THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943)

  • Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
  • Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
  • Starring: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook, Ursula Jeans, David Hutcheson, Frith Banbury, James McKechnie, and John Laurie
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#93)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who are sometimes collectively referred to as “The Archers” after the name of their production company) teamed to co-direct a series of beautiful movies in England in the era before, during, and immediately after World War II. Only a few of them were big hits domestically in the UK at the time, and none of them made a massive impression overseas. The partnership would later dissolve, and Powell’s 1950 film Peeping Tom, acclaimed today as basically the first modern serial killer movie, was so controversial that it basically ended his solo directing career, as well. But over the past few decades, Powell and Pressburger have been discovered by the film community at large. At least three of their collaborations, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Red Shoes, now often appear high on lists of the greatest British movies ever made.

Of these, Colonel Blimp had the weirdest production history and wouldn’t even be shown in the US for many years after its initial premiere. That it was made in the middle of the London Blitz lent the movie a certain immediacy of emotion, but it also meant that the UK government was not in the mood for nuanced portrayals in a number of areas. While they didn’t outright ban the movie from being made, they did basically everything else. Winston Churchill himself (who never saw the actual movie) apparently thought it was sort of about him, and the British government more generally didn’t like the fact that it had a sympathetic German character (even a passionate Anti-Nazi). They also wouldn’t release Laurence Olivier from his war duties to star in the movie as the filmmakers asked. Despite this, Powell and Pressburger made the decision to press on, and despite the movie having been filmed in the middle of a war zone entirely using truly enormous technicolor cameras, it looks absolutely gorgeous. However, the lack of government support meant that it wasn’t released anywhere except Britain until after the war was over, and was mostly forgotten for several decades.

Despite the title, nobody named “Colonel Blimp” is in the movie, nor does the main character, y’know, die. Apparently “Colonel Blimp” was the main character of a popular comic strip in the UK, which lent its name to a character type of the bumbling, self-important officer who got fat while young, brave British lads died in the field. The movie is not based on the strip, but rather serves more as an attempt to rehabilitate the character type. It is, at its core, an exercise in empathy with a character who doesn’t initially seem sympathetic at all, and the genius of the movie is that it brings us around to understanding the character without actually making us believe they’re “right,” or anything of that sort. In a key early scene, an aging, bloated General Clive Wynne-Candy (even the name is unsympathetic), red-faced and wearing only a towel, fresh from the Turkish bath, screams at a young officer (James McKechnie) who has breached protocol in the name of “winning” an imaginary training war. “You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my mustache but you don’t know why I grew it!” Then he wrestles the younger man into the pool and the camera pans away along the surface of the water, until at the other end, a much younger, handsome-by-English-standards Wynne-Candy emerges from the other end of the pool. The rest of the movie is the story of his life, told in flashbacks.

In the absence of Laurence Olivier, the filmmakers cast the Welsh actor Roger Livesey as Wynne-Candy, and it turns out they were lucky, because this honestly has to be one of the great performances I’ve seen in any of these movies. He plays the character over the course of 40 years of his life, from his return from the Boer War with a Victoria Cross to his being forced into the Home Guard in World War II because he can’t quite make himself “relevant” again. He has relatively subtle make-up to help, certainly, but he also transforms himself through mannerisms, speech, tiny subtleties of body movement. It is the best argument I’ve ever seen that people might really not know that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. It’s insane.

Another great performance in the movie was turned in by Deborah Kerr, who was only 21 years old at the time and replaced the actress Wendy Hiller at the last minute after the latter became pregnant. Kerr plays three entirely different roles of women with different relationships to Wynne-Candy, turning in entirely different performances without any prosthetics or CGI or what have you. The question of why the filmmakers chose to cast the same actress in the three roles is an interesting one that they never precisely answered themselves. My theory is that, in a way, Wynne-Candy is meeting the same woman throughout his life, just in different places. When he runs into the third character played by Kerr, a driver late in his life, Wynne-Candy is not so dumb as to think there might be something romantic there given their very different ages, yet he still may love her all the same.

This is a movie about “what it’s like to grow old,” but it tells that story against the specific backdrop of the first half of the 20th century, which gives an extra perspective to the whole thing. One of the running themes is the friendship, over the course of decades, between Wynne-Candy and a German officer (saddled with the name Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), played by the Austrian émigré Anton Walbrook. They first meet in a duel in 1902, when the latter is randomly selected to fight a duel after the former inadvertently(?) insults the German army. Later, Kretschmar-Schuldorff flees to England, where he finds himself classed as an “enemy alien” (just as Pressburger was at the time). Though Wynne-Candy continues to insist that they can’t “stoop to the level” of the tactics employed by the Nazis, his friend has seen them in person and knows enough to tell him that he’s wrong. There’s no point in playing fair if you lose, he insists, fear in his voice. The Nazis have to be beaten by any means necessary, or “there won’t be any methods but Nazi methods.”

I could spend all day writing about this movie, but I don’t have the time and you probably don’t, either. I do want to mention that its genius is to some degree in what it doesn’t show. Nearly all of the major events of the movie happen off screen. That duel, for example, is all build-up and no pay-off. We spend what feels like ten minutes observing all the protocols in minute detail, but right when the fight’s about to start, the camera pans up and out into a view over Berlin, snowing at night. Yet it’s not as if this is a quiet movie, or a boring one. It’s just one that finds the way the characters react to things more interesting than the things themselves. I have seen few movies that are more relentlessly about their own characters.

That “the Archers” have experienced the modern renaissance that they have can be laid most prominently at the feet of the director Martin Scorsese, who cites them as among his most important influences. While I am not always a huge fan of Scorsese’s films, which as we’ve discussed elsewhere I tend to more respect than love, I truly respect his position as a major voice for many older films and for film restoration in general. With his wife and perennial editor Thelma Schoonmaker, he oversaw loving restorations of several of them, including Colonel Blimp. He has also tirelessly advocated for more people to watch these movies. You wouldn’t think that someone best known for tough guys and gangsters would be the voice bringing the world colorful 1940s ballet movies like The Red Shoes, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. In an interview on the Criterion Collection, Scorsese stated that he “revisits” Colonel Blimp “at least once or twice a year,” and discusses at length its influence on, of all things, his own Raging Bull. Roger Ebert also included the movie among his “Great Movies” essays. His article on the movie begins, “One of the many miracles of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the way the movie transforms a blustering, pigheaded caricature into one of the most loved of all movie characters.” I think I agree, it really is a miracle of a movie.

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