The Film Churchill Tried to Kill

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp premiered on 10 June 1943.

Still from 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp', 1943 © Neil Holmes/Bridgeman Images.

The German army is at Stalingrad. Bomber Command is sending 479 planes to bomb Düsseldorf. And, in September 1942, Winston Churchill is writing to Brendan Bracken, his Minister of Information (and founder of History Today), about a British film already in production: ‘Propose 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 director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger. It was based on Colonel Blimp, a popular cartoon character created in the 1930s by David Low to satirise a peculiarly British reactionary world view.

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.

Restored to full Technicolor glory in 1985, it is now regarded as an undisputed classic of British cinema.