The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production: The Archers; Technicolor; running time: 163 minutes, length: 14,701 feet. Released June 1943.
Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger; screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, from the cartoon character created by David Low; photography: Georges Périnal; process photography: W. Percy Day; camera operators: Geoffrey Unsworth, Jack Cardiff, Harold Haysom; editor: John Seabourne; sound recordists: C. C. Stevens, Desmond Dew; production designer: Alfred Junge; costume design: Joseph Bato, Matilda Etches; music: Allan Gray.
Cast: Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff); Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Angela Cannon); Roger Livesey (General Clive Wynne-Candy); Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge); Harry Welchman (Major Davies); Arthur Wontner (Embassy Counsellor); Albert Lieven (von Ritter); John Laurie (Murdoch); James McKechnie (Lieutenant "Spud" Wilson); David Hutcheson (Hoppy); Ursula Jeans (Frau von Kalteneck); Reginald Tate (van Zijl); A. E. Matthews (President of Tribunal); Neville Mapp (Stuffy Graves); Vincent Holman (Club Porter, 1942); Spencer Trevor (Period Blimp); James Knight (Club Porter, 1942); Dennis Arundell (Cafe Orchestra Leader); David Ward (Kaunitz); Jan van Loewen (Indignant Citizen); Valentine Dyall (von Schönborn); Carl Jaffé (von Reumann); Eric Maturin (Colonel Goodhead); Frith Banbury (Baby-Face Fitzroy); Robert Harris (Embassy Secretary); Count Zichy (Colonel Borg); Jane Millican (Nurse Erna); Phyllis Morris (Pebble); Muriel Aked (Aunt Margaret); Captain W. H. Barrett, U.S. Army (Texan); Corporal Thomas Palmer, U.S. Army (Sergeant); Yvonne Andree (Nun); Marjorie Gresley (Matron); Felix Aylmer (Bishop); Helen Debroy (Mrs. Wynne); Norman Pierce (Mr. Wynne); Edward Cooper (BBC Official); Joan Swinstead (Secretary).
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* * *
With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the idiosyncratic partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger hit its stride. Though they had already made four highly individual films together, Blimp was the first for their newly formed independent production company, The Archers—and also their first movie in colour. Not that monochrome could be said to cramp their imaginations—witness A Canterbury Tale or I Know Where I'm Going—but colour, and especially the heightened, unreal quality of 1940s Technicolor, gave full play to the richly stylised extravagance of their vision.
If realism never counted for much in Powell-Pressburger's films, the same went for intellectual consistency, and Blimp thrives on ambiguity to the point of blatant self-contradiction. The original Blimp, as created by the great political cartoonist David Low, stood for all that was most crassly reactionary in the British military establishment. The film's Blimp, incarnated by Roger Livesey's General Clive Wynne-Candy, is a lovable old walrus, maybe a touch set in his ways, but altogether a spirited survivor from a more honourable age. Livesey gives the performance of a lifetime, but wholly misses the mean, vicious side of Blimp which Olivier, Powell-Pressburger's initial choice, might well have brought to the role.
Given this central characterisation, it's inevitable that the film's ostensible message (most clearly enunciated by the "good German," Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff) and its emotional drift should be at odds almost from the start. "They are children. War is playing cricket," Theo reflects about his captors after World War I; and later, with the next conflict under way: "If you let yourselves be defeated by [the Nazis], just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you, there won't be any methods but Nazi methods . . . This is not a gentleman's war. This time you are fighting for your very existence." His views are implemented by the young lieutenant in the 1943 framing episode, pulling a sneak attack "by the authority of these guns and these men"—and we hear similar sentiments from Edith, the young woman Candy meets, loves and loses to Theo in 1902 Berlin: "Good manners cost us . . . 6,000 men killed and 20,000 men wounded—and two years of war. When with a little common sense and bad manners there would have been no war at all."
Yet this advocacy of realpolitik is constantly undermined, not only by Candy's own actions—far from displaying "bad manners" in Berlin, he accedes to a duel with scrupulous correctness—but by the affection with which the film portrays both him, and the era he represents. In a British film of this period, we might expect to see Wilhelmine Germany peopled with proto-Nazis; Powell-Pressburger view the details of ceremony and protocol with a sly delight, tinged with nostalgia, that anticipates the Ophüls of Lola Montès or La Ronde. As the duel—staged with hieratic formality in a high, white gymnasium—gets started, the camera pulls up and away through the roof in a dreamlike movement, to gaze out across a prospect of nocturnal spires swathed in drifting snow.
But again—since Blimp is nothing if not multi-layered—there's the covert implication that Candy preserves his ideals only through wilful ignorance, overlooking dirty tricks by others on his behalf. His mission in Berlin was to counter shameful rumours of the British herding Boer women and children into concentration camps—which of course were quite true. "Clean fighting, honest soldiering have won," he muses in 1918, having left a South African major—the irony is evident—to interrogate prisoners by methods less scrupulous than his own. Throughout, the film is sustained and vitalised by these ideological tensions, which save it from slipping into the bland, celebratory mode of such Hollywood counterparts as Forever and a Day—and which could be seen as reflecting the disparate outlooks of its begetters, with Candy an ironic portrait of Powell, the romantic-Tory Englishman, and Theo (astringently played by Anton Walbrook, who wrote most of his own dialogue) standing in for the mid-European Pressburger.
Such ambiguity, at a time of national crisis, was scarcely calculated to appeal to the authorities. Churchill detested Blimp and did his best to get it banned. He failed, doing the film nothing but good at the box-office; but his curse may have had some delayed effect. For years, the only available prints were heavily truncated and rearranged, making nonsense of the subtle flashback structure. In the late 1970s, though, the National Film Archive mounted a rescue operation; and the complete version was restored to circulation, to take its place as one of the most intriguing and complex treatments of the national wartime myth.
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