The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D E R E K   H I L L

When one thinks of the epic film genre, multi-layered character studies rarely come to mind. Of course, it could be argued that Citizen Kane (1941) is an epic, and then there are epics that double as character studies, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But in general, when one thinks of the epic film, we are confronted with empty-headed endurance tests of sweaty men in armor wielding swords for the glory of their country, while beautiful women are relegated to the sideline ready and willing to succor the victor. Sadly, the epic is usually the last outpost for the glorification of all things martial and not very enlightening.

Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is an epic film. And though it does chronicle the life of a career British soldier named Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) through three wars, the film deftly subverts viewer expectations time and time again with its witty and poignant portrayal of a man whose ideas of the world don't always blend easily with the reality around him. The film may have come two years behind Welles' more famous and technically revolutionary fictional-biography, but Powell and Pressburger's film is just as thematically complex and unforgettable.

Based upon the irreverent political comic strip by Sir David Low, which used the bumbling Colonel Blimp as a symbol for slope-headed reactionary thinking in the Great Britain of the 1930s and 1940s, the film would not simply make Blimp a stand-in for the Empire's ignorance and stupidity. Powell and Pressburger decided to use the character as a springboard for greater issues. He would become a template for the aging dreamer who believes that good conduct and an even better disposition will ultimately conquer over cruelty and bad manners, much like Alec Guinness' character in David Lean's classic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Seamlessly blending elements of comedy, melodrama, and fantasy, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp begins with the elderly Candy being taken "prisoner" inside an officer's club by a fiery young soldier and his troops during a war games maneuver in London. Candy is furious by the younger man's impudence, especially considering that the maneuvers were not supposed to get started until midnight. But the young soldier, knowing that wars are never won with manners nor accordance to a time schedule, explains to Candy that the older man's antiquated notions on how to win a war are a thing of the past. If Great Britain is to win their struggle over the Germans, Great Britain will have to fight just as dirty as the Germans.

As seen at the beginning of the film, Candy perfectly symbolizes the complacency, the self-satisfaction and the hubris of the British Empire. This version of Blimp is definitely in line with David Low's vision. But what Powell and Pressburger do next is peel away the layers of the stereotype and reveal the man underneath. As Candy tells the younger soldier the story of his life, we are swept away in his tale of friendship, love, and war spanning three decades.

Fresh from the Boer War, we follow Candy as he 1) ventures to Germany to dispel rumors that the British are keeping their prisoners of war in concentration camps, 2) falls in unrequited love with Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), 3) duels a Prussian officer named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), 4) loses Edith to Theo, 5) goes hunting in Africa, 6) fights in World War One against the Germans but not against Theo, 7) not surprisingly has a falling out with his German friend but falls in love with and marries an English lass who looks just like Edith (also played by Deborah Kerr), and 8) goes hunting again and befriends his dear Theo again during the early days of World War Two -- while always trying to maintain a stiff-upper lip and the utmost civility. Candy is simply trying to be the best of men during the not-so-best of times.

There is no doubt that Colonel Blimp the film is a sentimental journey. Far removed from Low's original conception of Blimp as a likeable buffoon, Candy is a roguish romantic who honestly believes in the bond of true friendship, honor of country, and the notion that if you treat a man as your equal he will likewise do the same. These beliefs are tested when the dark stain of World War II begin to take shape. But as played by the wonderful Roger Livesey, Candy is never viewed with contempt nor condescended to by the filmmakers. He is simply viewed as a man out-of-step with an ever-changing world. Powell and Pressburger are never contemptuous toward Theo, either, even when we see the Prussian officer speak of vengeance over the British Empire after he has been held at a prisoner of war camp in England during the last days of World War One. As played by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, Theo is likewise an honorable man doing what he thinks best for his country. When we see an aging Theo arrive back in England at the beginning of the Second World War, the hostile rhetoric of retribution that he had earlier espoused has been extinguished by the horrifying reality of Hitler. As with Candy, Theo is now an anachronism; the army that he once served in has now become a meaner and different animal.

Much of the film's power stems from Powell's imaginative (for the time) cinematic technique. His use of flashbacks (which were removed from the American prints), color, and overall playfulness are what make Colonel Blimp such a rewarding experience. When Candy and Theo meet for the first time for their duel with sabers, Powell has cranked the tension up to an almost excruciating level. Much of the preparation and diplomatic posturing leading up the fight is done for comic effect. But even so, the tension is palpable. However, once the duel is almost underway, Powell refuses to satiate our bloodthirst. Instead, the camera rises above the actors as their sabers clang; it glides through the gymnasium's ceiling and out into the cold winter morning away from the action. The scene is memorable for its stylistic beauty, but more importantly for its disinterest in the actual duel. Later in the film, when we catch up with Candy in France during World War II on some godforsaken stretch of battlefield, Powell likewise refuses to show us scenes of warfare. What we are confronted with in its place is a feeling of loneliness, despair, and sadness. The once-coveted attributes of honor no longer have a place in the world of modern warfare.

The unparalleled craftsmanship that Powell and Pressburger displayed in Colonel Blimp (it was their first production as a genuine artistic team) opened a veritable floodgate of stellar films over the years. Many of them, like Colonel Blimp, examine the ways in which fantasy and reality become almost interchangeable for their protagonists. A Canterbury Tale (1944), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffman (1952) all explore the power of images and myths and the ways in which they allow us to transcend the mundane.

Clive Candy, for all of his seeming naiveté about human nature, is no more misguided or wrong about his view of the world than Don Quixote or any other dreamer who believes that he or she can remake reality through their own vision. If one were ever to remake Colonel Blimp, director Terry Gilliam would be the perfect choice to helm it, as many of his own protagonists share Candy's attributes. The anachronistic Clive Candy may not exactly be aware of his conjuring tricks, but by the end of the film both the characters and the audience have been deeply transformed by his magic.

The Criterion Collection's DVD of the fully uncut film is another exemplary offering, containing newly remastered sound and picture that beautifully showcases Georges Perinal's rich and sumptuous cinematography. The disc also contains a very informative and entertaining commentary track, recorded in 1988 for the laserdisc edition, with Powell and director Martin Scorsese. Both men give insights into the film's troubled production during the war and its thematic concerns as well as its technical expertise. Scorsese talks at length about its influence on his own films and its role in shaping his own pantheon of misguided heroes. The commentary also addresses Colonel Blimp's problematic release in this country and how it was brutally edited down from it original 163-minute running time (which is offered on the DVD) to an absurd 93-minutes after its disastrous initial premiere.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer of the British Film Institute's restoration of the original full-length version (163 minutes). Special features: Audio commentary featuring director Michael Powell with Martin Scorsese; Carlton International’s 24-minute video profile; a collection of rare behind-the-scenes and production stills, and a collection of David Low’s original Colonel Blimp cartoons. Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.