“But you damned idiot, war starts at midnight!”
I can’t think of a happier time in my movie-watching life than when I first found Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. It was late – I was around 26. The film was Black Narcissus and, frankly speaking, it blew my mind. A weird and transfixing story of sexual repression in a Himalayan convent shot in glorious British Technicolor (in 1948!), it was unlike anything I had seen before, and when it was over I knew I had to devour every film of theirs I could get my hands on. Once I did, I knew I was hooked for life. There are undoubtedly more celebrated British directors (David Lean) and more popular ones with the masses (Hitchcock), but when it comes down to it, for me, few directors’ films inspire more giddy love for cinema than those of the Archers.
So it was with great pleasure that I recently checked out the new Criterion Blu-ray of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1942), their beguiling wartime epic that underwent an extensive restoration and theatrical re-release in 2012 (which I missed, sadly). It’s probably the most confounding of their movies, and the most difficult to classify (only A Canterbury Tale from 1943 compares). By comparison, more popular films such as Narcissus or the art-vs.-love ballet extravaganza The Red Shoes (1948) seem downright conventional. The thing Colonel Blimp shares with these movies, however, is that it’s a complete original, a film about war, love, honor that manages to transcend all of these traditional classifications and succeed on just about every conceivable level. It’s a masterpiece, without question, and probably one of the most peculiar ones you’ll ever encounter.
It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, which is odd when you consider that there’s nothing inherently “fun” in the description. It tells the life story of a British career soldier, Clive Wynn-Candy (Roger Livesey), beginning with his service in the Boer War and ending with his retirement to the Home Guard during World War II. There’s little action in its three hours – the only “action” sequence (a sword duel) cuts away from the fighting just as it begins. Combat isn’t on the filmmakers’ agenda, as it’s clear they’re much more interested in the emotional and political conflicts within their hero and those characters that will enter his life. It has bits of outrageous humor and slapstick, yet also carries a strong undercurrent of melancholy. And it features one of the loveliest portraits of male friendship ever put on screen, as Candy befriends a German soldier (Anton Wolbrook) who’ll become his closest companion even when the two become adversaries, first in combat, then in politics.
Roger Livesey gives the performance of his life with what is probably the toughest assignment, holding the screen for the majority of the 163-minute running time, often in heavy aging makeup. It’s even more impressive when one considers that for much of the film, Candy is the object of derision – initially as a cocky young officer, then as a bulbous, comically out-of-touch elder statesman (the character was based on a celebrated British comic strip). Though Powell originally wanted Laurence Olivier for the part, Livesey was a terrific actor whose natural brashness and pomposity arguably made him a better fit for the role, and he’s more than up to the challenge. He’s so good, in fact, that Powell & Pressburger would employ him regularly in the years following Colonel Blimp (most memorably in I Know Where I’m Going! in 1945 and A Matter of Life and Death in 1946) with similarly excellent results.
But it’s Wolbrook who becomes the movie’s emotional anchor and leaves the greatest impression. He’s guiding moral compass to Candy’s naïve (yet loveable) flag-waver, and Wolbrook gets to play a range of emotions viewers of his later and more famous work in The Red Shoes (where he’s unforgettable as the dictator-like impresario) and Max Ophuls’ La Ronde (1950) might find surprising. Here he’s the ostensible the villain, and a more conventional war movie might make him Clive’s arch-nemesis for the duration. Colonel Blimp is after something different. Whereas Clive is the rally-ho optimist, Wolbrook’s Theo is the realist, and eventually these two polar opposites become the best of friends. Theo’s more grounded outlook leads to this beautiful sequence, arguably among the best in the film, in which he makes the case for his return back to England after having lost his family to the Nazis.
It’s a lovely scene, and Wolbrook plays it with tremendous feeling. It’s also one of the strongest in communicating what will ultimately become one of the film’s most prominent themes – Clive’s naiveté about war and country, and the outmoded nature of traditional British thinking about the honorability of war. No one knows a war’s true cost more than a man who has been on the losing end of it and, in any conflict, history is written by the victors.
Another performance that needs to be celebrated – actually three performances – is from Deborah Kehr, who’s positively luminous in her film debut. She’s tasked with embodying the women in Candy’s life at different points, and she comes close to walking away with the picture. Kehr plays each part differently, first the stuffy but adoring Edith (who Clive will eventually come to realize is his one true love and ideal, but only when it’s too late), then as Barbara, a nurse in World War I who’ll become his wife, and finally as “Johnny,” his driver, who represents the spirit of youth as it passes Clive by. It soon becomes clear that Kehr’s Edith/Barbara/Johnny aren’t just the women in Clive’s life, but the very idea of woman as it exists in his mind and heart, and eventually a metaphor for Britain itself. Late in the picture, Clive reveals to Theo (who marries Edith) that he was in love with her all along, despite the fact that he has found love with Barbara, and there’s a fascinating moment in which he shows Theo her painting, which adorns the wall aside his stuffed animal heads. Theo points out that the resemblance exists, yet remarks that he also knew Edith later, when they had grown old together. Clive, ever the optimist, continues to chase the fantasy of an ideal, while Theo understands that the real fantasy is what’s in front of you.
Colonel Blimp was shot, like many of Powell & Pressburger’s most famous works, in British Technicolor (which is slightly more subdued and has considerably less “pop” than U.S. Technicolor), and it’s filled with lovely images, including the aforementioned swordfight we don’t actually see, Clive’s journey back from the battlefront in World War I, and the scene that sees Clive visiting his friend in a British POW camp. The choice to shoot it in Technicolor is another of the film’s peculiarities. Powell & Pressburger were no strangers to black & white, and a wartime biopic doesn’t necessarily cry out for color. Add to this that Technicolor was an extraordinarily expensive process, and that Colonel Blimp’s was by no means a guaranteed success, and one gets the sense that another filmmaker might opt to shoot the same subject in black & white. But Powell & Pressburger were never ones to do what was expected of them, and here, working with cinematographer Georges Perinal and cameraman Jack Cardiff (who would shoot much of their most famous work), the color is employed delicately and specifically, with a dominant focus on reds, blues and greens, and as such becomes a defining element in this altogether unique film.
It’s amazing to think that this movie even got made, let alone released. It celebrates British values and patriotism while simultaneously ridiculing them for being outmoded and, worse, useless against an enemy that doesn’t play by the rules. Even more amazing is that it did this at a time when the country was engaged in one of the greatest global conflicts the world had ever known, with an outcome that was in no way certain. In a way, it makes a striking counterpoint to our own time and global conflict, as our leader stands poised to lead us into another war with an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules. I don’t mean to imply that there’s a clear parallel, as doing so would be reductive to both Colonel Blimp and to our own situation. I only bring it up to illustrate that the questions it raises are timeless and well worth asking regardless of the period. Viewing it from the perspective of our current situation adds another fascinating element to a film that’s filled with them.
What I’m really trying to say with all of this is that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a wonderful movie, and a damned entertaining one, and you should see it, along with pretty much every other Powell & Pressburger movie out there (Criterion has done a marvelous job of bringing them all out on disc). See it more than once, if possible, if only to enjoy it on all its different levels (and there are many). It’s a war movie for people who don’t like war movies, and a love story for people who don’t like mushy romantic stuff, and a male bonding movie for guys who don’t usually go for that kind of thing. It’s for a lot of other people, too.