Classic movie review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943: restoration 2011)

Posted: April 16, 2014 in Drama, English language, Older releases, Romance, War
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Colonel Blimp (2)

UK 1943

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Running time: 163 minutes

 

**SPOILERS ARE INCLUDED**

Arguably, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the greatest of the great films made by the fabulous duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was restored in 1983 and again in 2011. Among the additional features with the most recent version is an interesting and informative piece by  Martin Scorcese describing the process of restoration.

The film is an original story based on David Low’s cartoon character from the 1930s, depicting a pompous and jingoistic red-faced old buffer, who issues ridiculous and often self-contradictory pronouncements from the Turkish bath at his club. For many years, the term “Blimpish” was often used in Britain to refer to somebody holding such attitudes, though it is less often heard now. Powell and Pressburger’s character, played brilliantly in three different ages by Roger Livesy, is not actually named “Blimp”, nor does he die, and nor is he a colonel (he eventually attains the rank of Major-General). The character of Clive Wynne-Candy is, in fact, a far more human and sympathetic individual than his cartoon counterpart.

The story begins in World War 2. A group of Home Guard soldiers are preparing for a training exercise. Lieutenant “Spud” Wilson (James McKechnie) has learned from a woman nicknamed “Mata Hari”, close to the top brass, that the exercise is to begin at midnight. Reckoning that initiative counts for more than rules in modern warfare, he leads his men in a pre-emptive strike on Wynne-Candy’s club, capturing the Major-General himself and all the other officers. Wynne-Candy is elderly, bald, plump, and sports a large walrus moustache. He is apoplectic at the intrusion, uttering the immortal words: “Yer damn young fool, war begins at midnight!” He knocks Spud into the pool, then jumps in after him and the two disappear beneath the water.

We then see a much younger Wynne-Candy emerge from the pool: it is now 1902, and our young officer is on leave from the Boer War. He and his fellow young officers are brash and loud, to the annoyance of the older patrons of the baths. However, despite his youth Wynne-Candy has distinguished himself in battle, earning the highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. He receives a letter from a British woman in Berlin called Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr). She is concerned about a German by the name of Kaunitz (David Ward) who is spreading “lies” about British behaviour in the Boer war, such as the story that they are operating concentration camps. She wants Candy to go to Berlin to counter the propaganda. Candy’s superiors tell him not to go, but he ignores them.

In Berlin, Candy tries to tease Kauntiz, who he knows from an earlier encounter, but it escalates into an argument in which Candy manages to insult the honour of the entire German army. He gets drawn into a duel with the Germans’ champion, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The depiction of this is one of the great cinematic moments. There is a long lead up to the duel itself, building the tension but also emphasising the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Then, as sabres start to clash, the camera zooms out and upwards, away from the action, and through the roof of the building itself, so that we are looking down on the compound as snow falls beautifully from the sky.

The story picks up in a hospital where both duellists are recovering from their wounds. Wynne-Candy’s face is bandaged: his upper lip has been almost severed and he subsequently grows an ample moustache in order to cover the scar. It is a neat element of the story, building an empathetic bridge with the older Wynne-Candy who we saw at the start of the film. During their stay at the hospital, and over countless games of cards, the two officers become friends. Moreover, Theo and Edith Hunter fall in love, and she stays in Berlin to marry him. Candy is delighted for them both, but only when he returns to London does he realise that he too has fallen for her. He deals with his feelings by going on a hunting tour and we see the walls of his room in London filling up with the animal-head trophies. In one of the DVD/Blu-Ray extras, Stephen Fry notes that this scene is so politically incorrect as to be almost inconceivable in a modern movie. However, this scene is not just about Candy’s loneliness or his enjoyment of hunting; it also reminds us that Britain at this point in history had the largest empire the world has ever seen (the trophies all come from empire countries).  The reminder is a salutary one, as the First World War is just around the corner.

When the Great War breaks out, Candy again serves his country. However, his old-fashioned notions of honour are beginning to look dated. He treats the interrogation of a German prisoner like a chat between gentlemen. The German remains silent and Candy is called on business. Once he has gone, a South African member of the British Army takes over and makes it clear that his methods of questioning will be less refined (these methods are left to the viewers’ imaginations). Candy views Britain’s victory in World War 1 as a demonstration that “right is might” – honourable methods will always defeat dirty tricks such as poisoned gas. He meets a nurse – Barbara – who bears a striking resemblance to Edith (also played by Deborah Kerr), and the two get married. Theo is held as a prisoner of war in Derbyshire, but when hostilities cease Candy takes him to a dinner where various British dignitaries are present. They all represent different parts of the British Empire, and try to assure Theo that Britain holds no grudges and just wants to help rebuild Germany as a trading partner.

When the Second World War breaks out Theo seeks refuge in Britain, as he despises the Nazis. Sadly, his two sons have joined the National Socialist Party. When he recounts how they did not attend Edith’s funeral, he appends this with a quiet “Heil Hitler” that manages to be both pitiful and vitriolic. He is reunited with Candy, whose own wife has also died in the intervening years. Following the fall of Dunkirk Candy is due to give a speech via the BBC, but this is cancelled by the powers-that-be, who have read it in advance. Theo tells Candy some home truths from the perspective of a man who has lived under the Nazis: if Britain clings to old-fashioned notions of honourable warfare, they cannot expect the enemy to do the same. In fact, the enemy will laugh at them and despise them. Only by being prepared to fight dirty will the allies be able defeat the tyranny of Nazism. Candy is dropped by the regular Army but obtains a senior position in the homeguard, at which point the film comes full circle.

The Mata Hari referred to in the opening turns out to be his driver, Angela, who resembles both Edith and Barbara (and is also played by Deborah Kerr). Spud Wilson is her boyfriend, and when she realises the trick he is going to pull she tries to stop him. In the final scene, Candy remembers how he ignored orders as a young officer, as well as the trouble it caused, and his anger dissipates. He vows to follow the actions of his own Commanding Officer by inviting Spud to dinner. As Spud and his men march past in the street, Candy raises his arm in salute.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp works on several levels. The escalating argument between Candy and Kaunitz in 1902 can be seen as a microcosm of the absurdities that can cause conflict between nations. By contrast, the friendship of Candy and Theo shows how the people of different nations are not really all that different, and asks us to consider why, if individuals can get along like this, why can’t their countries? The film also gives a salutary reminder that before and after the First World War Britain held a large portion of the world under its dominion. And, of course, the core message that honourable methods could not defeat the Nazis would not have been lost on the audience in 1943.

But this is not just a film about war and political attitudes. It is a film about ageing and understanding. When we first encounter Clive Wynne-Candy it would be easy to dismiss him as a blinkered old duffer, which is no doubt what Spud Wilson thinks he is. By the end of the film we realise that Major-General Candy is a man who deserves our respect, just as he was respected by his German counterpart Theo.  The increasingly vicious nature of warfare may have rendered his ideas of honour redundant, but perhaps we should simply be appalled by modern warfare rather than by notions of honour. Moreover, for all his faults – which include the hardly unique matter of believing the one-sided propaganda of his own nation – Wynne-Candy was a man who stood up to be counted when it really mattered. He lived, he loved, and was a good friend to Theo, who would undoubtedly have been deported but for his intervention.

On the technical side, the way that Theo and Clive Wynn-Candy age through the three phases of the film is truly masterly. Especially in the case of the latter, despite all the advances in make-up and prosthetics since 1943 I struggle to think of any film that has so convincingly depicted youth, middle age and old age with the same actor. Roger Livesy himself gives the performance of a lifetime as Candy. It was also a stroke of genius to use a young Deborah Kerr to represent a different woman in each time period, thus emphasising the love that Candy had for Edith, Edith who married his friend Theo.

One of the accompanying features to the 2011 DVD/Blu-Ray mentions that Winston Churchill was aghast at some of the film’s content and wanted to block its release. To his great credit, J. Arthur Rank, head of the Rank Organisation, stood up to Churchill and the film was released. Perhaps Churchill’s objection was not so surprising: As Stephen Fry points out, to some degree Churchill himself was Colonel Blimp.

Rating: 10/10

 

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