• The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

    By Ronald Haver

    The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of the great works of art in the history of film, and yet, except for some recent television screenings, this British production is largely unknown in the United States. This is primarily due to the obscurity of the title character in this country. Colonel Blimp was a creation of the English political cartoonist David Low, who used him to satirize the unimaginative reactionary minds, both political and military, that were rampant on the British scene in the 1930s and 1940s. Colonel Blimp as conceived by Low was a puffy, pompous member of the British military, a near-Fascist, usually making profound contradictory pronouncements on the state of everything. He was the walrus-whiskered epitome of unenlightened self-interest. Low himself described his creation thusly: “Blimp is a symbol of stupidity, and stupid people are quite nice.” To turn a series of non-linear cartoons into this epic narrative film took imagination, daring and genius, all adjectives which apply to the two men who created this magnificent film—Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose production company was known as The Archers.

    The two men were widely dissimilar in background and training. Powell, born in Canterbury, England in 1905, had begun his film career in the South of France as an actor and a still photographer for the legendary silent film director Rex Ingram. Within three months, his passionate involvement led to his learning the intricacies of all phases of the craft of movie making; within three years, having acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of all things filmic, he returned to England to work for British International Pictures just as sound was introduced, co-writing Alfred Hitchcock’s (and Britain’s) first sound film Blackmail. He learned the new sound technique with amazing speed and turned out 23 low-budget “quota quickies” (the British equivalent of our “B” pictures) until 1937, when his independently made The Edge of the World brought him critical acclaim and an offer from Alexander Korda to work for his fabled London Film Productions. It was Korda who introduced Powell to Emeric Pressburger.

    Born in Hungary in 1902, Pressburger had been a professional violinist, journalist and writer of short stories, one of which had brought him to the attention of famed German producer/director Erich Pommer, leading to a contract with the great UFA company in Berlin. Pressburger had fled Germany when the Nazis came to power and shortly thereafter was working in England for fellow Hungarian Korda, for whom he scripted The Challenge (1938), the story of the mountaineer Edward Whymper.

    The meeting of Powell and Pressburger, as historian William K. Everson has written, “proved to be one of those fortuitous combinations (Ford and Wayne, Astaire and Rogers, Laurel and Hardy) where the chemistry was felicitous in every degree. Powell’s delight in technique was given substance by Pressburger’s writing; and that sometimes gentle and subdued writing was given flamboyant release and emphasis in Powell’s direction.” The first film they made together was The Spy in Black (1939) with Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. Powell had then gone on to co-direct Korda’s Technicolor classic The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and The Lion Has Wings (1940), a propaganda piece about the RAF. Powell and Pressburger next collaborated on Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). The success of this latter film brought them an offer from J. Arthur Rank to form their own production company; The Archers’ first project was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

    In his 1987 autobiography A Life in Movies, Powell wrote that Pressburger was “witty, ingenious and creative . . . a screenwriter who could really write . . . a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist . . . interested in the medium of film . . . [He had] wonderful ideas, which I [could] turn into even more wonderful images . . . [he] only used dialogue to make a joke or to clarify the point.” Powell wasn’t referring specifically to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp when he wrote that, but the description is an accurate assessment of Pressburger’s achievement in fashioning a screenplay around Low’s famed creation. In episodic form, Pressburger spun a tale that spans forty years in Blimp’s military and private life. Framed by a modern-day (1942) Prologue and Epilogue, the story is told in flashback in three sections. The first, opening in 1902, introduces Blimp as “Clive Candy,” a young gallant British officer fresh from the Boer War, who takes it upon himself to rush off to Berlin to refute some popular German lies about the mistreatment by the British of Boer prisoners. A café quarrel leads to a senseless duel in which he 1) gets the wound that causes him to grow his walrus mustache, 2) makes a life-long friend of his unwilling opponent (Anton Walbrook), and 3) loses to this Prussian officer a charming English girl (Deborah Kerr) whom he has shyly begun to love. In World War I as a brigadier, he serves quietly and creditably. He meets a nurse (Deborah Kerr) who is remarkably like the woman he loved and lost. After the war he marries her. In a British prisoner of war camp he seeks out and is coldly rebuffed by his old friend the Prussian officer. They are reconciled, and by the time of World War II Candy is the grand old lobster of the Low cartoons—angry, hurt, and bewildered to find his age and military experience held in low esteem, if not contempt, by a newer, younger generation. The crowning blow comes when some upstart young men of the new army jump the gun in training maneuvers and capture him, boiling red and boiling mad, in a Turkish bath hours before the sham battle is to begin. Here Pressburger drives home the point of the film: the code of gentlemanly conduct that had ruled Blimp’s life is an anachronism in a world threatened by a monster like Hitler.

    The resulting film took four months to shoot, utilizing the vast resources of the Denham Studios and actual locations in war-torn London and the English countryside. It was produced under the most difficult conditions imaginable: Great Britain was under aerial attack by Nazi Germany, the “Blitz” was laying waste to London, shortages of men and material had to be overcome daily, and the situation was not helped by the Government’s attitude toward the film. No less than Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself tried to prevent Colonel Blimp from being made; he and his administration objected to what they considered to be slurs on the British military, to the friendship between Candy and the German officer and to the implication in the final scenes that unless the British fought dirty, they would lose the war.

    However, after an expenditure of over $1,000,000 the film was completed and released in England in July 1943. Reviewers hailed it as “a magnificent production, consistently human, spectacular and discursive and always entertaining,” with praise being lavished on its superb use of Technicolor, the production design, and especially the performances by the three leads. Roger Livesey, as Clive Candy, was singled out for honors for his amazing portrayal, aging convincingly and sympathetically from an idealistic young officer to a bald, overweight, querulous old man.

    Due to Churchill’s hostility, however, the picture did not reach the United States until mid-1945, and then in a 153-minute version (ten minutes shorter than the British release). After a brief and unsuccessful first run here, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was further trimmed to a running time of 93 minutes, which prompted film critic Archer Winston to complain that “cut almost in half . . . it has lost much of the quality that made it unique . . . it jumps from event to event without doing them complete justice.” It was this version that remained in theatrical circulation for years, eventually ending up on television. But even in this fragmented, mutilated form, it had the power to intrigue and influence a younger generation of American film lovers. Director Martin Scorsese, who saw Colonel Blimp as a child in New York, remembers being impressed by the direction, by the indirect manner in which story points were made and by the curious credit “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.” It was a curiosity shared by many other younger film lovers all over the world. This eventually led to a major reassessment of the work of these two unique and gifted filmmakers by the British Film Institute in the early 1970s. It was at this time that a new, complete full-length print of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was first put on public view in London and then later shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This Criterion release, made from that restored negative, enables film lovers to enjoy this superlative achievement.

    With its imaginative and flamboyant use of Technicolor and its rich period detail in sets, costumes and manners, its outstanding performances and the strong emotional impact of the story, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a masterpiece in the full sense of the word. A film that enriches, enlightens and ennobles, and does this with intelligence, wit, style, compassion and beauty.

1 comment

  • By John M.
    January 01, 2009
    05:20 PM

    A good article. I've just seen the film for the first time and was amazed by its quality. The beautiful images (Berlin during the 1902 duel is magical, like a fairytale); the compelling narrative (structured as three parts within two near-identical frames); the range of touching emotions (love, friendship, the loss of old-age). It seems incredible that many British critics continue to blindly disparage their nation's cinematic achievements -- an unfortunate national trait. 'Colonel Blimp' can stand comparison with the greatest of films from any nation. Another wonderful British film from the 1940s that I can warmly recommend is 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' (1949). It's nothing at all like 'Blimp' in theme or tone, but it is similar in its magisterial quality.