#93 (tie) – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Gad, sir, Major General Wynne-Candy is right. War starts at midnight in Powell & Pressburger’s warmhearted satire of British conservatism in the face of the German blitzkrieg.

In the 1930s, New Zealand political cartoonist David Low devised the character of an old school military blowhard as way to satirize the right-wing politics of his adopted country of Great Britain. Bald, red-faced, and walrus mustachioed, Colonel Blimp was meant to sound like the product of another era — out of touch but insistent; dimwitted but righteously certain. But when it came time for Blimp to make his debut on the silver screen, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger decided to take the character in a rather unexpected direction. Sure, the beached whale we’re first introduced to in a Turkish bath is very much the man from Low’s comic, but the filmmakers decided not focus on the man that is.  They instead turn back the clock to show us how he became a caricature of conservative bluster. So from a one-panel, one-note joke of a comic we get a four decade exploration of honor, love, war, and true friendship as we follow the life of Clive Candy from vivacious young man to bloated relic. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) has been referred to in some corners as the “British Citizen Kane“, and while a bit too simple, that description is largely apt, as Powell and Pressburger contrived a multifaceted narrative that attempts to explain the life of an iconic man. And the duo manage to pull it off with a wealth of clever storytelling, hugely sympathetic performances, and some of the best color cinematography of the era. (163 min.)

S. – The title of this film had me expecting a whimsical satirical piece poking fun at a stuffy old military man, and in a way it is, yet it also manages to be so much more than that. While the opening scene did appear to be treading the comedy routine path as soon as we were flung back to our protagonists younger days it was clear that Powell and Pressburger were not just playing for laughs. The plot was nuanced, lively, and at times profound without ever becoming mired in sentimentality. Frequently the emotional significance of certain events only hit me only after the action had moved on, so briskly paced was the narrative. Not to say that the events depicted were given superficial treatment, it was more a reflection of the “chin up” and get on with it mentality for which the old-school Brits are famous and General Clive Wynne-Candy could be the poster boy for. For instance, quite early in proceedings Candy finds himself in a sword-fighting duel with a German soldier as a result of his causing insult to the German army. After the fight, during which both men receive injuries that would leave them permanently scarred, the soldiers convalesce at the same facility and, with barely a reference to the brutal circumstances that introduced them to one another, proceed to form a friendship that endures throughout the film. A highly unlikely scenario but one that is rendered believable by skilled writing and fine performances.

J. – I’m not so sure it is an unlikely scenario, at least not in the world created by the film in which honor and respect are of paramount importance. Clive Candy (then a lieutenant, I believe) felt his honor and England’s honor was at stake, which is what led to his outburst that prompted the duel. His opponent — Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf, the German officer — had never even met Candy, but only knew that the honor of the German military was at stake. And both men clearly fought well, with Clive’s upper-lip being slashed and Theo’s forehead taking a saber — in the end the demands of honor were satisfied and both men could be assured that they did their best. This being the case, there is no room for animosity in the world these two men are part of.

But I’d like to focus on that duel for a second, because I think it is one of the best scenes in the film — or in any film for that matter — and I think it gets to the heart of what you were saying about events only clicking after the action had moved on. The film spends quite a bit of time laying out the rules for the duel, prepping the combatants, and wringing some dry humor from the Swedish referee, but once the fight actually starts the camera pulls up out through the top of the building into the snow outside — you never actually see the two men wound each other. And the film does this over and over again, with major moments handled either off screen or alluded to through inventive montages. The film has little concern for the actual events within the lives of the main characters and prefers to linger on the ways in which those events affect the characters. It can be said that it is a movie with a great deal of incident, but where little actually happens — most of the “action” really revolves around people having conversations and examining they way that friends and strangers react to each other in different settings brought on by major events, rather than showing the events themselves. So in a way, everyone is playing catch up in this film — particularly Candy, who, for example, doesn’t even realize he has fallen in love with Edith (Deborah Kerr) until he has already lost her to Theo.

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The film deals with the increasing obsolescence of the old guard in British society, an illustration of a maxim by a real-life WWII general: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” In this scene General Candy chides a BBC man who brushes the old-timer off like lint on his suit. Note the bunker setting of the BBC office, a wartime locale in which the aging General still cannot get any traction, much less respect.

S. – The multi-generational relationship Candy has with the recurring Kerr is one of the most curious and wonderful elements of the film. It put me in mind of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with the idea that two particular people are inexorably drawn together regardless of the current circumstances. While, through his own obtuseness, Candy missed his chance with Kerr as Edith in his younger days he took a much more direct approach to win over her doppelganger Barbara Wynne at the end of the First World War. We are given only brief glimpses of their relationship, but enough to know that their union was a happy and mutually satisfying one. The passing of his beloved wife was expressed tenderly with the sudden absence of photos and details from the flipping pages of a scrapbook recording Candy’s achievements and international postings as he rose through the military ranks. However, before long Kerr again enters his life as the feisty Johnny Cannon, his personal driver responsible for ferrying the aging General around London during the Second World War. The counterpoint of his forever-young companion adds a fantastical layer to the account of Candy’s biography that was unexpected but worked brilliantly.

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Deborah Kerr plays three different women — Edith (left), Barbara, and Johnny — each a generation younger than the last, which serves as a counterpoint to the aging Clive Candy (played with gusto by Roger Livesey, whatever the solider’s age). Click to embiggen.

J. – The relationship between Candy and Kerr is one of the most remarkable, and incredibly smart, aspects of the film. It feels rather strange to write it up as a relationship between a character (Candy) and an actual person (Kerr), but it really does seem to work that way. The camera clearly loves Kerr and she does a great job playing three women who may look the same, but are completely different people — Edith being a middle class nanny, Barbara an upper class society woman, and Johnny a working class firebrand. And how much more interesting on the part of the filmmakers to not make Candy look sad or pathetic to be chasing after his lost first love — he may have been drawn to Barbara and Johnny because they both looked like Edith, but he clearly appreciates them for who they really are and not as replacements for Edith. Indeed, after Barbara’s death the character takes on her last name, becoming Clive Wynne-Candy — such is his affection for his wife. Kerr’s character certainly adds a welcome element of the fantastical to the story, but it also serves as an excellent means of demonstrating Candy’s aging over time. As Kerr stays the same, Roger Livesey’s Candy gets older and stouter as the years tick by, offering an excellent signpost for the breadth of time covered by the film (40 years).

And as you mentioned, S., Barbara’s death occurs off-screen in that amazing photo album montage, which manages to be powerfully sad without plunging into the weepy theatrics that usually accompany such moments in films. Colonel Blimp constantly invites opportunities for melancholy or darkness, but prefers to quickly move on to accentuate the positive — taking the emotional heft it needs from the darker moments but pressing ahead to use them as grist for future relationship moments and gentle humor. Terrible things happen to Clive and Theo, but the film focuses more on them moving forward from these moments and showing that they have the resolve to do so. There are no histrionics and little despair — just the sort of message you’d want to hear in the midst of a terrible war that has affected so many. And I think the film also attempts to point to the post-war future as it dwells on the past by using the relationship between Clive and Theo — two men on opposite sides of multiple conflicts who are nonetheless friends. It was a daring move for a wartime British film to have the most sympathetic character be a German, but I’ll be damned it it doesn’t work brilliantly, and the friendship between Clive and Theo has to be one of the best depicted in any film.

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While nominally following the life and times of Clive Candy, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is more about the four decade friendship between Candy (right) and Theo, who form a fast bond in hospital after wounding each other in a dual.

S. – Clive and Theo bring out the best in each other and provide the opportunity to consider the conflicts between Britain and Germany from both sides, not from a political perspective but at the level of involved citizens. Both men have similar ideals about the rules of war, as demonstrated by their unconventional meeting, but through the experiences of these two friends we get to see how opinions are either reinforced or eroded away by virtue of whether you happen to find yourself on the winning or losing side. Candy’s confidence escalates into imperiousness while Theo is compelled to re-examine what he believes about warfare and to consider that there are other ways to fight. While Theo eventually decides that he wants no part of the new regime in his homeland he can also see that adherence to the old ways by Clive and his compatriots is blindly leading them towards disaster. Theo’s eloquent justification for being allowed entry into England, the best scene of the film in my opinion, is the outcome of his soul-searching and allows him the opportunity to support his old friend through the inevitable changes that will be forced upon him by the new face of the old enemy.

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We’ve stressed the storytelling and characters above all in this yammer, but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is also a beautifully shot film with many evocative compositions. Theo stands out among a sea of faces simply by facing a different direction — highlighting the character’s state of mind as he passes his days in a British POW camp.

J. – That is indeed the best scene in the film — and I think we particularly need to discuss Anton Walbrook’s fantastic performance as Theo, but I’m going to refrain for the moment to stay with the characters rather than the actors. I think what you’ve said is right on the nose, but it might not be generous enough to Candy’s character. While the film absolutely depicts Candy’s stubborn insistence on the old forms of honor to be not just outmoded but a downright danger to the realm, it also strongly implies that there is much merit in the old man’s thinking. It suggests that it probably would be a much nicer world if people did indeed abide by Candy’s rules. We haven’t really said anything about the beginning of the film yet, in which a young lieutenant named Spud Wilson breaks Candy’s rules for a war games exercise upon the grounds that the Nazis and the Japanese wouldn’t obey the rules. Candy is apoplectic at the thought and comes off as hopelessly out of touch, but it is Spud who seems like the real ass. And much of the film from their on out is building up the case that Major General Wynne-Candy still has an important part to play in the fight to come — even if it may not be the role he wants. It’s the Spuds of the world that have the most to learn — but it’s also the Spuds of the world that are going to determine the future — there’s a reason that this film is called The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp even though Candy is alive at the end.

However, all that said, I think Theo is a more interesting character than Clive, given that he is a man of honor who becomes spiteful, almost vengeful after the Great War only to lose everything in the run up to the next big fight. It is an interesting thing that the film entirely skips the major moments of his life between World Wars. The last we see of Theo in the aftermath of World War I he is speaking to his fellow officers like a Nazi in incubation, but the next time we see him the Nazis have taken everything from him, including the souls of his children. Throughout the film, both Livesey and Walbrook give remarkable performances as Candy and Theo, respectively, but they are completely diverging performances. Livesey’s physical appearance changes dramatically across the film, but the character basically remains the same — or perhaps just becomes a more exaggerated caricature of himself. For Walbrook, things go in the opposite direction. Theo looks much the same, perhaps a bit grayer, a bit slower, but everything has changed within him. What is so very impressive about Colonel Blimp is that the actors are talented enough to make the relationship between the two friends seem unforced and undiminished even though the characters diverge as they do. It’s very powerful stuff that never feels heavy, dishonest, or stuffed down the audience’s throat.

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Though made in the midst of a great conflict and following the life of a soldier, there really isn’t much actual war in Colonel Blimp. Even the scenes that take place during World War I all transpire on the day the fighting stopped, which speaks to the film’s hopeful message in the face of conflict, but also its tendency to shun major events to instead zero in on the aftermath and personal consequences of those events. The focus is kept tight on a select group of people to allow the story to span a great deal of time.

S. – Roger Livesey does a magnificent job delivering a seamless transition from spritely and audacious soldier through to the pompous and bristly Major General. It was fascinating to observe the development of the character you are first presented with (in a very unflattering light) evolve from an energetic young man much like the soldier causing him so much angst. It is a hectic and engaging ride that owes much of its success to the nuanced performance of Livesey. Deborah Kerr radiates star power and owned all three of her quite different roles. Yet it was Anton Walbrook’s Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff that I was most affected by. In part because this character had the role of underdog who had his integrity tested to a greater degree than the others. But Walbrook infused the German soldier with dignity and a quiet power that was a pleasure to watch. With the wrong cast this film would have been just a silly tale about a stereotypical British soldier, the combination of Livesey, Kerr and Walbrook turned it into a much richer experience.

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Anton Walbrook gives a performance for the ages as Theo, investing the character with humor and verve, but also immeasurable depths of sadness. Lucky for us he will return in Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948).

J – Livesey is utterly charming as Clive Candy, realistically transitioning from young man of action to bluff proponent of antiquated ways without making the man unsympathetic. There is still a charm and twinkle to old man Wynne-Candy that very much makes him the same man of action that Livesey plays without bald-caps and a padded belly. And I don’t think that’s as easy as it sounds, because all too often in these scenarios the old man character is meant to have lost something that has turned him from the good man he was in his youth, and in such stereotypical plotting the old man is a wholly different character than his younger self, negating the need for nuance and continuity in the performance. But that is not the case here; Colonel Blimp presents the successful life of a man who has aged and mellowed, but not changed, and Livesey finds a way to communicate the character’s growth and stagnation with equal aplomb.

But I agree that the film really belongs to Anton Walbrook, an Austrian actor of incredible sensitivity and presence. We mentioned above the scene in which Theo gives his reasons for fleeing the Continent to come to England. It is a long monologue that Walbrook gives in that scene, all in a single take as the camera slowly pushes in on him and then slowly pulls back. Though spoken in a measured tone it is one of the most devastatingly poignant and utterly transfixing scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the best monologue I’ve ever seen delivered on screen (even better than Orson Welles’ famous cuckoo-clock speech in The Third Man), and possibly the best scene in any movie I’ve ever laid eyes on. Part of that is the writing, and part of it is the slow, stately camerawork, but most of it lies in the eyes of Walbrook who wrings every bit out of every word without groans or tics. And he’s almost that good throughout the rest of the film — easily one of the finest performances ever captured. And in some ways his character and performance are the ultimate (I believe intentional) ironies of the film: it takes a German to say what is best about England.

Related yammers:
#2 – Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles
#117 – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
#73 – La Grande Illusion (1937), dir. Jean Renoir
#183 – Listen to Britain (1943), dir. Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister

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