Posts Tagged ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’

As you may have seen, last week I inadvertantly lodged myself on the horns of a proper dilemma. I found myself with an unscheduled afternoon off for the first time in ages, and rather than watching Ikiru, or Station Agent, or that Tony Jaa movie where his elephant gets pinched, or any of the other movies I’ve been lugging around on DVD, I decided to spend it watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, one of my very favourite films of all time.

Then, less than two days later, I found the weekend schedule of the local arthouse, and what should be showing, on the big screen, in a meticulously restored print? That’s right. Same movie. The one I’d watched a couple of days previously. So was I going to go and watch it again? I went back and forth on the topic for the next few days, and in the end decided that, what the hell, I was.

Partly this was because I had nothing else to do, but I suppose it was a statement of intent more than anything else – that I think a great movie is a great movie, and will always be more rewarding if you watch it in the proper environment. Especially when it’s a movie as wonderful as this one. And on the bus to the cinema I became certain I’d made the right choice, because I found myself looking forward to seeing all my favourite moments from the film again, even though it was only five days since the last time I’d watched it.

I watched it with my parents many years ago and told them it was one of my favourites, and they were clearly surprised and baffled by this news – they obviously think of me as Genre Boy as much as anyone else. Blimp isn’t really a genre movie; but so vast is its scope and ambition that it’s quite hard to say what it is. Made in 1943, supposedly as a propaganda film, the movie earned the enmity of Winston Churchill (who, the story goes, sensed a satire against him in the plot). For years it was only available in a cut-down version – but the Archers’ original vision has now been restored.

On one level this is a very odd sort of Second World War propaganda movie as one of the most likeable, and certainly the wisest character in it, is a German soldier, played by Anton Walbrook. But it is really the story of a British officer, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), and the changing world he grows old in.

The story opens in 1943 with the Home Guard due to engage in exercises with the regular army. Candy, an old man, is a zone commander in the Guard, and outraged when an ambitious young officer cheats in order to secure victory. The young man dismisses the elderly general as not living in the real world, and mocks his appearance. But Candy responds that he was once a young man too, and in the first of many brilliant transitions the film transports us back to 1902, when Clive Candy was an energetic young officer himself.

Outraged by anti-British propaganda about the Boer War, the young Clive finds himself caught up in a ticklish diplomatic situation in Berlin, and hotheadedly ends up insulting the entire German officer corps. He promptly finds himself fighting a sabre duel to settle the matter – a duel against a man whom he has never met, and one which neither man really wants to fight. (Such is the subtlety of Powell and Pressberger’s scripting that the brilliance of this metaphor could almost pass unnoticed.)

But the duel goes ahead, and in its aftermath Clive becomes firm friends with his erstwhile opponent, Theo (Walbrook). He professes delight when Theo announces his intention to marry the girl who originally drew him to Berlin (Deborah Kerr), only later realising the full extent of his own feelings for her.

This section of the film has a charming, almost fairytale quality, with the flamboyant uniforms of the soldiers and the Ruritanian qualities of the sets and staging – at one point the camera soars into the wintry skies above Berlin, just before dawn, and it’s like the interior of a snowglobe. But as the century progresses, the film’s tone darkens. We see Clive struggling to make sense of the more cynical realities of the First World War, and the strain it puts on his friendship with Theo. He marries a young girl who is the double of his lost love (Kerr, again), but it ends tragically.

And finally we see Clive and Theo caught up in the darkest days of the Second World War, a conflict Clive’s upbringing as a gentleman and a good sport has left him unable to fully comprehend. But Theo, reduced to the status of a faintly shabby refugee, understands it all too well and, in one of the film’s most urgent scenes, desperately tries to communicate this to his friend. ‘This is not a gentleman’s war,’ he insists. ‘This time you’re fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain – Nazism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year… perhaps not even for a hundred years.’ Prescient indeed, given this film was made before much of the horror of the Nazi regime was widely known.

The brutal realism of the film’s approach to the conflict may be another reason why this film was not a success on its initial release. It does not connive with traditional English ideas about what it means to be English – rather, it exposes them as outdated and dangerous fantasies. And yet it does so with remarkable gentleness. It is unstintingly critical of the way in which Clive changes – or, rather, fails to change – with the passage of time, but at the same time the depiction of him is always sympathetic, always as a living human rather than a caricature.

Certainly, he is pompous, idealistic in the wrong way, with an absurd attachment to ideas of fair play and honesty in warfare – but he is also unfailingly kind and decent, a loyal friend, hopelessly romantic, and always utterly determined to do the right thing. One senses a deep regret on the part of the film-makers that the world is not the way Clive imagines it to be – but the fact remains that he is wrong, and dangerously so.

But this is a drama much more than a message movie, with moments of tenderness and comedy as well, all magnificently played by the cast. Roger Livesey – for some reason, third billed – gives a monumental performance, ageing forty years in an astonishingly convincing manner. Walbrook, with much less screen time, is, possibly, even better. Deborah Kerr handles her triple role (she also plays Clive’s driver in the final section) so deftly that it’s sometimes hard to tell it’s the same actress.

As I said, this film contains so many of my favourite moments and sequences, handled with typical audacity, wit, and playful invention by Powell and Pressberger. Martin Scorsese is a noted fan of this film and consulted on the current restoration, but many of its narrative innovations have been acknowledged as influencing Tarantino – most obviously, the tricksy out-of-sequence story structure. Beyond this there are such treasures as the duel between Clive and Theo, where, after a huge build-up, no sooner does the combat start than the camera floats off out of a window, losing interest. There is the desperate pathos of Clive and Theo’s wordless encounter in an English prisoner-of-war camp. There is Theo’s speech to immigration officials as to why he has chosen to leave Germany and come to England, virtually delivered straight down the camera lens in a single take by Walbrook, in one of the greatest displays of screen acting I have ever seen. And there are many more.

For all that there is so much that is great about this film, there is still something fundamentally conflicted about it, almost paradoxical: it’s a film about the dangers of decency and civility, but also one of the most decent, civil films imaginable. It’s a film about the great flaws in the English national character, that also happens to be one of the greatest love letters to the idea of Englishness ever made. Finally seeing it on the big screen has only made me more aware of what a masterpiece this is. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film that will surely endure as long as the memory of England itself persists.

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