It’s 10 September 1942. The German army is at Stalingrad. Bomber Command is sending 479 planes to bomb Düsseldorf. And Winston Churchill is writing to Brendan Bracken, his Minister of Information, about a British film already in production. “[P]ropose to me the measures necessary to stop this foolish production before it gets any further,” he wrote. “Who are the people behind it?”
The film was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the people behind it were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was based on Colonel Blimp, a hugely popular cartoon character created in the 1930s by artist David Low to satirise a particularly British and viciously reactionary worldview.
The filmmakers had already approached the War Office for use of military facilities – and for the release of Laurence Olivier, then in the Fleet Air Arm, to play the lead role. Both requests had been refused.
The film premiered on 10 June 1943. Promoted under the phrase, ‘Come and see the banned film’, it broke box office records, but as late as August that year, Churchill was still stubbornly trying to stop it being distributed overseas. Bracken, for one, saw the problem. “By the time the government have finished with it, there is no knowing what profits it will have earned,” he warned.
It is now widely regarded as a classic of British cinema.
This piece first appeared in the June 2020 Months Past column in History Today.