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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

01 May

1943 – Starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook – Directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell – Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp manages to be a little bit of everything, and what blew me away was how good each bit was and how well it hangs together. It’s about friendship, love and war, a great romance and a satire of the British military leadership, as well as a reminder that Nazism must be defeated at all costs.

It was made in 1943 by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell and it really stands out, during a time when most movies were not particularly subtle about their patriotism. It’s not that Colonel Blimp is an unpatriotic movie, so much as it offers a far more complicated perspective on war; it was not made as a rallying cry. You can’t help but feel in this film that war is a terrible event in which sacrifices of human decency are inevitably made, not exactly a message for people who were being bombed (as the British were, at that time)…but it is a powerful human message nonetheless.

Winston Churchill did not actually want the movie released and the government refused to loan Powell and Pressburger any military equipment for their filming (Powell and Pressburger said they stole some). The reasons were the title (Colonel Blimp was a satirical cartoon that made fun of military and political leaders as reactionary buffoons) and that there was a sympathetic German character in the story (Germans are almost always portrayed as bad in movies made during WWII, no matter what time period the movie was supposed to occur, which was not the case five years earlier in films).

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Theo and Clive

The movie follows the life of Clive Wynn-Candy (Livesey), from the time of the Boer War to WWI to the then-contemporary time of WWII. He first meets Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Walbrook) in a duel and the two forge a close bond, despite Theo winning the woman (Kerr) that Clive hadn’t realized he loved until it was too late. Clive and Theo reunite after WWI, when Theo is a prisoner of war, and later during WWII, after Theo’s wife has died and he is a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Clive represents the old school of war, were he assumes that everyone, including the enemy, is playing by the same gentlemanly rules that he is. He makes me think of Don Quixote, occasionally a buffoon (especially when he is older), definitely not wise to the world, but with tremendous dignity and human warmth. It’s a very human movie, with very human emotions and experiences.

Theo is the one to remind him, during WWII, when Clive is discovering that he is considered essentially useless by the government, that England cannot afford to fight the Nazis with a sense of fair play; they must be willing to use the same tactics as the Nazis.

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Clive and his wife, Barbara

Despite making the case that Clive’s code of conduct and military experience are outmoded, there is a definite sense of loss of human dignity. The new war and the new enemy and new ideologies have a dehumanizing affect.

The story is also about aging and loss and it is heartbreaking to see Theo and Clive age throughout the story; by the end they have very little to offer their countries, but still face the world squarely.

Deborah Kerr is the one person who does not age in this film, because she plays three different women, all of whom are the same age. She is the English governess who writes to Clive to come to Germany and put a stop to the lies being written about England and their war with the Boers. She likes Clive, but he can’t see it and she marries Theo. Next, we see her as a nurse, serving in France during WWI, who looks exactly like the governess. Clive seeks her out and they marry; only for her to die young and in childbirth. Finally, she plays Clive’s driver, who has been assigned to chauffeur him about on his duties in home defense during WWII. As Molly Haskell says, Clive never gets over his first love of the governess and spends the remainder of his days looking for that love in other women…representative of his eternally young love.

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Theo, Clive, and Clive’s chauffuer “Johnny”

There are some wonderfully striking and emotional moments in the film; for example, when Theo recounts his reasons for leaving Germany to an immigration officer and speaks of the suffering after WWI, the death of his wife, and how his sons became Nazis. It’s a scene so quiet and yet far more powerful than if we’d actually seen any of what he describes. In fact, it is notable, as Haskell points out, how the tragedy and serious events do occur off screen in this film. It’s part of the film’s power to make one feel, but still leaves room to be thoughtful.

Notes: It’s not a well known movie at all, although recently it seems to have enjoyed a surge of serious enthusiasm and appreciation and I have heard it called the Citizen Kane of Britain. Part of the reason for it’s obscurity is because it wasn’t released in America until 1947, and then only in black and white and not in it’s full length. Martin Scorsese saw it, however, and was a huge fan and proved to be instrumental in having the film restored in its full Technicolor glory and complete length.

Molly Haskell wrote an essay for the Criterion Collection’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where she analyzes the film in more detail, discussing the attempts to ban the movie, the myriad elements of the film, from romance to critique of righteous war, how the film was rediscovered and restored, as well as a bit about the producers/writers/directors Powell and Pressburger.

Also on Criterion’s site is a video by Martin Scorsese of how the film was restored, which was especially difficult because of the three-strip Technicolor technique, which he describes briefly.

The film made Roger Ebert’s lists as one of the Great Movies and talks particularly about the aging process and the wisdom and youth of Candy.  He writes “Rarely does a film give us such a nuanced view of the whole span of a man’s life. It is said that the child is father to the man. “Colonel Blimp” makes poetry out of what the old know but the young do not guess: The man contains both the father, and the child.”

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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Movies

 

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