How does one categorize Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) except as a masterpiece – perhaps ‘the masterpiece’ of wartime British cinema? Today, its vibrant use of Technicolor, fascinating narrative omissions - and inclusions, and unconventional incorporation of the flashback seems to reflect a slant towards the ‘art house’. Yet this idiosyncratic tale of love lost – and found – and found again, coupled with its central character’s bittersweet coming to terms with his own obsolescence in life’s passing parade remains as insightful, vivacious and extraordinarily sincere as it is perhaps perplexing: just the sort of impeccable master craftsmanship for which Powell and Pressburger were uniquely suited. British born Michael Powell and Ermic Pressburger, of Hungarian extraction, endure as two of the most influential film makers in British (and arguably, world) cinema. Their flare for theatrics notwithstanding, this creative duo shared a penchant for divine comedy often in the unlikeliest of situations.
In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Powell and Pressburger take dead aim at the grim realities of war…well, sort of… adroitly examining the absurdity of conflict without wallowing in its obvious tragedies; a very gutsy decision and one immensely fraught with possibilities for artistic implosion. Indeed, telling a story about the unlikely friendship between a British and German commanding officer at the height of the second European war, but without representing the latter as its maniacal villain, illustrates an invariable boldness in the exercise. It also alienated the British war office at the time Powell and Pressburger were in preproduction and utterly infuriated Winston Churchill. Encouraged by the war department not to make their movie by denying the filmmakers access to vintage military tanks, guns and uniforms, Powell instead returned to Pressburger’s office that same afternoon with even greater resolve and green lit the project.
It is difficult, if not damn near impossible to assess Powell and Pressburger’s individual contributions on this film. Their screen credits always read, ‘written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’. And dissecting any one of their movies, Colonel Blimp included, is of absolutely no use at all because each is flagrantly seamless. One undeniable aspect indigenous to all Powell/Pressburger movies is their very cosmopolitan sensualism. Movie art is always made by committee. But in Powell and Pressburger’s case their creativity seems to have been concentrated and flowing in exactly the same direction, achieving a high water mark of unparalleled and undiluted amphi-eroticism. That alone is quite an extraordinary achievement given the repressiveness of film censorship. Yet this sustained aphrodisia is hardly the result of any direct action played out in their movies, but a byproduct of the expressive use of color, lighting and shadow.
Michael Powell’s death in 1990 was preceded by the loss of Pressburger just two years earlier. And yet both men had long outlived the quiet demise of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; a movie prematurely retired after its general release and rarely revived thereafter. On the rarest occasions when television undertook a broadcast, the film’s 163 minutes were slashed to barely an hour and a half – interrupted by commercials and shown in B&W, thus depriving the viewer of Powell and Pressburger’s extraordinarily gorgeousness use of three strip Technicolor. Yet, despite these bastardizations and neglect, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp slowly came to be regarded by critics as a definitive and exceptional masterwork of daring departure; a filmic experience on par with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Critics also responded to Roger Livesay’s peerless metamorphosis from dashing young officer to the quintessence of David Low’s caricaturized cartoon; military brass remade as bulbous buffoons.
Low’s cartoon of Britain’s high command was rumored to have been inspired by Winston Churchill’s portly girth. Yet, Roger Livesay’s ‘Blimp’ is not Low’s unsightly fop, but rather a kindly gentleman of the old school incapable, in all his gentlemanly heroism, to accurately assess the enemy - not according to the mark of Queensbury Rules but from a ‘win at all costs’ self-destructive mentality. Livesay, a woefully underrated figure in movies today, may not have been Powell and Pressburger’s first choice for the part but he remains superb in it, evoking a valiant morality. Powell and Pressburger’s first choice – Laurence Olivier – had enlisted in the war and was deliberately made unavailable to Powell and Pressburger by the War Department, presumably as yet another attempt to roadblock the making of the film. Undaunted, Powell and Pressburger turned to Livesay instead, an actor readily considered Olivier’s equal.
Spanning the years 1902 to 1942 our story begins with tactical maneuvers on motorcycle led by Lieutenant ‘Spud’ Wilson (James McKechnie) who has received a communication about ‘the war starting at midnight’. The other half of this combative training exercise is being led by Home Guard Major Gen. Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesay), a highly decorated soldier considered something of a quaint warhorse and relic. Through a casual flirtation with girlfriend, Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon (Deborah Kerr), Wilson learns that Candy is relaxing at a Turkish bath and decides to launch a pre-emptive strike that will humiliate the old guard. Candy is undeniably surprised by Wilson’s arrival, but even more insulted when Wilson admonishes him as a portly castoff best relegated to his emeritus years. Candy, still in his bath towel, assaults Wilson, knocking them both into the pool, repeatedly dunking Wilson’s head below the waterline.
The camera slowly pans away from this unglamorous sprawl to the other end of the pool where Candy suddenly emerges a much younger man, invigorated and attended to by one of the Turkish bath staff. The year is 1902 and Candy, on leave from the Boer War is a highly decorated soldier awarded the Victoria Cross. Candy receives an impassioned letter from one Edith Hunter (also Deborah Kerr), an English teacher residing in Berlin who demands the British Embassy take action against the spread of anti-British sentiment and propaganda written by a German intellectual named Kaunitz (David Ward). Candy encourages the Embassy’s Colonel Goodhead (Eric Maturin) to allow him leave to take up the matter.
He is denied the right to travel but defies this order, meets Edith and confronts Kaunitz inside a fashionable café. Provoking an international incident by insulting the Imperial German Army, Candy is forced into a duel, Kauntiz having chosen Theo Kretchmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as his second. For this sequence, Powell and Pressburger have made a daring choice, not to show the duel, but rather its fastidious, if somewhat lighthearted, preparations before the camera rises into the rafters of the gymnasium above Candy and Theo, coming to rest on a resplendent matte painting of snowy Berlin.
Having inflicted their flesh wounds, Candy and Theo set aside their differences and become lifelong friends. Edith, who had been pensively awaiting the outcome of the duel in her carriage, now commits herself to both men’s care while they recuperate in the same nursing home. Although Edith harbors romantic feelings towards Candy, these remain unrequited and she eventually agrees to marry Theo and remain in Berlin instead. When, at the end of their recuperative stay Theo confides to Candy that he intends to make Edith his wife Candy seems genuinely overjoyed. But upon his return to Britain he suddenly becomes aware that he too has been in love with Edith.
Our timeline advances considerably and Candy, now in the flourish of midlife, is made a Brigadier General. In France near the end of the First World War, Candy becomes mildly appalled by the complacent indecision of both British and American forces and their inability to provide him with the necessary transportation. But he is also introduced to Corporal Murdoch (John Laurie); a loyal and devoted driver whom Candy eventually takes on as a trusted man servant during peace time. On a drearily rain swept night, Candy is afforded food and lodgings at a nearby convent. There he eyes a forlorn British nurse, Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr again) who bears a striking resemblance to Edith. Pursuing Barbara after the war, and completely winning over the hearts of her parents (Norman Pierce and Helen Debroy), Candy and Barbara are married, despite the twenty-year discrepancy in their ages.
When Candy learns that Theo is in a British internment camp he takes Barbara to meet his old friend. Regrettably, amongst his fellow officers Theo is ill at ease and completely ignores Candy’s warmhearted attempts to rekindle their friendship. However, later that evening Theo telephones Candy from the train depot to make his apologies. Very shortly he and the rest of the German soldiers will be going home – but to what? Theo fears that the British will treat his country unfairly. But his notions about their smug superiority are challenged when Candy arrives at the station to collect him. Candy takes Theo back to his home where he is introduced to various colonialists and armchair warriors who also treat him with the greatest of compassion and respect. Later, aboard the train bound for Berlin Theo quaintly rebukes this experience to his fellow officers, still believing the British are empty-headed and decidedly weak.
From here the story advances to its most heartfelt final act set at the cusp of WWII in 1939. A gray-haired Theo, wiser in his thinking, quietly relays the reasons for his return to England to a British Immigration official (Arthur Wontner); chiefly to escape National Socialism. This moment is a tour de force for Anton Walbrook who manages to convey a quixotic valor, heart-sore and world weary. Theo explains how his children were brainwashed into Hitler’s youth; how when their mother died neither son attended her funeral because she was English, and how since then he has not been in contact with either of them and will likely never see them again. Asked if there is anyone in England who will vouch for his sincerity Theo gives Candy’s name. The two old friends are tearfully reunited and Candy opens up his home as a refuge. Theo meets Candy’s driver, Angela and is struck by her likeness to both his late wife and a portrait of Barbara who, in the intervening years, has also died.
With the looming threat of another world war Candy is restored to active duty. But a speech he intended to give live on the BBC is canceled when the sentiments it might have expressed are deemed more appeasement and praiseworthy of ‘the good German’. In one of the most remarkable moments in the film Theo confronts Candy with the realization that the enemy – his own people – no longer share Candy’s principles. If the war is to be won then Britain must set aside its honorable intensions and fight the perversity that is Hitler’s Germany on their level, a concept Candy cannot grasp. But the most devastating blow of all is yet to come. Candy is forcibly retired by the military, turning his attentions to managing the Home Guard with Theo and Angela’s encouragement. Candy’s residence is destroyed during a blitz that also kills Murdoch.
Through montage we see Candy’s diehard influences reshaping the Home Guard into a vital arm of wartime defenses. From here, we regress to the embarrassing moment when Angela’s inadvertent betrayal of Candy’s whereabouts leads to his capture by Lieutenant Wilson. Chagrined, Candy is later discovered by Theo and Angela quietly seated on a bench in the park near his home. Cleared of debris, the space has been converted into an emergency cistern. Observing a lonely leaf floating in its waters Candy is reminded of a promise he made to Barbara, to never change until the house became “flooded” and “this is a lake”. Candy also recalls for Theo and Angela how, after being given a severe dressing down by Goodhead so many years before, he declined his big-hearted invitation to dinner; a decision regretted ever since. As recompense Candy now makes the choice to have Wilson and Angela over for dinner. The film concludes with Candy stirred to a patriotic salute as the new guard passes him by. The end credit reverts to an elaborate tapestry used as background under the main titles, zooming on a bit of bastardized Latin; “Sic Transit Gloria Candy” – loosely translated as ‘thus passes the glory of the world’ or more directly, ‘Fame is fleeting’.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is remarkably profound and often very moving. The film would be nothing at all without Roger Livesay’s towering central performance and Deborah Kerr’s startling trans-generational reappearance as the one constant in Candy’s life, miraculously realized as three very independent and unique women of substance, determination and culture. Originally Wendy Hiller was cast as this triage of strong-minded females, but she became pregnant. Today, it is impossible to imagine Hiller in the role. Kerr, in her first major acting job, proves every bit Livesay’s equal. It is through Kerr’s compassionate and subtly varied performances as Edith/Barbara/Angela that we experience the gradual decline and eventual rebirth of Livesay’s world-weary general; the regeneration of British exceptionalism reshaped though steadfast to its own traditions; arguably bent, though never quite broken by this new graceless modernity.
In retrospect, Anton Walbrook has been given the most plum oratories in the film; two elegiac requiems in monologue – the first inside the immigration office, the second admonishing Candy’s misplaced epoch whose virtue is ill equipped to face the new threat. And Walbrook manages a far more desolate understanding beyond an evocation of nostalgia for his memories; obvious in the actor’s words but newly discovered behind all his sad-eyed inglorious defeatism; the ever so slight trembling of Walbrook’s voice and lip, achieving a groundswell in magnanimous fortitude that clears the mind, yet fills the heart. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an immense achievement, a fanciful critique of one man’s fate in conflict with his own desired destiny.
Absence for nearly fifty years on home video Criterion Home Video has resurrected this Powell and Pressburger masterpiece to its former Technicolor glory on Blu-ray. The results are nothing short of perfection. For several decades infrequent home video releases have suffered from mis-registered three strip Technicolor negatives and a deplorable deterioration compounded by an infestation of mold and other notable ravages brought on by time. The technical wizardry employed in this full blown restoration invariably funded by The Academy of Film Archives, the BFI Nation Archive and ITV Studios Global Entertainment, and, The Film Foundation has brought back the exceptional lushness and vibrancy in Geoffrey Unsworth, Jack Cardiff and Harold Haysom’s cinematography. Criterion’s 4k, 1080p transfer is superb in all facets.
Colors pop, contrast is bang on and fine detail leaps off the screen. Texture in hair, makeup and clothing is startling. The image is smooth but with a sumptuous clarity. The audio remains mono and on occasion can seem a tad strident. But overall, it too will impress. Extras include an extensive audio commentary featuring Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese also provides a detailed reflection of his own first viewing of the film as well as an equally comprehensive look at the restoration efforts. There are also featurettes on the making of the film and an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, who offers astute recollections of her own. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)