Clive Wynne-Candy is an officer and a gentleman. A career soldier in His Majesty’s army, he believes in following the rules of combat–even against an enemy willing to commit atrocities. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows Wynne-Candy through four decades, from his dashing youth to a somewhat foolish old age. Along the way, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger–the same team that created The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus–provide warmth, heartbreak, laughs, and several viewpoints on what it means to be a soldier, a patriot, a young man, an old man, and a decent human being.
Shot in three-strip Technicolor at the height of World War II, in a bombed-out London, Blimp’s very existence seems impressive. The story centers on a foolish British officer whose best friend–sometimes playing the voice of reason–is German. Winston Churchill did not approve. Yet it was made, on a large budget, with a running time of nearly three hours.
My wife and I caught The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Friday night at the Rafael. The film has recently undergone a major 4k digital restoration, and it looks gorgeous. This picture belongs on the big screen, and you have two more opportunities to see it that way this week.
The title seems misleading–at least if you don’t know the historical context. After all, the central character’s name is Wynne-Candy, not Blimp. And while he may have been a colonel at one point in his career, we only see him as a lieutenant and and as a general. What’s more (mild spoiler), he’s still alive at the end. The explanation: Colonel Blimp was a popular cartoon character of the time, a parody of a certain type of fat, old-fashioned, mustached British officer who couldn’t adjust to the changing times.
And Wynne-Candy is definitely a Colonel Blimp type when we first meet him in the filmmaker’s present day of 1942. Woken from a nap in a Turkish bath, he’s a ridiculous figure–pompous, full of himself, and horrified and angry at a young officer who has shown initiative.
Then the flashback–which takes most of the film’s runtime–begins. We meet the young Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey, who also plays the middle-aged and old Wynne-Candy in very convincing makeup), on leave after winning a medal in the Boer War. He ends up in Germany, where he fights a comically formal duel, and befriends a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). War, peace, and the rise of fascism will separate them and bring them back together.
Rounding out the triangle–or perhaps the pentagon–is Deborah Kerr, playing three identical-looking yet very different young women who enter into these two men’s lives. My wife suggested an interesting reason for casting the same actress in all three roles: Every beautiful woman Wynne-Candy sees reminds him of his first love.
Despite Churchill’s initial objections, this is a very British, and pro-British film. It tells us that England should be proud that it won the Boer War and World War I without resorting to the dirty tricks of the enemy (in reality, the Brits committed their own atrocities in those wars). It also argues that the new war is different, and that we must use Nazi tactics to defeat the Nazis.
But don’t mistake Colonel Blimp for simple wartime propaganda. The characters and moral issues are too complex for that. Powell and Pressburger allow various views to be heard and considered. Besides, the story is about people, not ideas.
The filmmakers don’t use Technicolor here as creatively as they would later (see my comments on The Red Shoes), but they use it effectively. The colors pop, adding a brightness to what might otherwise have been a dreary story. Occasionally, it’s used atmospherically to convey the feel of a battleground or a dimly-lit home. Powell and Pressburger seldom distract us with technical dazzle, but every setup counts. And they found some very creative ways to tell us about the years passing by.
The Rafael is screening Colonel Blimp digitally off a DCP. Some people would object. I don’t. Sure, I would have rather seen the original, nitrate, dye-transfer print in Martin Scorsese’s private collection, but that’s not really a practical option. I seriously doubt that a new print–whether or not is was made off the new restoration–would look as good as this DCP. I’m sure it would not look better.
I saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp once before, on TV, and based on that experience I gave it an A. Now that I’ve seen it restored on the big screen, I’m promoting it to a rare A+.