Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's first Technicolor masterpiece, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), transcends its narrow wartime propaganda to portray in warm-hearted detail the life and loves of one extraordinary man.
The film's clever narrative structure first presents us with the imposingly rotund General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey in his greatest screen performance), a blustering old duffer who seems the epitome of stuffy, outmoded values. But traveling backwards 40 years we see a different man altogether: the young and dashing officer "Sugar" Candy.
Through a series of affecting relationships with three women (all played to perfection by Deborah Kerr) and his touching lifelong friendship with a German officer (Anton Wallbrook), we see Candy's life unfold and come to understand how difficult it is for him to adapt his sense of military honor to modern notions of "total war."
Notoriously, this is the film that Winston Churchill tried to have banned, and indeed its sympathetic portrayal of a German officer was contentious in 1943, though one suspects that Churchill's own blimpishness was a factor too.
James McKechnie ... Spud Wilson
Neville Mapp ... Stuffy Graves
Vincent Holman ... Club porter (1942)
Roger Livesey ... Clive Candy
David Hutcheson ... Hoppy
Spencer Trevor ... Period Blimp
Roland Culver ... Colonel Betteridge
James Knight ... Club porter (1902)
Deborah Kerr ... Edith Hunter / Barbara Wynne / Johnny Cannon
Directed: Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger
DivX 5 / MP3
In his autobiography, "A Life in Movies" (published 1987), director Michael Powell recalled that he and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger sharply disagreed as to their best collaborative film work. The former argued in favor of their satirical vision of Heaven, the phantasmagoric "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946). The latter preferred the romantic world of international ballet as presented in the opulent backstage musical/dance-athon, "The Red Shoes" (1948). In my opinion, both were mistaken.
"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943) is their masterpiece. It was the film in which Powell finally fulfilled the promise that he had shown sporadically in his earlier films – in scenes such as Conrad Veidt's darkly comic encounter with a mountain-goat while trailing a bicycle up a cliff in "The Spy in Black" (1939); the opening shot of "Thief of Bagdad" (1940) as the camera tracks closer to Jaffar's ship and reveals a painted eye on the boat's prow; or in the eerie opening sequence of "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942), where, without a crew to guide it, a Wellington bomber, flying over the southern coast of Britain, suddenly smashes into a power line and implodes in a blazing white ball of flame. Here, in "Colonel Blimp," based on the stuffy, elitist character created by David Low, director Powell found a unifying style that encompassed the other-worldly vision that is sustained throughout the film's lengthy running time (2 hours, 43 minutes) – a style that is, at once, austere yet elegant; moody but curiously euphoric; hard at its core but sentimental around the edges.
As evidenced by the film's title, Pressburger's script does deal in a very generalized way with issues of Life and Death, but he carries his vision into the realm of the abstract, and he does so in circular fashion. More specifically, he explores a younger generation's brash, rebellious attitude towards their elders; and then examines how that attitude becomes more restrained, more conservative with the passage of time – until, as that generation ages, they become so "traditional" that, in the end, when their notions of honor and ethics have become obsolete in relation to the dominant society, they abstain from collaborating with community and, in a sense, they cease to really exist at all. And in the end, Death is really all there is.
In keeping with Pressburger's theme, the film is structured in circular fashion, beginning in 1943, flashing back to 1903 and progressing all the way up to 1943 again, where it ends: Life as a universal loop, so to speak. Pictorially, the movie begins with an image of speed – British military messengers motorcycling across the English highways to their respective units with orders regarding war-game maneuvers. But the film ends with a sharply contrasting image – a yellowish-brown leaf floating down a small waterway, its slowness of passage suggesting a funeral dirge and procession.
The story's main concern is of the deep friendship and camaraderie between the film's hero, Major John Candy, V.C. (Roger Livesey), and German Lieutenant Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who meet one another as participants in a duel that has been arranged for the two in order to solve a peacetime diplomatic dispute. Afterwards, while nursing their wounds in a hospital, they become close friends – so much so that when it is discovered that they are unacknowledged suitors to the same girl, an English governess (one of three women played by Deborah Kerr), there is no dispute whatsoever: a coy suggestion by the filmmakers that two individuals can often solve disputes more efficiently than two nations. There is a temporary row between Candy and Theo at the end of the First World War, as indeed there can be little other than animosity between two uneasy nation/signatories of a peace treaty. But 20 years later, when Theo flees Nazi Germany and begs political asylum in England, it is Candy (now a general) who gladly uses his enormous influence to save Theo from either internment or deportation. This last episode is particularly affecting: Theo recites for British immigration officials a long, sad story of his life from 1919 on, relating the death of his wife and the indoctrination of his sons into the Hitler Youth.
From there, the film completes its flashback "loop" to 1943, where we witness Candy's old-fashioned Victorian adherence to "good sportsmanship" – his single failing as a military tactician and leader – that costs his Home Guard unit a war-games competition. David Low sought to satirize the Blimp character as a ridiculous facsimile of grandiose pomposity; Powell and Pressburger, however, seek to humanize him by tracing the process that finally made "Colonel Blimp" what he was, at least externally. Roger Livesey's performance is an outstanding, sympathetic tour-de-force – he was one of the most transparently gifted film actors of his generation. And Deborah Kerr's triple-performance confirmed her stardom for decades to come.
Powell references one of his favorite films "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) throughout – even down to the naming of Candy's aunt as the Lady Margaret Hamilton. Candy is referred to as "the Wizard" by his driver's fiancée, even while humming and dancing to the tune "We're Off to See the Wizard." (Three years later, Powell would use "Oz's" technique of alternating between monochrome and Technicolor for his fantasy, "A Matter of Life and Death.")
I recommend this movie without qualification to anyone who appreciates the art of moviemaking, and the pleasures of watching.
* Director Michael Powell originally wanted Wendy Hiller to play Blimp's "ideal woman", but she was unavailable, so the part was given to Deborah Kerr.
* Michael Powell's golden cocker spaniels Erik and Spangle make their second appearance on film as Clive and Barbara return from their honeymoon.
* The tapestry seen in the opening credits was made by the members of The Royal College of Needlework.
* Winston Churchill hated the film and wanted it banned.
* Laurence Olivier was supposed to play Clive Candy but was prevented from leaving the Army by Winston Churchill who didn't want the film to be made.
* Director Michael Powell was intrigued by how second-unit cameraman Jack Cardiff was filming the animal heads and gave Cardiff his first big break as the cinematographer on his next film A Matter of Life and Death (1946).
* Three-quarters of the Germans in the crowd at the POW camp are "carefully painted and positioned" plaster models.
* Colonel Blimp was a British cartoon character in a then well-known strip. The producers decided to use the name for the movie.
* One of the earliest films to directly reference The Wizard of Oz (1939) (one of the characters sings part of "We're Off To See the Wizard"), proving rather conclusively that "Oz" was more successful and popular on its first release than is sometimes claimed.
* According to the directors, the idea for the film did not come from the comic strip by David Low, but from a scene cut from their previous film, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), in which an elderly member of the crew tells a younger one, "You don't know what it's like to be old."
* At the end of the film, when the camera zooms in on the tapestry, the Latin phrase "Sic Transit Gloria Candy" is shown. This translates to, "Thus passes away the glory of Candy."
* Clive Candy goes to Germany to fight a duel over propaganda about the British treatment of people in South Africa in the Boer War. Many of the cited things he was dueling over were in fact true. "Concentration camp" was first used to describe British camps in South Africa in 1899-1902.