THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, POWELL AND PRESSBURGER, 1943
“BUT THE WAR BEGINS AT MIDNIGHT!!’ frustratingly exclaims General Wynne-Candy, known to the film audience as Colonel Blimp. There are a lot of points to the Powell and Pressburger epic, and the most potent and appropriate is that in the era of the Great War, wars do not begin or end at a certain designated time. They begin when they begin and end when they end.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an unparalleled masterpiece. It is far and away from most historical epics, but in a completely different way. You cannot really compare it to something from David Lean. It is no Lawrence of Arabia; nor is it anything that could have come from the vision of a Cecil B. Demille or anything that starred Charlton Heston. It is unquestionably a Powell & Pressburger film, and it captures the lofty rise and thudding fall of the British ideal of civilization. It encompasses the Boer War, two World Wars, the rise of Naziism, and a lot of hunting expeditions that would yield mounted animal heads on an upper class British wall.
I remember taking a history class on the two World Wars, and we talked a lot about the actions that led to them, and how effectively war had changed. WWI was a war of attrition and ended with a harsh peace for the Germans. WWII was something entirely new, total war, and it was exceedingly difficult for the British ‘Blimps’ who used to run the entire world to come to terms with. In that class, we had the benefit of decades of academic study and hindsight, but Powell & Pressburger arrived at the same prescient conclusion right in the thick of it. And they were absolutely right. You could not fight a gentleman’s war in that era or any era since. That was the lesson that was so difficult for Candy and the Blimps to discover, but it was the right one. The enemy was not notified of the starting date and time of D-Day, or things might have ended quite differently.
It is almost unimaginable that any other actors would play the three leads in this film. Roger Livesey carried the swagger, the charm, and the pomposity of Blimp from his foolhardy youth to his rotund and thick-headed old age. Deborah Kerr plays three roles, and each one is the object of his affection, essentially the motivation for everything he does. However, it is the performance of Anton Walbrook, and the way his friendship unfolds with Candy, that is the emotional core. He has lived the highs and lows of the wars, whereas Candy has been comfortable hunting trophies, drinking sherry and hunting trophies all his life. My two favorite scenes in the film are Walbrook monologues – the one he delivers to the alien board when trying to return to England, and the one he delivers to Candy as they engage in a timely political debate after the General is sacked.
One of the strengths of the film is that the partnership between Candy and Theo are familiar territory given the partnership with the British director Michael Powell and the Hungarian ‘alien’ writer Emeric Pressburger, an unlikely pairing that would produce some of the most magnificent works of their time. You can see both of their voices in the characters, and they are wonderful.
I cannot say enough good things about this movie. It is one that I adore and thanks to such a wonderful restoration, is one that I will revisit many other times in my life.
Movie Rating: 10/10
Martin Scorsese gives a passionate introduction. He has been obsessed by Powell and Pressburger for many years, and cites them as influences for much of his work. He references the duel in Colonel Blimp, which doesn’t actually happen on screen, but is one of the best shots in the film as the camera flies away from the building into the snowy wonderland. He used that same technique in Raging Bull. Sometimes it is not necessary to show the conflict, but instead the magnitude and reactions of the outcome.
The commentary is given by Scorsese and Michael Powell. The beginning portion is mostly Scorsese, and he talks a lot about the use of color, the technical matters of the production and the staging. Michael Powell was quite old when he recorded his portion. His speech staggers some and is at times unintelligible, but his presence is comfortable. He tells small stories about the production, points out the many Deborah Kerr hats that he is proud of, and shares a lot of what came from him and what came from Pressburger. It is like watching home video with a grandfather you love.
The 2000 documentary [i]A Profile of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”[/i] is also excellent. It talks a lot about the background and controversy of the film, and you hear from a lot of British directors who were directly influenced by it, including Stephen Fry and a young Kevin MacDonald.
The restoration demonstration is again mind-blowing. The original print had a lot of mold and resulted in many green waves flowing across the screen. Plus the color plates and aged poorly and resulted in a disorienting view. The before and after swipes of the restoration are truly impressive. Given the condition and age of the original print, this is one of the most impressive restorations that I’ve seen.
And this just scratches the surface. There is also an interview with Thelma Powell, production stills, and the original Colonel Blimp cartoons that inspired the film. If you are going to choose a handful of Criterion Blu-Rays to own, this would be near the top of a short list.
Criterion Rating: 10/10