The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is essentially a love story which along the way suggests that British Army tactics were out of touch with reality, with Generals playing a gentleman's war to set rules. Enterprising young Lieutenant 'Spud' Wilson 'captures' Major Clive Wynne Candy and his men at a Turkish Bath in London six hours before the agreed start of a Home Guard exercise, insisting that rules can no longer be observed in modern warfare. The outraged Candy lambastes the younger man for his impudence, reminding him that one day he will he an old man too.
Candy's own story is told in flashback. During the Boer War of 1902 he rashly travels to Berlin with English governess Edith Hunter to confront German propagandist Kaunitz. Candy is challenged to a duel in which both he and his opponent, Theo Kretschmar Schuldorff, are taken injured to a nursing home. They become friends, and when Edith announces her engagement to Theo, Clive realises too late that he is in love with her.
The First World War, and Colonel Candy's British troops adhere to the honourable' fighting methods of his Boer campaigns. Marrying Barbara, a war nurse who bears a striking resemblance to Edith, Clive learns that Theo is a prisoner-of-war in England. The proud Theo shuns him but later telephones and the two old friends meet again.
The Second World War finds Theo a German refugee in England escaping from Nazi rule. He meets the widowed Clive who is no longer required by the War Office because of his outmoded ideas. Theo and 'Johnny', Clive's driver, persuade him to join the Home Guard, but with the spoiling of the exercise Candy fears that his methods no longer have anything to offer. Theo comforts him, convincing him that modern war needs new ideas and that the British soldier is still the greatest in the world.
Laurence Olivier had originally agreed to play the leading role of Clive Wynne Candy. As the use of army equipment was required, formal approval was needed from the Ministry of War, and from here on, things ran less smoothly. After reading preliminary outlines of the story, the War Office refused to co-operate and Prime Minister Winston Churchill was alerted. The Ministry objected to the film's view of both the British Army and its outdated, 'Blimpish' officers and the German characters whose 'thug element is ignored'. The withdrawal of military equipment was an inconvenience quickly solved -'we stole it', said Powell - but Olivier's release from the Fleet Air Arm was now also refused, obviously with the intention of scuppering the production altogether. Powell immediately cast Roger Livesey, then working in an aircraft factory from where he would not need Ministry approval. . As if that were not enough for the Ministry, there was also a deep friendship between a British and a German soldier stretching over a period of 40 years. The Archers, and Pressburger in particular, were labelled in some quarters as pro-German.
The films overseas release was finally approved on 25 August 1943, although it was May 1945 before the film was seen in the US in a print cut by about 20 minutes. Blimp was to suffer probably more than any other Archers film from differing release prints. The original 163 minutes had already been cut by Powell due to a shortage in TechniColour stock. Several versions eventually circulated a 120-minute print dispensed entirely with the opening sequence and ran the story from 1902 onwards. In the mid 1970s, the BBC and National Film Archive jointly produced a new 158-minute print, seen in London in 1978 - which was later extended with help from the Rank Organisation and the Sainsbury Charitable Trust to the complete original length. This version was finally premiered in America on July 8th 1988, opening a two-week season of Powell-Pressburger movies in New York, where it was puzzlingly hailed by critics as England's answer to Citizen Kane'.
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