The Life and Death and Life of Colonel Blimp

On Film / Essays — Mar 20, 2013

One of the many oddities surrounding The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is that as critics have come to acclaim it as a masterpiece—perhaps the masterpiece—of British cinema, this marvelously uncategorizable epic of love and war has remained relatively unknown to the moviegoing public. Other films bearing the Archers’ stamp, like The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), have been in regular circulation since they were made. Even I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) has acquired an ardent circle of fans that extends beyond buffs and specialists. These movies are relatively straightforward, however—two theatrical extravaganzas and one deliciously idiosyncratic love story (with mystical overtones). But what, exactly, is Colonel Blimp? An epic, certainly, but a war epic or a comedy? A story of cross-cultural male bonding, with Roger Livesey’s General Clive Candy and Anton Walbrook’s Prussian officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, mirroring the collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger?

Or a triangular love story in which two men’s pursuit of a single woman (Deborah Kerr, multiplied by three) pays gallant homage to the theme of the eternal feminine, transcending time and place? Or is it, finally, a dirge for the loss of traditional English values and the idea of fair play, or a resigned repudiation of those values for the sake of winning a dirty war? The astonishing and confounding answer is that it’s all of these things, incorporating imperceptible shifts in tone whereby dreams and magic, philosophy and satire coexist seamlessly. Nothing feels abrupt, out of place, “difficult”—not even an intricate puzzle of a flashback structure that gives even greater pleasure on repeated viewings. Yet just how the filmmakers do this is as mystifying as what the movie is.

Take the way the film deftly straddles the line between comedy and war tragedy. The story spans four decades, from the Boer War through the First World War and ending finally in 1942, the Blitz, and the time in which the film was made. Its leads are more often in uniform than not, but calamity and loss happen mostly offstage, the eponymous commander does not die, the moments of wistfulness and longing are not allowed to linger. Time triumphs over personal misfortune, and intimate scenes give way to the forward momentum of history in the person of Candy/Blimp, man of action, whether going after Germans or (between wars) hunting big game.

We first meet him in old age, when he perfectly resembles the Colonel Blimp cartoon character created by David Low, a portly, buffoonish caricature of the British military brass and upper class. Livesey’s aging Candy certainly looks like the bald-pated gent with the walrus mustache, and can be a splut-splut-spluttering old fart. But throughout, he is less a figure of derision than a poignantly high-minded, if blinkered, human being. In a painfully ludicrous early scene, the flabby general, now reduced to commander of home defense maneuvers, is found sweating in a Turkish bath by impatient young soldiers who, refusing to adhere to the order “War starts at midnight,” invade the sanctuary and “arrest” him on the spot.

Right from the beginning, when soldiers on motorcycles roar their way along a country road to the sound of big band music, we are aware of a perennial Powell theme: the clash between modernity—which often means the noise and urgency of Americanization—and nostalgia for a pagan past, best preserved in the English countryside.

Candy’s fight with the young soldier—an unseemly tussle in the pool—sets in motion our story of generational conflict through the years. To prove that Candy, too, was young once, the film transports us back to 1902, time of the Boer War. The charming, bemedaled lieutenant, home on leave, has been stirred by the letter of a young English governess in Germany complaining of anti-British propaganda being spread by a certain well-known spy. Brashly and against orders, Candy makes a secret trip to Berlin, where the beautiful Englishwoman—a ravishing, twenty-year-old Kerr—proves as spirited and intemperate as he in rooting out the double agent.

As decade follows decade, as the men get older and the “women” get younger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp takes on the layering effect, the resonance, of the greatest of epics. In the scope of its ambition—its attempt to portray a whole society and changing eras through its central characters—and its ingenious use of flashback, it is, among its contemporaries, comparable only to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Its art-film aspirations, along with those of other Powell and Pressburger films, were certainly out of sync with the kinds of films popular in Britain at the time. The mixture of moods, the extravagant color, were baffling to those accustomed to various kinds of social realism. Critic Gavin Millar wrote that in contrast to the bloodlessness of most British culture, Powell’s work showed “an unashamed expression of artistic passion—from which the British recoil in horror.” There was a sensuality and eroticism, even a perversity, that was very un-English. And if the Archers’ films couldn’t be pinned down as to genre, where did Powell and Pressburger fit in as auteurs? The credits always read, “Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,” and the films they made together, especially during the war years, were a crowning achievement of collaborative filmmaking. Powell had risen through the ranks of the British film industry, making “quota quickies,” working with Rex Ingram and Alfred Hitchcock, while Pressburger had been a screenwriter for the great German studio UFA before fleeing under the threat of Hitler. They surrounded themselves with an international group of artist-craftsmen—on Colonel Blimp, the miraculous Alfred Junge as production designer, cinematographer Georges Périnal (and Jack Cardiff on other films), Joseph Bato for costumes, and Allan Gray, responsible for the original score—who managed to realize Powell’s wildest dreams of a marriage between art and music, lavish set design and color, as it hadn’t been seen before.

But of all their films, Colonel Blimp was the most politically daring. It was 1942, England was in the midst of war, and most of the films being made were implicitly patriotic, if not outright propaganda vehicles. Here was a film that questioned not just the principle of fair play but the idea of righteous war itself. And, to make matters worse, one of the main characters was a “good German.” Perhaps it’s no great surprise, then, that the War Office, to whom the screenplay had in due course been submitted, notified Winston Churchill, who tried to have the film suppressed. Permission to use army locations and matériel—and to get Laurence Olivier, Powell’s first choice for Candy, released from duty—was denied. When it opened, audiences were enthusiastic about the performances but disconcerted by the ambivalence toward war.

In America, the film’s release was delayed until 1947, and it has come upon the public in its full glory only by fits and starts. Fortunately, one of the movie’s original fans was Martin Scorsese, who first saw it as a child on daytime television. This would have been sometime in the fifties. The print was in black and white, the 163-minute running time had been mercilessly cut, and, thanks to the original “creative” distributor, the flashback structure had been unraveled to present a linear narrative. (Critic Andrew Sarris reported seeing the original U.S. release version—possibly the same version Scorsese saw on television—when it opened and being immediately intrigued, if puzzled, by it. After the laserdisc was released in 1988, he would write several celebratory articles.) Scorsese continued to follow its fate, and after seeing several more versions in theaters, in (mostly bad) color, he vowed in 1978 to track down an authentic print, if it existed. It is to him and fellow enthusiasts that we owe the rescue of this exquisite masterpiece, as well as an awakened appreciation for its producer-writer-director team.

Categories, belonging to the rational-adult here and now, are useless when it comes to Powell and Pressburger. It may be that Scorsese’s youth was an asset: he was able to see the film before genre, before auteur theory, before all the conceptual frames we devise to place and contain works of art. And a child is what Powell always insisted he continued to be; he existed, perhaps, in a fluid state of wonder, one in which the dream of having everything in the toy store is possible. We live in two worlds, begins the narrator of A Matter of Life and Death (1946), “the one we know and the other that exists only in our imagination.” Michael Powell seems to have been able to go back and forth between these two worlds with remarkable ease.

The color palette is particularly beautiful in Colonel Blimp; less exotic, maybe, than in some of the other films, but even bolder in its departure from the muddy reality of war, with surreal silvery blue interiors and magical snowy landscapes. These were the great days of Technicolor, before it was constrained by photo-realism, when colors were exaggerated, light was painterly. Even the khaki uniforms with their red trimming come alive in counterpoint to Kerr’s red hair as she appears successively as the governess Edith, the well-born Barbara, and the army driver Angela (“They call me Johnny”).

Powell may have been part child, but the other part was all-seeing despot. “I was a high priest of the mysteries,” he says in the second volume of his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie. “I took my authority for granted. Actors and actresses hated me.” The controlling eye, the circle of seeing and being seen, the vortex, figures in all his work, from the Archers’ target logo to that most perverse and cinematic eye, the camera in Peeping Tom (1960). Or, more benignly, the camera obscura through which Roger Livesey peers at the villagers in A Matter of Life and Death.

One of the most spectacular examples of the mastery of that eye is the virtuoso scene of the duel in Colonel Blimp, when Candy has to fight a stranger, Theo, who has been selected to defend German honor after Candy insults the traitor. It is Berlin in 1902 (the first flashback). As the two men clash swords in the cavernous gymnasium, the camera, rather than follow the battle to its climax, gradually pulls back and aloft, until the two are but specks, then wanders through the window and across the roof, where huge snowflakes are falling. The scene takes on the playful, wondrous beauty of a fairy tale, tiny people in a starlit cosmos. Whether it is 1902, 1914, 1942, we are all the same, we will all die. And yet what passions we have in life.

The camera then comes to rest inside a carriage where a man and a woman are waiting breathlessly for the result. The woman is of course Deborah Kerr, the governess whose complaint has brought the knight-errant to her side. Her terror, her trembling voice, tell us all we need to know about her feelings for this man, something the man himself will not realize until it’s too late.

Theo and Candy are recovering from their mutually inflicted wounds in the same hospital when Theo, a man who understands women, falls in love with Edith and carries her off as his bride. Livesey’s Candy is the perfect John Bull of a blockhead when it comes to love. Think also of I Know Where I’m Going! and how long it takes his character to realize Wendy Hiller’s loves him. (Doesn’t he know how spellbinding that voice is?) Indeed, Hiller must go out to sea at the risk of several lives before the penny drops.

The flashes of exquisite eroticism in the Powell-Pressburger films are privileged moments of almost unbearable intimacy, when a man and a woman cannot give words to what they feel. (The exception is the no less erotic but feverish carnality of Kathleen Byron and David Farrar in The Small Back Room.) These scenes of preverbal, almost primitive recognition occur when Kerr is kissing Livesey good-bye in Colonel Blimp, lingering a second too long, and he looks a little startled, unsure of a sensation he’s never had before; when, in an epiphany both spiritual and erotic, Sheila Sim turns her face toward Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale (1944); when Kerr and Farrar part in Black Narcissus (1947). These almost lovers convey that sense we’ve all had—of a rapport so sudden and complete that we feel we must have known the person in an earlier life. It is precisely this phenomenon that Powell plays on wittily and profoundly as the loves of General Candy reverberate through time.

Powell was in love with Kerr when they were making the film, and one feels delicate shadings of chemistry in every scene between her and Powell surrogate Livesey. Indeed, there’s a kind of special, surreptitious charge between and among all three actors. Powell wrote that, in the course of making the film, “I learnt from Anton what an artist is. I learnt from Roger what a man is. I learnt from Deborah what love is.” But Kerr, lovely and wistful though with great inner strength, deserves special note. Of the subtlety and wisdom of her performance, the shifts in register as she changes personae, too little has been said. Among the many superb writers on this film, almost no one I know of—with the exception of Penelope Andrews in the Huffington Post—has paid much attention to Kerr, or to Powell’s women in general. Sarris is another exception, having confessed that one of the reasons he came to appreciate Colonel Blimp, preferring it even to Citizen Kane, was the centrality of a woman, and the “redemptive romanticism” of the recurring (and thus unquenchable) love between the Kerr and Livesey characters.

Kerr is there to express Powell’s ideal but also to challenge romantic idealization, the downside of which is, of course, that the courtly lovers fail to see their idols whole, as having an interior life, as creatures who prick, irritate, and defy, even as they love. Candy is a hero, generous, manly, and brave, but like all heroes, he is somewhat obtuse, impervious to the ambiguities of life, baffled by sensibilities that can’t be reached by good old British common sense. Women are a foreign planet to him and as such can remain an opaque and beautiful mystery. He doesn’t quite hear the rumblings of feminist resentment.

It is 1902, a new century has arrived, a century that will give women the vote, will recruit them into the armed forces. Edith, for all her gentility, is something of a radical. She expresses suffragist notions that take the officer off guard, challenges him on his automatic assumption that the best place for women is at home.

Though more delicate than Wendy Hiller (Powell’s first choice for the role), Kerr’s three women are, in different ways, just as strong-minded as Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going!, or the intrepid Sim in A Canterbury Tale, incipient feminists who provoke as much as they charm. Kerr, in her second persona, as the society lady who becomes Candy’s wife right after World War I, is more conventional. Their life is a round of international diplomatic parties; she goes along with his sporting life and dies young. But she, too, is possessed of an insight he lacks. And the spirited Angela, Candy’s driver in the final episode, refuses all romantic notions of womanhood, and takes an active role in pushing him out of retirement. Theo, who has fled Germany to live in England, is both intrigued and sorrowful at the brash charm of this “new woman.” At one point, Candy takes Theo into his den to show him a portrait of the dead wife who so marvelously resembled Edith. The painting has pride of place over the mantel but is surrounded by the heads of antelope, deer, buffalo—the booty from Candy’s hunting expeditions. Theo expresses surprise at the placement (which gives new meaning to the term trophy wife), but Candy affirms with satisfaction that Barbara wanted it there, in the room where her husband would spend most of his time.

When pressed as to whether she doesn’t bear a startling resemblance to their Edith, Theo gently and ironically reminds his friend that Edith and he faded and grew old together, that when she died she was no longer the ravishing young woman of his memory. This rueful, fatalistic insight is beyond the ever-innocent Candy’s imagination. Unbowed by grief or complexity, he keeps moving forward. He now has for his driver a beautiful redhead who’s brasher and more modern than his first two loves but is otherwise their spitting image. Thanks to this magical coincidence, his love will remain forever young, forever fair.