My Favorite Movies: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

A title that acknowledges England/Candy's royal history and modernized present

Now, to conclude my totally unintentional string of WWII-related posts, here’s the second installment of my series about my favorite movies. This is an underrecognized film by an underrated duo: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). (Viewable here, 163 minutes long.) I guess it’s not too surprising that it’s a relatively unheard-of film. It’s very distinctly British and, to an extent, pretty topical and specific, made to comment on the progress of the Allies’ war on Nazi Germany. But on another level, it’s a beautiful, universal film about the effect of historical events on individual lives and relationships, and about maintaining personal honor amidst of national dishonor. It recognizes human nature as repetitive and unchanging from decade to decade, yet also singles the Nazism out as a special case – “the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain.” It’s these many sides of this great film that I want to examine.

David Low's boorish, hypocritical Colonel Blimp

Colonel Blimp, first of all, is not the film’s main character. He was a satirical cartoon character created by David Low in the 1930s, an exaggerated representation of the jingoistic old English army officer. The film, meanwhile, centers around Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (who goes by a number of other names and ranks throughout the film), a Blimp-like figure who is given a life and dynamic personality of his own. This genesis of the central character starts to show, I think, the film’s intent, and one of the reasons why its production was opposed by Churchill: in the midst of a worldwide struggle between good and evil, when one-dimensional political cartoons were the ideological currency in America, England, and Germany, it dared to take a cartoon and turn him into a human being, and dared to do the same with a German, of all people.

Colonel Blimp‘s plot is fairly epic, covering 3 hours and 40 years, and earning every second with its humane, sympathetic storytelling. It begins in 1943, as a group of young Home Guard soldiers decide to make their war games “like the real thing” by taking the elite old officers, resting in a Turkish bath, hostage 6 hours before the exercise was set to begin. The leader of the young men, Spud, is knocked into the water by the incensed Wynne-Candy (who is, at this juncture, intimidatingly walrus-like, identical to the Blimp caricature), who begins a memorable tirade against Spud’s youthful pride:

You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my moustache, but you don’t know why I grew it! How do you know what sort of man I was – when I was as young as you are – forty years ago…

At this point, the movie segues (without even so much as a cut) into 1903 at the very same bath, where the Major-General becomes the young Clive “Sugar” Candy, no mustache and a full head of hair, on leave from the Boer War. This initiates the film’s chronologically circular structure, told mostly in flashback, through which it’s able to connect three wars, along with England’s (and Candy’s) role in each of them. The story essentially involves Candy, his German friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (of whom Candy at first says, “nobody could invent a name like that”), and three different women who come into their lives. All three are played by the very pretty, redheaded Deborah Kerr, whom Michael Powell described as “both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for.”

Deborah Kerr, a work of art in Technicolor's marvelous pallette

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, who play Candy and Kretschmar-Schuldorff respectively, are the fire and ice, the enemies-turned-friends who keep the movie going, but it’s Kerr who’s the glue that holds it all together. She fills in the blank spaces in their lives (she’s married to each of them during much of the film’s temporal gaps) and is the locus of desire that both unintentionally brings them together in the first place and seals their bond of friendship. In Colonel Blimp, Kerr is a fiery woman in three eras and three wars, with her final role as Wynne-Candy’s driver, Angela “Johnny” Cannon, marking a change in women’s positions during the present war [WWII]. Kerr may be better-known for singing opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I, but I think she ought to be recognized for her triple role here; she’s the active force that sets just about every stage of the plot in motion, directly or indirectly, in war or peacetime.

Amidst the film’s cyclical plot are some great scenes, too, observing the backs and forths of international relations and their effects on human lives. There’s the duel between Clive and Theo that causes their friendship, set on a wintry morning in a gymnasium in Berlin; the camera pans away just as the fighting begins and lets us see the results from Ms. Hunter’s (Kerr) point of view. There are the montages illustrating Candy’s activities between wars by mounting one trophy after another on the walls of his home, exotic animals whose origins trace out a map of British colonial possessions in Africa and India. There is the desolate no-man’s-landscape of Flanders at the tail end of World War I, where Candy meets Scottish and American soldiers, in addition to a crafty South African officer named Van Zijl. He ominously tells a group of German POWs, “I assure you that I have means to get what I want,” an early example of the film’s interest in fair vs. unfair combat.

As Powell & Pressburger train their camera on England in the first half of the 20th century, they’re able to show one interesting character after another, each reacting differently to the difficulties history has thrust upon them. It’s hard to do justice to a story that wide and deep – it covers so much, yet never feels like it’s hurried or touching too briefly on any one time period. And the whole time the viewer’s receiving this crash course in the aftermath of English imperialism, they are also treated to the lush Technicolor reds and greens of the London surroundings that turn to oranges and yellows as Clive and Theo reach the autumns of their lives.

Roger Livesey gives a monumental performance as Clive Wynne-Candy

It’s impressive that a movie so much about the causes and effects of war can also say so much about the ebbs and tides of normal life – about youth, aging, and all the in-betweens. I think that’s largely because war – and the consequent destruction – necessitates rebuilding, which is what the characters spend much of the film doing. Rebuilding houses, friendships, memories, lives. The title mentions the “death” of Colonel Blimp, and I think this can be interpreted a number of ways; although Candy himself doesn’t die at the end, it’s the death of what he represents and the ideals to which he clings, the death of British military supremacy, the death of the Old Guard, and the death of that cartoonish blowhard Blimp. The tapestry that begins and ends the film has a motto that’s a play on an old Latin phrase: “Sic transit gloria Candy.” Thus passes the glory of Candy. It’s an epitaph for the old colonel (or Major-General, or whatever) whose old world has given way to a new one.

I think I’ve done a little bit of justice to Colonel Blimp‘s mixture of emotion, artistry, and grandeur. Once you get swept into the story – which, unlike many similarly epic stories, never degenerates into overly melodramatic plot twists and unearned sentiment – you find yourself won over by its enchanting characters and, by the time they’ve aged several decades, they’ve become old friends. Despite its deep roots in British colonialism and 1940s debates about fair play in warfare, it remains accessible (and, you’d think, very relevant in the light of current politics). I wish I’d had more of a chance to talk more about the careers of Powell & Pressburger, but please read for yourself; they were incredible but underappreciated filmmakers. Wikipedia quotes David Mamet as describing Colonel Blimp as his idea of perfection, and he has a point. With its personal, bittersweet narrative running through a whole colorful world of multinational, multidimensional characters, addressing the private and public costs of war, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favorite movies.

Clive and Theo meet during a duel framed with beauty and humor

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