Churchill was outraged. He was expecting a patriotic war movie full of valor, heroic death, brave British soldiers overcoming all odds to beat the Hun, with Nazis portrayed as the beasts they were. What he saw was a film about a fat, bald, pompous old man with a walrus mustache who can't seem to do anything right. Worse, the only German around is a good German who turns out to be a firm friend. Even worse, the lead character seems to be based on a newspaper cartoon of a blustering old colonel who quickly came to symbolize for the British people the complacency and pigheadedness that had made Britain so unprepared when war with Hitler came. Churchill immediately determined to have the film banned. He might have succeeded but for two things. Some in his government argued that banning the film would only create a backlash. Then there was the matter of World War II, which at last distracted him from his passion for censorship.
And so we have The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the movie I consider the richest of the six amazingly creative films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made between 1942 and 1948.
It's 1942 and we're in an ornate London steam bath with a group of fat old duffers we come to understand are the aged officers of the Home Guard. War games will begin at midnight and they are preparing themselves. They are led by Major General Clive Wynne-Candy. He won the Victoria Cross in the Boer War and served with distinction in France during WWI. That was long ago. He's filled with pride, certitude, confidence in the rules of war and good food.
A squad of soldiers bursts in led by a young lieutenant who immediately asks which of the towel-wrapped, sweating old men is General Candy. It seems the opposing side in the war game has decided to strike early and arrest all the senior officers of the Home Guard. "You can't do that," bellows the old man. "War starts at midnight!"
What are we to make of this old man? Was Churchill right? An instant later the old man has furiously rushed the young lieutenant and they both go into the pool. After some mighty splashing and thrashing, we see a figure swimming toward the far end, then emerge to have himself wrapped in a towel. Wait a minute. The man is still Clive Candy, but it's forty years earlier and Candy is a young officer. And now Powell and Pressburger are going to show us the young officer, not the newspaper caricature. We're going to learn a lot about Clive Candy in 163 minutes and 40 years. We're going to appreciate his optimism, his gallantry, his sense of honor, and even sympathize a little in his outdated belief that there are such things for gentlemen as the rules of war.
What Churchill missed is how powerfully Powell and Pressburger make their case: That outmoded ideas must be discarded when fighting a man as mad and evil as Hitler. That the British are learning that lesson. That belief in British values such as fair play and honor may seem old fashioned, even quaint, but they are core values. That Britain, thanks in part to the character and spirit of men like Clive Wynne-Candy, will prevail no matter how fiercely the winds may now blow...but nostalgia and memories must be put aside.
Roger Livesey had the role of his life as Candy. He brings Candy to life for us with decency, respect and affection. He's excellent both as the young officer and as the old man who lives increasingly with nostalgia. I challenge anyone not to tear up when we last see Candy, an old man, watch a parade of young men marching off to war, knowing that his time has past, but being comforted by his German friend that his values are true. Anton Walbrook plays Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff with great subtlety. Ultimately it is Theo, now a refugee from Hitler and standing by Candy’s side, who brings Candy to an understanding that things must change. Deborah Kerr plays three roles, the three women in Candy's life...the woman he loved and lost to Theo, the nurse during WWI whom he met and then married, who has died, and the young enlisted woman who served as his driver when we first met him. Kerr gives each of these women a slightly different personality. She is memorable.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is such a rich and unusual film that whatever anyone writes about it will, I think, be largely inadequate. It needs to be seen. Is it better than Powell and Pressburger's other master films from the Forties? We're talking about The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). I like them all immensely but my favorite is Blimp. They are available in Criterion releases.
The Criterion release is excellent, sharp and with the full-bodied color Powell loved.
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