Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Passport to Pimlico

Directed by Henry Cornelius
Great Britain

Henry Cornelius' Passport to Pimlico is the kind of comedy that I hold near and dear to my heart. It is one of the films that proves that good comedy doesn't have to rely on vulgarity, shock value, or gross-out humor. Don't misunderstand me. There is a time and a place for such things. But recently it seems like Hollywood has come to the conclusion that good comedies need to contain explicit content. But that isn't true. Many of the greatest comedies ever made contain almost no graphic material. Instead, they rely on witty and intelligent writing and brilliant comedic performances. Some films are able to combine the two, like Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) which featured a stunning screenplay and a bevy of historic comedic performances. Other comedy films focus more on performances. The works of the silent comedians such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin come to mind. And then, there are comedies where the writing pulls the most weight. Passport to Pimlico belongs to this category. But that isn't because it lacks memorable performances. Instead, this is because the plot doesn't give any one character enough screen-time to truly develop a mature comedic persona. This is because Passport to Pimlico isn't really about any one character, but about a group of people thrown into bizarre circumstances.

The citizens of the Pimlico district of London awake one morning to a resounding explosion that rocks their otherwise quiet community. Some local boys accidentally set off an undiscovered German bomb from the Battle of Britain. The townsfolk discover that the bomb had unearthed a forgotten cache full of treasure.

What? It happens.

Among the jewelry and works of art, a strange piece of ancient parchment is discovered. A professor identifies it as a royal charter of King Edward IV, who reigned in the late 1400s. The parchment ceded the area to Burgundian Duke Charles VII who sought refuge in England after being presumed dead at the Battle of Nancy (January 4, 1477). Much to the horror of the British government, the charter was never revoked. As such, Pimlico officially becomes Burgundian soil.

A realization dawns upon the citizens of the newly emancipated Pimlico: they are no longer governed by the laws of the British government. As such, post-World War Two rationing gets thrown out the window and Pimlico becomes swamped with black market goods and cheap foodstuffs. Total anarchy breaks out to such a degree that the streets are barely navigable.

The new marketplace of Pimlico.

The citizens of Pimlico try to appeal to the British government to control the influx of illegal merchants, but they refuse. After all, the Pimlico affair has caused them great embarrassment and want them to rejoin the Crown. In a brilliantly passive-aggressive political maneuver, the British government insists that they will only recognize laws passed according to the rules of the non-existent Dukedom of Burgundy. Since Burgundian laws could only be passed by a council appointed by their Duke, the citizens of Pimlico seem defeated. That is, of course, until a young Frenchman named Dijon appears from out of the blue and provides proof that he is the heir of the dukedom. Pimlico’s new Duke chooses a council of townsfolk and thwart the British governments attempts to bring them back into the Empire.

Dijon, the new Duke of Pimlico.

The rest of the film follows the increasingly absurd and ridiculous lengths that the British government goes to in order to force Pimlico to rejoin Great Britain and the equally preposterous methods in which Pimlico fights back. The police literally shut off the Pimlico “border” with barbed wire fences and guards. In the madness, people are stranded in Pimlico and not allowed to leave or enter because they didn’t have their passports (leading to one of the film’s great lines where a woman complaining that she can’t leave Pimlico results in a police officer saying “Don't blame me Madam, if you choose to go abroad to do your shopping.”

The "Burgundian" border.

And so the Burgundians strike back by confiscating an Underground train when it goes beneath them. As a result, we see the professor who validated the authenticity of the Pimlico charter being asked if she has anything to declare when she storms off the train.

Pimlico takes possession of the train.

The British government cut off their electricity, food, and water. So the Burgundians organize night raids where they steal water from fire hydrants across the “border.” When they run out of food, sympathetic passersby throw food and provisions over the “border” to them. In one preposterous scene, a helicopter flies over Pimlico, lowers two giant hoses, and is “milked” by a Burgundian. As this film was made during the West Berlin Blockade, the symbolism of this event could not have been missed by audiences.

A helicopter prepares for a delivery of milk.

Even the inevitable end of the conflict comes not from an explosive denouement, but a sensible and surprisingly clever compromise between the Burgundians and the British wherein both sides are able to walk away without losing any face. Because, at its core, Passport to Pimlico is a comedy concerning a battle of wits. The screenwriter, an Ealing Studios favorite named T.E.B. Clarke, crafted a phenomenal story that despite all of its over-the-top eccentricities remains believable. The events in this film were, after all, inspired by an actual case during the Second World War where the royal family of the Netherlands flew to Canada and had the Ottawa Civic Hospital maternity ward declared international territory so their daughter could be born Dutch and thereby still qualify for the throne. Is it a far-fetched story? Of course. But that’s why it’s such a good one. It showcases the valiant British will-power and stubbornness borne under the fires of war against the Nazis like almost none other. As one character explained, “We've always been English and we'll always be English; and it's precisely because we are English that we're sticking up for our right to be Burgundians!”


  1. Never heard of this. It sounds funny and reminds me of Tight Little Island (AKA Whisky Galore!).

    1. Ah! I adored "Whisky Galore!" If you too enjoyed that film, then you will love "Passport to Pimlico!"

  2. Glad to read this post on one of my favorite--and one of the lesser known--Ealing comedies. You're right, the satirical writing is superb, and your post gives a good idea of the cleverness of the script. And for me any film with Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford in the cast is worth watching!

  3. I'm glad that you enjoyed it! Of course the acting was flawless in the film, but I wanted to primarily focus on the story and screenplay, as I believe that these were the film's primary strengths.

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