The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943
Director – Michael Powell
Starring – Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook
Throughout the history of cinema, pairings of filmmakers emerge who, together, can magnify and build upon each others abilities to create something that neither could have done alone. Often times these partnerships are comprised of a director and an actor, but its not limited to those two positions. For every Scorsese and DeNiro, there is a Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, or a Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman. Despite the job titles involved these partnerships can be very fruitful, but there is no more celebrated combination of talents than those of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seems to be the culmination of that particular pairing, though I can hardly profess to know for sure. I decided to watch the movie in an attempt to follow along with the Powell/Pressburger movie marathon put on by the boys at the Filmspotting podcast. Till that point I had, of course, heard the names of the famous duo, but I had no idea of their impact on the film industry. So despite my having seen The Red Shoes before this film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp counts as my awakening to their particular brand of humor, whimsy, and romance.
Blimp follows the unlikely friendship of Clive Candy, a young British officer, and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German officer with whom Candy is assigned to fight a duel after a misunderstanding between their respective countries. Each man is seriously wounded in the duel and they grow close to one another in the hospital. Theo eventually falls in love with his friend’s companion Edith Hunter, and risks another duel to ask for her hand in marriage.
The film opens a few years from the beginning of World War 1, and goes all the way through the Nazi build-up of the second World War. Though they don’t see each other often, when the pair does have occasion to meet, it is clear that each man treasures his friendship with the other more than anything. Even Candy’s fascination with Theo’s new bride, seemed to me to be simply an extension of his desire to connect with his friend more often. Though he obviously has deep feelings for Mrs. Hunter as well.
Each man grows from the idealism of youth, to the comfort of middle age, and into the winter years of their lives all the while enduring wars, the deaths of loved ones, and the political and social challenges that go along with being on opposite sides of massive turmoil and conflict.
Roger Livesey plays the stout, indomitable Clive Candy, in all his bombastic glory. Ever the positive go getter, Livesey imbues Candy with a certain innocence that runs contrary to all the conflict and horror the character has seen in his lifetime. Theo, played by Anton Walbrook, is a bit more of a stuffed shirt, and in his earlier years a bit more pessimistic thanks to Germany’s loss of the first World War. Ultimately he provides a fine counterpoint to Candy, however, as both men vie for the attention and affection of the different incarnations of Mrs. Hunter, played memorably by Deborah Kerr. Kerr plays Hunter, but also plays the woman who Candy ultimately marries, Barbara Wynne, and eventually the driver hired by Candy, Johnny Cannon. The fact that each of these three characters looks similar is simply for the benefit of Candy and Theo. Beyond the exterior, these three women are different characters in their own rights.
Pressburger’s script is able to maintain the dry, sometimes zany, British humor without losing any of the real emotional heft, and Powell’s direction gives the actors room to make these characters their own. In the hands of another writer/director team, that fine line of humor and heart could easily have been lost.
Cinematographically speaking, Blimp is positively glowing in rich Technicolor tones, and dreamy 1940’s set pieces. George Perinal, the film’s cinematographer, was also responsible for the look of another of my favorite films from this list so far, Le Million. Perinal manages to keep that certain dreamy quality that I loved so much from Le Million, and use it in a completely different way in Blimp.
The one rather confusing, although ultimately unimportant, problem I had with this movie, was the fact that I waited quite a while for the character Colonel Blimp to show himself. Well, actually that’s not entirely true. Once I was caught up in the story, I stopped caring about the title so much, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until I looked up the reference to the stodgy British militarism on Wikipedia afterwards. Check that out here if you are so inclined. That one quibble shouldn’t prevent you from seeing this film, it didn’t stop me!