Thursday, April 30, 2009

Before Bunty, Blimp was Britain's battleax

One of my favorite films is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, not least because it opens with a terrific scene of British Army dispatch riders in action on their motorcycles. The rider who delivers the message is referred to as a "Don-R" — military speak for Dispatch Rider.

The original Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character that first appeared in British newspapers of the 1930s. Fat and bald, with a walrus mustache, the colonel was often found holding forth in the Turkish bath at his club.

"Egad, Sir!" he would announce. "England must keep her colonies, even if that means we have to buy a geography book and figure out where they are!"

Or: "War is not inevitable and never will be unless we do something about it!"

The similarities to Royal Enfield's own Major Bertram "Bunty" Golightly are obvious, although Bunty makes his outrageous statements on the Internet. Col. Blimp got quite a promotion in 1943, when he became the subject of Life and Death, by movie makers Michael Powell and Emerc Pressburger.

Actor Roger Livesey brought Blimp to life as British officer (eventually general) Clive Wynne-Candy.

Making a Technicolor comedy about an overweight British general during World War II was controversial. Winston Churchill personally tried to block distribution of the film, for fear it would hurt army morale.

Powell was denied military help making the picture, a real problem since nearly all the male actors of military age were in the military in 1942. Plastic manikins in uniform were used to fill out crowd scenes.

When the Ministry of Information asked Powell where he DID get the guns and other materials shown in the movie, he said he responded "we stole them, sir; you just don't understand how studio prop men work. They'll get you anything."

The authorities might not have liked it, but audiences adored the patriotic old officer. Besides, if Clive wasn't worth fighting for, the then 21-year-old Deborah Kerr, lips Technicolor red, certainly was.

IMDB photo

Ultimately, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was a terrifically effective propaganda film. Today the lengthy speeches about the need to fight Nazism would be left unsaid. But they were accurate enough. Pressburger wrote them; born in Hungary, he had fled that evil.

If you haven't seen the film, here's a bit of a spoiler: Clive Wynne-Candy doesn't die in the end. For the man who invented Colonel Blimp, however, the end of the war did eventually bring an end to his creation. Cartoonist David Low wrote in his autobiography:

"When World War II ended there was just as much mental muddle in the world, perhaps even more than before; but Blimp as a character had become too identified with the pre-war and war years to fit easily into the post-war chapter."

Luckily, in our Bunty, fans of Royal Enfield motorcycles can still enjoy the outrageous pronouncements of just such a patriotic blowhard. The Royal Enfield Military model is a decent substitute for the dispatch rider's motorcycle of World War II.

I know of no substitute for Deborah Kerr.


  1. Anonymous9/25/2009

    mal from aus ihave 3 enfeilds 2 47 j and indian bullet i love them all

  2. Anonymous10/22/2009

    This sequence had the wrong colour DR boots being worn, with no turned over socks over the boot tops. The rider upset by a rope inside the farm is another man dressed in battledress trousers & tunics & canvas gaiters. A terrible blatant continuity error!!! The rider entering the farmhouse to report, as seen from above, IS a DR in breeches & boots, jerkin & helmet! How the "Archers" could allow such a miserable & very obvious, continuity error amazes me!!! An 83 year old long time film enthusiast & DVD viewer/collector. John.

  3. John, you have sharp eyes! Thank you for adding this information to the discussion.

  4. My uncle was a DR in London during the blitz. I have a pic with him on a WL Harley but I think they rode mostly BSA M20's. As a Canadian DR he probably rode on the fuel tank more than the seat. haha. I have his old issue boot knife.


Follow royalenfields on Twitter