you’re forgetting one thing I still can’t forget. Everything we said had happened really had happened. If it didn’t end tragically, then that’s lucky for us. But it might have done.


BIRLING: We’ve been had, that’s all.

SHEILA: So nothing really happened. So there’s nothing to be sorry for, nothing to learn. We can all go on behaving just as we did.

MRS. BIRLING: Well, why shouldn’t we?

SHEILA: I tell you — whoever that Inspector was, it was anything but a joke. You knew it then. You began to learn something. And now you’ve stopped. You’re ready to go on in the same old way.

BIRLING (amused): And you’re not, eh?

Birling and wife, and Gerald, are quite ready to dismiss the whole thing as an elaborate hoax, pointing and mocking “the famous younger generation who know it all.”

And then the telephone rings—

Just in case it wasn’t obvious: You should emulate Sheila and spill all your family’s beans to a visiting policeman only if that policeman is a thinly veiled allegory for God and you are a fictional character. Otherwise, keep your trap firmly shut and consult a lawyer. Reading An Inspector Calls from a modern American point of view, it can be difficult at moments to appreciate the moral justice of a situation when it’s been allegorically mixed up with law enforcement.

That’s actually part of what makes the final scene such a clever narrative device: we see the elder Birling’s delight when the threat of worldly punishment vanishes (confirming his lack of moral scruples), and then the playwright brings down the hammer of the law for the second time, delivering the temporal catharsis we were waiting to see.

(I suspect that another of my favorite films, Sleuth (1972), owes a large creative debt to An Inspector Calls.)

As for what cops are up to in 2020s America, I recommend this Washington Post article:

Posted 2020-11-01