THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP – The Blu Review
Review by Sam Moffitt
Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of those films I have read and heard about for years, and finally got to see. How nice to see a legendary “great film” and see it live up to, and in many ways surpass, its reputation. First a little back ground.
The Archers is one of the most honored and respected film production companies in the history of the cinema. Based in England, most of their films were produced, written and directed by two men, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Some of their films I have been familiar with for years, the incredible Black Narcissus. The equally incredible Red Shoes, one of the most honored, studied and dissected films ever made. College courses have been made around this one film, the Red Shoes, and it seems to be required viewing for anyone who dances or wants to dance ballet.
The Archers could not seem to make a bad movie if they wanted to and they made quite a few that are considered masterpieces. Such a film for instance is Peeping Tom, now considered a great film, it ruined their production company due to the controversy surrounding it.
I have not gotten to see all their films but I am so happy to report that Life and Death of Colonel Blimp not only lives up to its reputation it was ahead of the curve in many ways.
To begin with it has the audacity to try and tell a man’s entire life, to sum up one man’s life and contributions to his country, and the world, in one film. It also has the chutzpah to suggest that older people may have greater wisdom than younger. That with age and wisdom should come respect and admiration, though it rarely does. How different from so many current films, hell most of the films turned out by Hollywood in the last 30 years, that suggest that old people are useless and only youth knows anything or can get anything accomplished.
Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character for starters, created by David Low. Always in a Turkish bath the colonel was a caricature of what Monty Python termed “the upper class twit.” He was a celebration of all the ignorant and xenophobic elements the British upper class are stereotyped as having. A monarchist and an Imperialist he was forever spouting off about people from other countries and the working class in the most hard headed and ignorant manner.
The film gives us something quite different. It opens in modern day England, during World War Two, in fact the film was made at the height of the Blitz and ran into trouble as we’ll soon see.
A troop of English army, mostly on motorcycles, races to a Turkish bath, where they put the good Colonel under arrest. Turns out this is the Home Guard starting a training exercise early. Blimp is not his name, he is General Clive Wynn-Candy, (played by Roger Livesay, in the role of a lifetime) and he insists to these young upstarts that “the war starts at midnight!” The young officer insists that the Germans will not play by the rules and neither will he, he insults the General, his mustache and beer belly and bald head.
The General can give as good as he gets and falls into what appears to be a swimming pool in the Turkish bath, while struggling with this young fool.
In one incredible shot, with no cut, fade or camera movement other than a slow tilt the General falls into one end of the pool an old man and emerges at the other end with a full head of hair, no mustache, a flat stomach and in the full bloom of youth.
This is Wynn-Candy in 1902, back from the Boer War and already decorated. He will go to Germany, fight a duel with a German, chosen more or less at random, over the honor of an English woman, played by a young Deborah Kerr.
We will get to know Clive Wynn-Candy better than we know ourselves, and what is amazing the movie will constantly undercut our expectations of movie conventions. First the duel is with a young German officer, from an Army that is trained in fencing. Wynne-Candy has never had a sword in his hand. When the duel starts we expect to see it, we do not. The camera cranes up, out of the building and we see that it is not only snowing but in a picture postcard manner. The young lady, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), sits in a carriage awaiting the outcome of the duel. Later we learn Wynne- Candy almost lost his upper lip in the duel, hence the mustache later on.
The German chosen by lot to fight the duel for Germany’s honor Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, played by Anton Walbrook speaks very little English. He would like to be friends with Wynn-Candy, we fully expect Clive to push him out of his life, he does not, they become lifelong friends despite two World Wars. Theo tells Clive that he is in love with Edith and wants to marry her. We expect Clive to be crushed and hate Theo for suggesting it. He is not, he thinks it a splendid idea and helps Theo with the courtship. We know that Clive Wynn-Candy is in love with Edith even before he does.
Later Clive does realize his love for Edith. We expect him to try and win her away from the German, he does not. He goes on about his life, mostly big game hunting between wars, until the First World War happens and he is called up to active service again. He sees Theo in a POW camp for German officers after the war has ended. Theo snubs him in front of all the other Germans. We expect Clive to give up on the friend ship and come to hate Theo. Again, he does not, he insists they are friends for life even if Theo will not admit it.
Clive brings Theo to a dinner party attended only by crusty old English Upper Class Twits who patronize Theo and promise him that it is in England’s best interests to bring about a strong Germany. On his way back to Germany Theo makes comments about the naiveté of the English and how weak and cowardly they must be. We fully expect Theo to become a loyal Nazi in the next war. And again, he does not, he flees Germany and becomes an even more loyal friend to Clive, and denounces the Nazis at every opportunity.
During World War One, while in a French nunnery Clive sees a young girl, again played by Deborah Kerr. This is the one confusing bit about this film, I thought that it was Edith, no it is a girl who looks like her. Clive courts her in a gentlemanly and honorable fashion and marries her. Maybe I’ve seen Vertigo too many times, I expected Clive to try and remake this girl into Edith, and again, he does not! Over and over the again this movie does the unexpected, the reverse of what we “know” a movie should show and tells us. Clive accepts this woman just as she is and loves her until she dies of movie disease (there has to be some cliché moments, even in a movie this good!)
Later on there is yet another woman played by Deborah Kerr, helping with the Home Guard during World War Two. We fully expect Clive, even though he is considerably older than her, to pursue her, or at least suggest that they might be a couple. And, yes, once again, he does not. He treats this young woman with respect and courtesy, as he does all the people that he encounters, through the whole course of the film.
This film is amazing, from start to finish. The Technicolor cinematography is breathtaking, done by Jack Cardiff, one of the best to come from the English film community. The very idea that there may be some truth to the old concepts of duty, honor and country is heart breaking. The film got into serious trouble due to the astonishing idea of having a sympathetic and likeable German character, at the height of a war with Germany! Churchill himself denounced the film and tried to have it suppressed. He confronted Anton Walbrook in person, who told him that only the English would have the audacity to send out a movie like this, instead of straight up propaganda demonizing all Germans.
Imagine if Hollywood had put a sympathetic Japanese character into a film made during the war! Afterwards yes, we got films like Go For Broke and Hell to Eternity, but during the war?
Criterion did their usual terrific job of presenting this film. The color is beautiful, the print is almost completely restored. There are some splices and grain but nothing that detracts. An excellent documentary chronicles the film with only British film historians and critics doing the talking. All of them get choked up and teary eyed talking about this film. And who can blame them. Colonel Blimp is considered by many to be the greatest British film ever made.
The English are not known for being romantic, yet here is a romantic Englishman. They are stereotyped as being prejudiced, yet here is an upper class Englishman with virtually no prejudice what so ever. Wynn-Candy embodies all of the virtues of the English and none of their faults. My personal background is Scottish and Irish, I should have every reason to hate the English yet I have always loved Hammer Films, Monty Python, the Carry On films, writers like Ramsey Campbell, Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard. Add to that list, (I must,) The Archers and this incredible film.
Only a couple of things date the film. The General’s hunting is portrayed only in a couple of montages showing his trophies in his den back in London, heads of many animals that are now endangered. Members of PETA may take offense here. And in the World War One sequence a Black American soldier is portrayed in a manner that would make any one cringe, but only for a moment. This is a film from 1943 after all.
Colonel Blimp may be a bit naïve in portraying this idea of a Gentleman’s War being possible at one time, and then crashing head long into the reality of World Wars One and Two. War was never for gentlemen, ask Achilles and Hector for their opinions on that.
But in making the attempt, and succeeding, in portraying the span of a man’s entire life, and his death, and in paying honor to the old war horse’s like General Clive Wynn-Candy who saw England through so many hardships, and as a morale booster for an England with its back to the wall and fighting for it’s very life, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp really is a masterpiece, a film for the ages. I defy anyone to see this film, especially the last 20 minutes without weeping.
General Clive Wynn-Candy (aka Colonel Blimp) as a veteran myself I stand at attention, render you a hand salute, and give all due respect. May you rest in peace sir and God Save the Queen!
Criterion’s special edition Blu-ray and DVD have these extra features:
• New digital master from the Film Foundation’s 2012 4K restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
• Audio commentary featuring director Michael Powell and filmmaker Martin Scorsese
• New video introduction by Scorsese
• A Profile of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” a documentary from 2000
• Restoration demonstration, hosted by Scorsese
• Optimism and Sheer Will, a 2012 interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, Michael Powell’s widow
• Gallery featuring rare behind-the-scenes production stills
• Gallery tracing the history of David Low’s original Colonel Blimp cartoons
• PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Molly Haskell