The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943) – the Friday Classic review
To make a British film this wise, romantic and technically innovative is remarkable enough…but to make it in wartime is astounding.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
(Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger, GB, 1942)
It’s startling to realise that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – probably the most British of British films, and amongst the finest ever produced – was conceived against the backdrop of wartime propaganda. But, sure enough, that’s how it starts. The opening ten minutes deliver a sharp, breakneck assault on the dangers of old-fashioned fuddy-duddy attitudes to war, and of the need to get ruthless in dealing with the Nazis. The blustery, walrus-faced old colonel is taught a valuable lesson, and the youngsters get to go off and win the war. Job done.
The film, however, has another two and half hours to go, and it’s here that Powell and Pressburger break all the rules. Propaganda has its own set parameters, which preclude complexity and any but the crudest emotion. But this has wit, panache, an eloquent lament for the passing of time and a romanticism that, if anything, is more stirring in its portrayal of British nobility than any straightforward propaganda flick could manage.
The Americans could achieve the balance between the short-term message and long-term entertainment with ease and assurance – just look at Casablanca – but there’s a kind of total cinema at work here that’s more intoxicating than even Hollywood could manage, and it remains so sixty five years on. Powell films in pin-sharp Technicolor on huge, colourful sets, and captures the material in sweeping camera moves and bold structural techniques. Events rewind forty years in a single shot; years pass to a montage of animal trophies; and when the film loops back to its starting point it does so by replaying events from another character’s viewpoint.
With such innovations in place, the result is a film that is off-kilter with your expectations. Powell and Pressburger give Candy the Victora Cross to highlight his valour and integrity but, surprisingly, the flashback starts after he has been awarded it. Similarly, just as we reach the pivotal duel scene that Powell has spent half an hour building up to, the camera climbs up and out to focus on another character. Perhaps these momentous events were excised because meagre wartime resources made them impossible (although the lushness of the film suggests otherwise), but mainly it’s because Powell and Pressburger think differently from the vast majority of cookie-cutter filmmakers.
Instead, the focus remains solidly on the issue of Candy’s romantic idealism, and how progress can turn a maverick into a conservative in a single lifetime. Against a wittily drawn backdrop of fastidiously observed rules (check out the scene in which the duel is planned), Candy’s swashbuckling mission to Germany makes him as much a rebel in his youth as the cocky officer who defeats him in 1942. And yet even by World War One Candy’s subordinates are quite content to use “foul” techniques that Candy decries the enemy for whilst he‘s not looking. Roger Livesey’s progression from young buck to dinosaur, consistently stubborn in his passions but gradually losing the spark of irreverence that once made them palatable, is an extraordinary piece of acting that’s easily as good as Orson Welles’ similar performance in Citizen Kane.
He’s assisted by two equally strong supporters, and it is in the use of Deborah Kerr and Anton Walbrook to reflect the changing fortunes of Candy’s friendships and loves, that Powell and Pressburger deliver their best gambit. Having Kerr play all of the idealised women in Candy’s life is a bold twist that would collapse were her performance(s) not so good, but she makes each a convincing personality: the proto-suffragette who finds Candy too stuffy; the dutiful wife who meets his old-fashioned ideals head-on; and the modern woman who knows he’s wrong but still admires his integrity.
As for Walbrook as Theo, the good German… Well, isn’t this just about the most provocative thing imaginable in a project commissioned during wartime? What’s interesting, though, is that the character’s sympathy isn’t taken for granted. For a long period, the film doesn’t paint Theo as a good guy; he’s abrasive, proud and seems openly contemptuous of the honour of British officers who can lock him up one minute and then accept him as an equal immediately after. Only time reveals that Theo is simply a realist, but ones who pines for the heritage and spirit of Britain. It’s this mix of pragmatism and respect, ironically coming from an “enemy alien,” that provides the film’s most effective lesson in national identity. The emotion in Theo’s speech outlining his preference for a spiritual home above the place of his birth, expertly delivered by Walbrook in a stunning five minute take, reaches places that simple propaganda never could.