The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: Special Edition Review
Cinema was big business during the Second World War. Ordinary people, tired of the bombing, rationing and other privations that came with being part of a nation involved in protracted conflict, wanted nothing more than to be transported out of their lives by the silver screen. According to the BFI's list of the most successful (in terms of box office) movies shown in Britain, those that busted the greatest number of blocks during those years were either lighthearted fare (usually starring, it would appear, Anna Neagle) or allegories for the war that delivered a none too subtle propaganda message. Clearly, the people wanted froth, a temporary escape from the daily terror. The government wanted to keep the national spirits up, delivering chipper heroes, dastardly foes and rousing speeches. Mrs Miniver (1942) was a huge hit, despite the fact it depicted a wartime Britain that had little basis in reality - it was the message that counted, the timeless saga of plucky Englanders struggling on in the face of adversity. And what about those Sherlock Holmes films, the ones that plucked our hero out of his 'turn of the century' Baker Street and straight into 1940s London? His enemies were the Nazis too, and to underline the point he ended every film with a patriotic monologue. It's excruciating to watch now, but at the time these unsubtle messages were quite normal and applauded by the masses.
Director Michael Powell was amongst the most prolific film makers of the era, delivering routine slices of escapism-with-a-message, and the occasional enduring classic like The Thief of Baghdad. With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, he went for something a little different. Blimp started life as a strip cartoon, created by David Low and published in the Daily Mail. It was a satire on the ageing military generals of the time, creaking, ancient and of course bluff old coves who hammered home their traditional English virtues whilst being totally at odds with the country's contemporary mood. In making his picture, Powell - in partnership with Emeric Pressburger (the pair were later to collaborate on A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes) - took the Blimp stereotype and added an entire background, in the process creating a character who was much more complex and sympathetic than the cartoons suggested.
The story opens in 1943, with a gang of young officers 'capturing' an old general, who protests the war doesn't begin until midnight. Clearly, this is a training exercise that has been devised to simulate a combat situation, and the younger man decides to circumvent the 'rules of engagement' by striking early. An argument starts. The 'Blimp' character, who announces himself as General Clive Wynne-Candy, isn't impressed with the way he and his fellow officers are being treated. Things boil over when the assailant insults his attitude, manners and his weight, at which point the pair start scrapping.
Wynne-Candy looks every inch the kind of 'Do you know who I am?' traditionalist who the Low cartoon lampoons, but there's more to his story than that. After all, every Blimp has to start somewhere, and it's here the movie takes us back in time, specifically to 1903, when 'Sugar' Candy is a dashing young officer serving in the Boer War. It's the first in a series of flashbacks, tracking the events of his life through the diplomatic incident he gets embroiled in during a visit to Berlin, World War One and eventually to contemporary times. At first, it's clear that this is a different England. The horrors of two world wars are still far away, Britain's empire stretches across the globe and a sense of decency prevails. The latter rules to such an extent that Candy thinks nothing of rushing off to Germany and settling a peacetime dispute that in reality is not his concern. It's here he meets Edith Hunter, the English governess living in Berlin who dogs his thoughts from then on. He also makes the acquaintance of a young German Uhlan officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, with whom he is forced to fight a rapier duel thanks to some ill-judged statements he is incensed enough to make in a Berlin restaurant. Theo and he are destined to become firm friends, and they will meet again thanks to the upcoming conflicts between their nations.
At this point, Candy is every inch the model of English virtue - decent, moral and with an upper lip that is never less than stiff. And that's fine during the post-Victorian era, when the value of 'fair play' in all walks of life was considered to be mandatory. However, as we learn, it doesn't take long for him to get out of his depth in the new world of much bigger, dirtier wars. By the time World War One is turning parts of Europe into a shelled bog his ways are seen as hopelessly old-fashioned. Even though he's now a General, the soldiers he meets treat him as a bit of a joke. In one scene, he attempts to interrogate some German prisoners, but his soft techniques of persuasion don't scratch the surface of their silence, and it takes a far harder man to break them.
As the Second World War looms, Candy is in the full flower of his Blimpness. Full-bellied, patrician and still peddling the old values, he offers to rejoin the army but is 'retired'. His speech for the radio is cancelled because in it, he suggests Britain will beat Germany through fair play, which doesn't tow the government line that everyone must fight for their lives against the Nazis by whatever means. In an effort to stay useful, he becomes a leading figure in the formation of the Home Guard. We come full circle, picking up the story from the start as the younger officer captures him before the agreed start of 'hostilities' at midnight. In the eyes of the young man, he is achieving success through doing what he must, even if this means ditching fair play for victory. For Candy, it's a final nail in the coffin of his old-fashioned sense of honour. This really is a new Britain, one in which people like him have no meaning.
All this is story enough in itself, but Blimp doesn't waste a moment of its 157-minute running time. Theo's character is explored in full. A far more intelligent and cynical man than Candy, he suffers in a way his friend never will. Marrying Edith after the 'duel' incident, he is later forced to undergo the humilation of defeat in the Great War, being captured before he is allowed to return to his shattered country. Once Hitler rises to power, Edith has died and their sons - 'good Nazis', he says bitterly - have broken all ties with him, leaving him with no choice but to return to England as an enemy alien. His role is to be Candy's voice of reason, putting into context the disappointments his friend suffers during the hard years of World War Two.
And then there's Edith herself, one of three characters played by Deborah Kerr. Candy doesn't even realise he loves Edith until he leaves her with Theo, and from that point she obsesses him. Later, he marries a much younger woman, Kerr again, for the simple reason she reminds him so strongly of his lost love. Both women have died by the time Theo and Candy are reunited in Britain during the Second World War, but Kerr shows up once more, this time playing the old General's driver, Angela Cannon. She confides to Theo that she can't believe her luck, being selected from 700 girls to work for Candy. Overall, it's a brilliant performance from Kerr. With each character, she manages to inhabit a different skin, from the schoolmarmish Edith to Angela's more outgoing working girl. It may be the same actor, but there are no similarities where the roles are concerned.
The real acting honours go to Anton Walbrook as Theo. An Austrian by birth, Walbrook changed his name from Adolf for obvious reasons and ended up providing a string of performances as sympathetic Germans, often for Michael Powell. In Blimp, he's called upon to be the film's moral core, the face of suffering at the decay - both in real terms and morally - of his beloved Fatherland and the world beyond. Whilst Candy doesn't change in terms of his attitude, Theo is forced to evaluate everything, and you see this over the years. The Englishman adds some girth as he ages, but the changes in Theo happen in his face. At the movie's start, he's handsome and virile, by the end ashen-faced and broken. At Blimp's apex, he delivers a speech that covers his entire life after the First World War, summarising his disillusionment with Nazi Germany. For nearly ten minutes, the camera never leaves his face, and he barely moves. It's a near perfect monologue in terms of delivery and impact, and what it means is clear enough, that Theo represents nothing less than the tormented soul of Germany itself.
If the thesp points are in Wallbrook's pocket, it's the man behind Candy who dominates. Roger Livesey, a slightly hoarse-sounding Powell regular really does give the performance of a lifetime. There's hardly a second when he isn't on the screen, and even if his character becomes a caricature, there's enough natural charisma about the man to make Candy a thoroughly likeable presence. Which of course is what he should be. Though David Low made Blimp out to be a figure of fun, there are obviously reasons for his attitude, and these are beautifully demonstrated by Livesey. Candy is supposed to be a class-driven, brusque figure, yet Livesey's acting is at times quite understated. Opposite Kerr, he's deliciously torn, masking his pain behind a bluff exterior that his upbringing doesn't allow him to break. By the film's end, his Blimp is a fully fleshed character of whom you feel nothing but sympathy. Of the rest, it's worth highlighting a young(er) John Laurie, who plays Candy's dogsbody, Murdoch, years before he wailed 'We're doomed!' once per episode in Dad's Army.
Blimp was an early success in the use of technicolour. This was partly because - like The Wizard of Oz, a movie it references at various points - Powell and cinematographer Georges Perinal knew how to use colour to dramatic effect. In the early scenes, set in an almost dreamlike 1903 when the world is deliberately made out to be a nicer place, everything is vibrant, rich and alive. Candy's imperial soldier's uniform, a lush red, looks great, as does the opulent Turkish baths of his London club and a Berlin so quaint it could be mistaken for a toy town. Contrast this with the battlefields of World War One, by which time the richness has been wiped out in favour of greys and browns, reflecting the dour, gritty nature of the times. We watch Candy as the war ends, the sky struggling to turn blue, but it's a fleeting respite. Before we know it, we're smack in the middle of another war, all sombre and muted colours amidst the blackouts.
The cinematography is generally superb. This is never better witnessed than in the way Blimp shows the passing of the inter-war years. Candy's in his den, pacing in post-Edith frustration, and as he walks out the camera focuses on his shadow growing longer on a blank wall. It doesn't stay that way. As our hero tries to expel her memory, the movie reveals, in a series of cuts ringing with the blast of gunshots, just how he's working it out of his system. One by one, the den wall is filled with animal heads, trophies of Candy's hunting expeditions in the empire, each one decorated with plaques bearing just where and when each grisly trophy was bagged. It's a strange series of images that of course would never be possible in front of a twenty first century audience with very different sensibilities from those of contemporary times. But it does its job, and looks wonderful in the process.
Ironically, as though the film was hinting at its own fate in the scene where Candy's radio speech is banned, Blimp suffered upon its release. Personally censured by Winston Churchill himself, a massive series of cuts was introduced to the finished product, which took away its flashback structure and therefore much of its point. The official reason was that in Theo, it possessed a German character who was far too sympathetic for a country at war to stand. In the propaganda-driven society Britain had become, such a representation was the last thing the government wanted us to see. It's since been suggested that the underlying motive for its mutilation was that Churchill saw too much of himself in Blimp, which seems harsh but isn't without plausibility. Fortunately, the 1980s found the movie restored to its proper length and structure, and as a result it earned something of a 'lost masterpiece' status.
Carlton have done a lovely job with the restoration of this classic. Presented in an aspect ratio of 4:3, and making decent use of the Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono, it's about as good as it's ever going to get. Certainly, the film looks great, with barely a hint of damage showing on the screen. Audio-wise, there's some crackling, but this hardly gets in the way of the dialogue and Alan Gray's rich score. Besides which, I think the occasional 'pop' only adds to the atmosphere of watching an old movie.
English subtitles are available.
They don't call it a 'Special Edition' for nothing. Though there's no commentary, possibly because few people involved in Blimp's making are still alive, this is made up for with a first-rate 25-minute documentary, A Profile of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which essentially consists of interviews with those who love the movie. Of these, the predictable gem is Stephen Fry, who has a clear passion for all things Blimp, and applies some acrobatic vocabulary to his gushings. Other interviewees like Pressburger biographer Ian Christie can do little to come across as equally memorable. The programme does contain some lovely anecdotes about Michael Powell at work, in particular his willingness to let camera operator Jack Cardiff experiment with lighting and angles. This non-prescriptive way of filming led to some of the more unique scenes in Blimp. It also refreshingly shows Powell to be a non-dictatorial, gentlemanly director. Francis Ford Coppola he wasn't.
The Gallery is a rather needless series of shots from the film running in time with excerpts from the score. Several posters are thrown in along the way, most of which emphasise the word 'Blimp'. This reflects the impact of Low's cartoons on the public, and also perhaps teased them a bit. After all, people going to see a film based on the famous satire of the day must have expected something quite different from what they eventually got.
Finally, you can also read Biographies of Powell, Livesey, Kerr and Walbrook. Though Deborah Kerr went on to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Blimp's male leads enjoyed rather less successful careers in front of the cameras. Livesey preferred the stage to the screen, whilst rather tragically Walbrook became a recluse and when he died in 1967, it seemed he might suffer the fate of numerous forgotten talents. However, his roles in Blimp, and in Powell and Pressburger's 1948 classic, The Red Shoes, ensured otherwise.
It won't come as any surprise to learn I loved this movie when I first saw it not long after its restoration, and I love it now. Partly, it's because it stands out in an endless sea of war films that told one-sided yarns about dashing Tommies and the rotten Hun. There's nothing wrong with many of these, and Blimp makes its fair share of similar statements where those diabolical Nazis are concerned. However, it also shows another side to war - that participants can get lost within it, that some enemies become friends despite it, and that sometimes, people can lose the entire point of their lives as a consequence of being involved in it. Blimp made some unwelcome statements on its release in 1943. It featured good Germans, and it showed people on both sides in a less than favourable light. Little wonder then that post-modern audiences watching it today can appreciate its boldness within a genre of film-making that could be somewhat one-dimensional.
At the same time, it's just a great film. Not only does it stand up technically and was blessed with a cast and crew who were at the top of their game, but it also tells a superb story. There's a lot of plot to cover, and Blimp moves at a fairly brisk pace in ensuring it details Candy's lengthy life and loves. Its flashback structure comes full circle brilliantly, catching up with itself cleverly and concisely, and its emotional pay-off, whilst a little cheesy by current standards, has genuine weight. Filled with some neat touches of humour to balance the overall gravitas of its worthy subject, Blimp indeed deserves its masterpiece standing.