Elements of Masculine Myth in two British Films from the 40s

‘Elements of Masculine Myth in two British Films from the 40s’ by Canaan Perry. Suggested citation below article.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed, are two films which incite elements of male-centric myth as a template for their narrative generation. The Third Man utilises the genre of the western and the detective crime thriller as a mode of existential exploration which culminates in a kind of narrative dead end, at least in terms of generic audience expectations. Whereas, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp begins with a well known caricature and uses it as a means of documenting the decline of an older mode of male military behaviour and the romantic notions, and narratives, associated with the high stage of British military conquest and imperialism. In this essay I will interrogate how these two texts critique and/or endorse the male-centric narratives on which they are based.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has been described as a “Technicolor epic which chronicles the military career of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) from the turn of the century to World War Two.”[1] The introductory sequence immediately makes the viewer aware of its major thematic concern. This is the contrast between a more contemporary pragmatic mode of British warfare, brought about by the total military ethos precipitated by the outbreak of World War Two, and the apparently gentile codes of past conflicts in which Britain was entangled. In a depicted military exercise, in which the Home Guard, headed by Candy, is supposed to defend London against the regular army, led by Lieutenant ‘Spud’ Wilson (James McKechnie), the younger Wilson decides to launch a pre-emptive strike which is reflective of the contemporary period of war that was characterised by the unannounced German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. “Captured” by the younger forces in the Royal Bathers Club, Candy and the younger soldier verbally and then physically fight and fall into a Turkish bath, which instigates a flashback sequence that makes up the majority of film beginning with Candy’s experiences just after his service in the Boer War up till the present encounter already described. The text follows Candy’s life and his close friendship with a German officer called Lieutenant Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), focussing on their male bonding over their shared interest in a more gentile military modus operandi and their adoration with the image/appearance of a woman which the text expresses in triplicate form through three characters all played by actor Deborah Kerr; Edith Hunter – Theo’s wife, Barbara Wynne – Candy’s wife, and Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon who is Candy’s driver. There are disputed interpretations regarding whether the film actually laments the passing of the old mode of warfare or celebrates it and this is intertwined with its historical context in which the British government, and Winston Churchill himself, became concerned with film’s content.[2] At the very least, I would argue that Colonel Blimp documents a shift in military mentality from the romantic pre-modern mode to a more functionalist modern method which became more prominent in Britain at the outbreak of World War Two.

The Third Man presents the audience with the moral complexities inherent in a nihilistic environment. This is what Nicholls describes as “a city up for grabs.”[3] Set in post-war Vienna divided between the presence of four “governing” military powers amidst the social, political and economic wreckage of World War Two, the naive American pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives to meet his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who has offered him work, only to find that Harry is dead. After, discovering there was a mysterious third man present at the time of Harry’s death Holly sets about applying his simplistic black and white morality template from his cheap western fictions to the chaotic milieu in which he has become entangled and seeks to find the true circumstances of Harry’s death. After encountering a number of desperate Viennese citizens and developing some type of relationship with Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Holly discovers that Harry is a racketeer who has been profiting by selling watered down penicillin which has caused a number of people to die. Furthermore, Holly discovers that Harry is, in fact, alive and being sheltered by the Russian forces in their occupation zone. After an encounter with Harry, in which Harry reveals his nihilistic fantasy to profit at any cost, Holly is denied the usual happy ending we associate with widely consumed American fiction, like Holly’s own western pulp literature, and Hollywood film productions. After a chase scene through the sewers of the city in which Harry really dies the audience is only granted an ambiguous narrative cadence with the final scene of the film denying Holly “the girl.”

A common thread that is a feature of both texts relates to the complexity of expressing widely perceived masculine notions of morality against a backdrop of modernity. In other words, both films incite some form of male mythology but also express the difficulty of conveying such a narrative in an overly modern context, where rationality and functionalism are predominant modes of expressing value. As Chapman points out the origins of the Colonel Blimp character, which Candy represents in the film, are rooted in a cartoon character created “in 1934 by David Low, a left-wing New Zealand-born political cartoonist”[4] and this character was invented to “satirise the British ‘Establishment’ and the political outlook of the ruling élite.”[5] This caricature of a plump figure, garbed only in a towel with a large moustache in the 1930s and 1940s came to be a socially identifiable symbol of “political reaction and military incompetence.”[6] Also, the term ‘blimpery,’ more generally, embodied the same critique of an old military mindset which was publicly seen as having no utility in the modern world of total warfare where rules of conduct where not as paramount as survival. That Powell and Pressburger used this caricature which was associated with this critique of a British tradition where war was suppose to be conducted “by the National Sporting Club rules,”[7] at least initially, indicates to the audience that the text is going to ridicule Candy’s character. Chapman argues in his article that the “film was to urge commitment to the philosophy of total war.”[8] Considering the film as a whole, this is a difficult argument to make, as we, as an audience, see a montage of Candy’s entire professional life from his perspective, in which he treats even his enemies with a certain degree of humanity. Certainly, Candy’s view, where “clean fighting and honest soldering”[9] win the day does not change or develop throughout the course of the film, rather it is his quickly modernising environment that seems to make him obsolescent. When he is due to give a speech on the radio, in the wake of the Dunkirk retreat, the broadcaster states that the authorities think his views are “a little ill timed and might be better postponed”[10] which is really a polite way of saying that his old fashioned views have no place in the current context. By this point of the narrative we have already been exposed to a long montage of Candy’s career and witnessed his unbending dedication to his moral code and it is thus difficult for an audience not to lament the passing of what he represents. So, although the text does not necessarily endorse Candy’s world views it certainly makes us aware that he is committed to them which in itself is an admirable quality that could stimulate audience empathy towards his character and perhaps encourage us to question the immorality of a total war philosophy.

The Third Man also utilises a similar narrative style in that it places its character, who has a simple but clear sense of morality, in a chaotic, realistic modern environment where his presupposed ideas about good and evil are not so clear or easy to apply. When the protagonist Holly confronts Harry on the Prater Wheel in the deserted amusement park, Harry reveals the reasoning behind his opportunistic behaviour. Although Harry’s reasons may be conceived as inhumane and immoral (or amoral) by an audience, his explanation is laden with calculated rationality which is cold but not illogical. For example, in the text Holly, still drawing on his traditional template of morality, asks Harry to consider the victims of his scam and Holly responds, utilising a Bourgeois accountancy model:

Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. It’s the only way you can save money nowadays.[11]

To further justify his position Harry attempts to “analogize himself and totalitarian governments”[12] where the masses are seen as malleable, saying that:

…nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t, so why should we? They talk of the people and the proletariat, and I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing. They have their five year plans and so have I.[13]

Finally, after discussing politics and economics Harry reveals his overly nihilistic world view from his demi-god like position in the cart of the Prater Wheel saying that:[14]

…it’s not that awful – you know what the fellow said…In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.

Dern, in an article where he compares the depiction of Harry Lime to that of Stoker’s Dracula (1897), suggests that Harry expounds a Nietzschean perspective vis-à-vis humanity because “he believes he occupies a privileged position that derives from superior ability.”[15] Confronted with this depiction of Harry Lime, Nicholls eloquently notes that:

Harry may be the perfect modernist character. After the shifting political alliances of the 1930s and 1940s, the ensuing mass murder, atomic destruction and genocide of the Second World War, popular narrative cinema could have little time for the by-gone simplicity of stories about good guys and bad guys. Harry Lime thus stands as a response to the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century; challenging notions of duty patriotism, loyalty and betrayal which found themselves hanging on by the thinnest of threads following the experience of European fascism.”[16]

Yet, Harry is not just there to challenge us, as we do get a sense in the text that he is an antagonist. After all he dies in the sewers of the Austrian capital, “beneath the feet of ‘those dots’”[17] which he mocks from the Prater Wheel. However, the audience is still confronted with a range of logical sounding arguments which may, at least marginally, justify his actions in a chaotic post-war environment, where modernity, with its utilisation of reason and rationality, played an integral role in the philosophical ethos of World War Two. Holly’s is confrontation with an antagonist who is not simply and irrationally evil, and who is also his boyhood friend, highlights the film’s rejection of Holly’s simplistic moral code which is derived from popular cultural productions. It is as if the text asks us to consider the complexities of applying presupposed and widely espoused notions of morality in a real life environment that has rejected philosophical concerns in favour of the pursuit of outcomes where the means are not as important as the ends.

Although the two films both highlight the complexity of applying morality to an amoral context which leads to narrative complication they are different in terms of their depictions of the protagonist acquiring the love interest. In Colonel Blimp Theo and Candy’s friendship is partly formed over their adoration of the image of the same woman. The trio of characters played by Deborah Kerr Edith/Barbara/Angela are in fact likened to a piece of art or a trophy acquired during hunting. Although, Theo marries Edith; the original incantation of the female character(s), Candy marries Barbara, who is a spitting image of Edith. After the deaths of the two women Candy confesses to Theo that he was in love with Edith. Candy also says that Edith was his “ideal” and all his life he has “been looking for a woman like her.”[18] Candy then takes Theo to his hunting trophy room where a painting of Barbara is the centrepiece among a large collection of displayed animal heads. Candy asks Theo if he “sees the resemblance”[19] between the image of Barbara and the memory of Edith saying that “she was exactly like her.” Moreover, in the car on the way home Theo is driven by Candy’s driver Angela, again another manifestation of the Edith image. Angela turns around to face Theo and says she was chosen by Candy out of “seven hundred girls.”[20] In a close up shot, which assumes Theo’s gaze, a red light illuminates her face from below further signifying that she is a piece of art to be adored by a male viewer. That the text presents Deborah Kerr in triplicate format highlights how the narrative values the male protagonist acquiring the love interest. Rather than design a narrative around the complexities of one protagonist “getting the girl” the text divides her amongst the competing interests to nullify potential character conflict. Her image thus serves as a bonding agent between Candy and Theo rather than one that would lead to them having irreconcilable differences.

The Third Man is much grimmer, or perhaps realistic, in its depiction of the male protagonist acquiring the love interest. The female character Anna is not equated with any artistic ideal as we see in Colonel Blimp. Rather, Anna, like nearly everyone else in the film, is forced to break the law in order to survive.[21] So, like all the other citizens that Holly encounters she is involved in the black market and she also holds fake identity papers. After Holly betrays Harry to the authorities which precipitates the chase scene through the sewers where Harry is killed, the final shot visually helps to promote any preconceived cultural expectations that assume Harry will acquire Anna. We see a scene with a camera facing the centre of a road that is adorned with deciduous trees dropping the last of their leaves and Harry is leaning on a cart at the side of the shot smoking a cigarette with his hands in his pocket. At the centre of the shot Anna walks slowly toward him while he waits looking at her approaching. All of the features of the shot initially tend to reinforce our expectation that she will embrace and kiss Holly which would signify romantic involvement and provide the expected resolution to the film. Furthermore, Holly has just been involved in helping to remove the antagonist, who was Anna’s boyfriend, thus leaving the path clear for them to be romantically involved. However, she walks right past him and denies him the simplistic narrative “right” to live happily ever after in the way that he may have written about in his own pulp narratives. Thus the text, in contrast to Colonel Blimp actually challenges simple, and expected, notions of a male protagonist becoming intimately involved with the female lead character simply because he has performed an act of moral goodness. The Third Man can thus be said to be more critical of tradition male orientated narratives in this respect when compared to Colonel Blimp which splits its female protagonist up among the two male protagonists to allow them both to “get the girl.”

In this essay I have argued that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Third Man are two films which utilise male-centric narrative templates in the process of story generation but both highlight the complexities of telling these types of stories in a modern rational context. This is particularly so with regards to morality, as Colonel Blimp underscores how moral values can shift and become obsolescent in a short period of time and The Third Man highlights the problems of trying to apply simple black and white morality frameworks from popular culture to a real world setting. I have also argued here that in terms of the male acquiring a love interest the texts differ greatly, as Colonel Blimp triplicates the image of the romantic interest to satisfy the narrative requirements, and audience expectations, of the characters and associates her with hunting trophies and art. The Third Man rejects the concept of the male hero getting the girl on the simple premise of him performing some heroic activity and this forces us to consider the more ambiguous nature of our own lives.


[1] In James Chapman, “’The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943) Reconsidered,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 15:1 (1995), 19.

[2] The subject of this intervention is revealed by Ian Christie in his presentation of “The Colonel Blimp File,” in Sight and Sound, 48:1 (1978/1979), 13-14. The historiography regarding this subject is also outlined in detail Chapman “’The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp‘ Reconsidered,” 26-30.

[3] See Mark Nicholls, “The Third Man: Background and Context,” Australian Screen Education, 34 (2004), 93.

[4] In Chapman, “Colonel Blimp Reconsidered,” 24.

[5] Chapman, 24.

[6] Chapman, 24.

[7] “Chapter 2: War starts at midnight!” The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Rank Film Distributors, UK, 1943).

[8] Chapman also notes that a dedication in the shooting script which was omitted from the final film states that: “This film is dedicated to the New Army of Britain, to the new spirit in warfare, to the new toughness in battle, and to the men and women who know what they are fighting for and are fighting this war to win it.” See Chapman, 25.

[9] “Chapter 10: God bless you, Murdoch,” The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

[10] In “Chapter 14: The Sunday night postscript,” Colonel Blimp.

[11] “Chapter 9: Exhumation,” The Third Man (Carol Reed, British Lion Film Corporation, UK, 1949).

[12] In John A. Dern, “The Revenant Vienna: A Critical Comparison of Carol Reed’s Film The Third Man and Bram Stoker’s Novel Dracula,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 33: 1 (2005), 9.

[13] “Chapter 9: Exhumation,” The Third Man.

[14] Joy McEntee argues that “Harry…is cast as a kind of god. He scales the heights of Vienna in two key scenes: The Prater Wheel scene and the scene in Café Marc Aurel square. Harry’s point of view from the top of the Prater Wheel is godlike. He has the power of life and death over many people, but it is power wielded without compassion.” See “Exalting in the Terribleness of Life: Suffering and Laughter in the Vienna of The Third Man,” Australian Screen Education, 30 (2002), 110.

[15] See Dern, “The Revenant Vienna,” 9.

[16] In Mark Nicholls,“’It’s Harry I’m Planning to Marry’: Oedipal Desire in Carol Reed’s The Third Man,Australian Screen Education, 33 (2003), 133.

[17] Dern, 9.

[18] “Chapter 13: I never got over it,” Colonel Blimp.

[19] “Chapter 13.” Colonel Blimp.

[20] “Chapter 13,” Blimp.

[21] Mark Nicholls states that: “The basic notion of the rule of law is…questioned in the film. The law as cornerstone of society is a concept which appears untenable because, at the very level of enforcement in post-war Vienna, the law has become a divided and compromised idea.” In “Citizens, Friends and Shattered Illusions in Carol Reed’s The Third Man,” Australian Screen Education, 32 (2003), 129.

Author: Canaan Perry 2007

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘Elements of Masculine Myth in Two British Films from the 40s’, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL: <https://zoetrope0.wordpress.com/2007/06/18/elements-of-masculine-myth-
in-two-british-films-from-the-40s/>, 2007.


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