The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Country: United Kingdom
“The Archers took the class satire and social consciousness found in the best work of Noel Coward — as well as in the original David Low cartoon whence the ‘Colonel Blimp’ character originated — and turned those elements into something uniquely theirs, a film very wry and dry in its tweaking of British sensibilities, universal in its observations on life, love and longevity in the middle of a world war.”
Bruce Eder, All-Movie Guide
“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is in a sense playing at soldiers, playing at myths of nationhood. What gives it such uncanny power as a myth in its own right is that it uses its own disrespect for narrative, visual and thematic decorum to create a national fiction that is too ‘ecstatic’, contradictory and shifting to be called propaganda.”
Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin
“The England which Powell celebrates is a very upper class one and today The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp survives less on account of its overt meaning than for its visual elegance and narrative zest and its indication of such typical Powell obsessions as the casting of Deborah Kerr as all three redheads in Candy’s life.”
Roy Armes, A Critical History of British Cinema
“It addresses something I’ve always been profoundly interested in — what it means to be English… it is about bigger things than the war. It takes a longer view of history which was an extraordinarily brave thing for someone to do in 1943, at a time when history seemed to have disintegrated into its most helpless, impossible and unforgivable state.”
Stephen Fry, interviewed by the Daily Telegraph
“What is it really about?”
C. A. Lejeune, The Observer
The Comic Strip
Colonel Blimp was originally a character in a satirical comic strip drawn by David Low in the 1930’s; A pompous, irascible, blustery, conservative-to-just-this-side-of-fascist British military man who makes harrumphing, xenophobic, gloriously contradictory proclamations on current events (“There must be no monkeying with the liberty of Indians to do what they’re dashed well told!” “We should absorb our unemployed by starting them building concentration camps to lock themselves in!” “We must build a bigger navy than the enemy will build when he hears we’re building a bigger navy than he’s building!”).
Colonel Blimp became a well-known symbol of the reactionary and imperialist British middle class, typified, in the words of George Orwell, by the “half-pay colonel with his bull neck and diminutive brain.”
Powell and Pressburger
Michael Powell was born in Kent in 1905, the son of a hop farmer. (Yes, really.) In 1925, through a friend of his Dad’s, he got a job as a gofer for Victorine Studios in France. Eventually he graduated to still photography and title-writing for the studio, and even did a bit of comedic acting. His big break came when he was hired to do still photography for one of Hitchcock’s silent films (Champagne). Finally, in 1931, Powell was allowed to try his hand at directing “quota quickies” (short films created to meet the federally-mandated quota of UK-produced films… kinda the same reason SCTV had to add The Great White North) for producer Jerry Jackson. During the following five years, Michael Powell received a director’s credit on no less than twenty-three films.
In 1939, Powell was hired by Alexander Korda to salvage The Spy Wore Black. The first thing I’d do is change the title, but what do I know? In any case, this is where Powell first met screenwriter Emeric Pressburger.
After working on two more films together (Contraband and 49th Parallel), the two filmmakers realized that the synergy they had was something unique. Thereafter, they formed a filmmaking alliance, always credited jointly: “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” (although Pressburger usually wrote and Powell usually directed). They called themselves The Archers, and drafted a manifesto:
- We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.
- Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
- When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
- No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.
- At any time, and particularly at the present, the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.
They went on to create 19 films together, many successful, and a few (including The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus and today’s film) now widely accepted as classics of 20th century British filmmaking. The Archers’ partnership was officially disbanded in 1957, and Powell’s fortunes took a decided turn for the worse after the release of 1960’s Peeping Tom, which was reviled by critics for its lurid sexuality and violence.
Martin Scorsese introduced Michael Powell to Thelma Schoonmaker and they were married from 1984 until Powell’s death in 1990. Thelma Schoonmaker had edited Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock film, and went on to become Scorsese’s editor of choice, taking the razor blade to such films as Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed.
When The Archers’ film of Colonel Blimp was originally released in 1943, it ran 164 minutes. Winston Churchill strongly disapproved of the perceived mockery of the British Army, the sympathetic portrayal of a German, and the suggestion that Britain may have to fight dirty to win WWII. He attempted to shut down the film during production, and then made it difficult for the producers to show it abroad. As a result, it was not shown in the U.S. until two years later, and then in an edited, 150-minute version. Later, it was cut to 90 minutes for television broadcast. Not until 1983 was Colonel Blimp restored to its original length for re-release.
We are dropped into the planning stages of a military practice exercise, during WWII. Military motorcycles race along country roads at breakneck speed, and then arrive at a barn, lately converted to a command post. “Message from HQ! Where’s your CO?”
“War starts at midnight!” is the order. “Make it like the real thing,” the soldiers are told.
“Like the real thing, eh?” muses the young CO. “We attack at six!”
There is a race to London, the soldiers barge into a Turkish bath, where General Wynne-Candy is caught unawares.
“Don’t ye know that war starts at midnight?” he sputters impotently. “That was agreed!”
The brash young CO makes some rather impudent remarks about the old officers, their well-fed guts, and their outrageous facial hair.
Infuriated, Candy lunges at the man. “I was fighting for my country when your father was still in bum freezers! You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my mustache, but don’t know why I grew it! …How do ye know what sort of a man I was when I was as young as you are, forty years ago?” Their wrestling match moves to the lap pool, and both men sink beneath the surface.
“Forty years ago… forty years ago…” General Wynne-Candy gurgles in voiceover, before emerging from the other end of the pool, forty years younger, and we realize that the whole opening section was just an elaborate setup to segue into the flashback, which begins… now.
As a younger man, Candy is the quintessential (and oft-parodied, for example in just about every single episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus) blustery, blindly patriotic, dim-witted British military man; an even more bluff and equally clueless version of Charters or Caldicott from last week’s film. He is known as Suggie or Sugar by his friends, and, despite rumors to the contrary, did not lose a leg in Bloemfontein: “Can’t have, old boy! I’d have known about it!”
His milieu is that of a British military officer, and, as such, there are plenty of monocles, ridiculous mustaches, and everyone seems to be yelling at each other all the time: “I SAY, WHAT?” “TOO RIGHT, OLD CHAP!”
Candy’s friend, Hopwell (called Hoppy) gives him a letter from a woman in Berlin. She hopes that Candy can come and give some public lectures about his experiences in the Boer War. Specifically, she hopes he can counteract those unpleasant stories of British atrocities which the “odious newspapers” keep publishing. Those stories, about British troops killing Boer women and children, starving them to death, driving them into concentration camps and whatnot, seem to be turning the tide of German public opinion against the Brits, and that could lead to war, which would be a Bad Thing. Candy’s friend, Conan Doyle – “the author chap” – agrees that Something Must Be Done.
Soon enough, Candy has hied himself off to Berlin, in order to confront Kaunitz, the rat spreading these anti-British lies. Also, he wants to meet Miss Edith Hunter, who wrote the letter. Turns out she’s a bit of a liberated modern female, one of those “suffragettes” you’ve heard about: “While you men have been fighting, we women have been thinking,” she announces to a thoroughly flustered Candy.
Candy is ordered not to cause an international incident, but he can’t seem to stop himself, and pretty soon he’s punched Kaunitz in the face, leading to a demand for “satisfaction”. Yeah, that means a duel, but weirdly not with Kaunitz himself. Instead, Candy is pitted against his German military equal: Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff.
“I say, I hope our chap doesn’t get killed. It’ll create an awful stink if he does,” opines Candy’s embassy friend, Fitzroy.
Candy doesn’t get killed, obviously, or the movie would be a lot shorter than… sheesh. 164 minutes? He does, however, get a nasty cut across the upper lip, and we can therefore check off the “why does he wear a mustache?” question. But, as they say, you shoulda seen the other guy, who got an equally nasty cut across the forehead. So, the duel is a draw, satisfaction has been given, and an international incident is narrowly averted.
While recovering, Candy continues his (somewhat diffident) courtship of the fiery Miss Edith Hunter, and even becomes friends with Kretschmar-Schuldorff, because soldiers don’t take with all that politics poppycock, old boy! I say!
Defying expectations, the expat suffragette and the German duelist fall in love, leaving Clive Candy alone. Being a gentleman, he takes it all in stride: “Here’s to the happiness of my fiancée who was never my fiancée, and here’s to the man who tried to kill me before he was introduced to me!”
When Candy kisses Edith in congratulation, there is a glance between them which suggests that maybe… but no.
Back in Britain, Candy receives a dressing-down and some good advice from a superior: “Don’t bother your head with things you don’t understand, and you won’t go far wrong. Never go off at half-cock. Keep cool, keep your mouth shut, and avoid politicians like the plague. That’s the way to get on in the Army.”
Candy begins taking Edith’s sister around, but alas, it’s just not the same. He begins to regret that he didn’t take decisive action when he had the chance. The happy marriage of his friend Hoppy, to Sybil Gilpin, only deepens his gloom.
“A very suitable match,” replies Candy’s crotchety old aunt, who looks like Terry Jones when he dressed as a woman. “He has money, she has land, and neither of them has any brains. (Sybil) has the muscles of a prize fighter. She’ll hit Hoppy one day.”
As is apparently customary with British men of his class and era, Candy distracts himself from a broken heart by embarking upon several years of joyous animal-killing, filling his aunt’s home with the stuffed heads of now-extinct creatures.
In the next scene, Brigadier General Candy is knee-deep in WWI, questioning POWs.When told that the dirty huns are torturing POWs, Candy is unruffled: “If they are, they’re cracking, my dear chap. Nobody starts to fight foul till he sees he can’t win any other way.” Candy still has faith in a code of honor which is swiftly losing relevance. He gets no information from the POWs, but as soon as he leaves, the (white) South African officer in charge pulls a Jack Bauer and extracts the desired confessions.
Candy is stymied by the chaos, the filth, the impossibility of WWI. “In the Boer War or in Somaliland, this sort of inefficiency wouldn’t have been tolerated for a second!” he rails. He appears to be taken aback when he has to accept a ride on a motorcycle with a black American G.I.
When the armistice inevitably comes, Candy sees it as proof of a cosmic morality: “It means that right is might, after all. The Germans have shelled hospitals, bombed open towns, sunk neutral ships, used poison gas… and we won. Clean fighting, honest soldiering, have won.”
Yeah, thank God we didn’t do any of that unethical stuff.
The war is over, and it’s time for Candy to stop mooning about over the one that got away, so he marries the beautiful and delightful Miss Barbara Wynne… oddly, played by Deborah Kerr, the same actress who played Edith Hunter. He receives word that his old German pal Theo is in a nearby POW camp, so he pops over for a visit. In a scene that seems designed to reassure the viewing audience that those POWs had it pretty good, we see the German prisoners in a lush park-like setting, listening to an orchestral concert.
Sadly, Theo will no longer speak to or acknowledge Candy, who is once again heartbroken. Months later, just before he is to be deported back to Germany, Theo calls Candy and apologizes. Candy rescues Theo and squires him around to formal dinners with military men, who all demonstrate their good breeding by treating this representative of the vanquished enemy with respect and goodwill.
Despite this, Theo is gloomy. He insists that rank-and-file Britons would just as soon kill him despite the armistice, that life in Germany will be akin to living in a prison camp, that Britain will bankrupt and dominate Germany in the years to come. Poppycock! the military men harrumph. “I can’t see our taxpayers keeping an army in your country!” “After all,” says another, “We’re a trading nation! We need countries to trade with!”
“Read the papers, man! The English papers!” concludes Candy. “We can’t ask you to be our friend if we rob you and humiliate you. My dear fellow! Don’t you worry, we’ll soon have Germany on her feet again!”
Theo is unconvinced.
Over the following years, Candy is decorated many times and receives various military postings. Eventually, his wife dies, so he embarks on another animal-killing spree.
WWII begins. Theo, now gray-haired and leaning on a cane, finds that he can no longer live in the country of his birth, and attempts to emigrate from Germany to England. His wife is now dead, his children good Nazis. Suspicious, the British authorities ask why it took him eight months to realize that Hitler was crazy. “I mean no offense,” replies Theo, “but you in England took five years.”
The authorities are just about to deny Theo’s request for asylum when Candy, now bald and with a “bit of a bay window” (we Americans might say “spare tire”) arrives to vouch for his long-lost friend.
The two aging friends sit together, speaking very little, grieving the lost years, lost friends, lost ideals. They despair over a world they no longer recognize.
“Do you remember, Clive, we used to say, ‘Our armies are fighting for our women, our children, and our homes.’ Now the women are fighting beside the men. The children are being trained to shoot. What’s left is the home, but what is the home without women and children?”
For the first time, Candy admits to Theo that he was in love with Edith. “This may sound a damn silly thing to say to you, but… I never got over it. You may say that she was my ideal – if you were some sort of sickening, long-haired poet.”
It gets late, and Theo has to get off the streets before the Alien Curfew, so Candy has his driver, Angela (she prefers to be called Johnny), taxi him home. “You like being the General’s driver?” Theo asks her, while they wait for a light to turn.
“Of course. Who wouldn’t? He’s such an old darling,” Angela responds brightly. “You know, he chose me out of 700 girls, sir.” At that, she turns around, and Theo sees why Candy chose Angela: She looks exactly like Edith (and is played, once again, by Deborah Kerr).
Candy gets a job as a radio commentator, but his show is unceremoniously canceled when his old-school views are deemed unpalatable to modern audiences. Adding insult to injury, he is notified by letter of his retirement from the Army.
“I’ve often thought, a fellow like me dies, special knowledge – awful waste…” Candy reflects sadly. “Does my knowledge count for nothing?”
“It is a different knowledge they need now,” replies Theo, who has always been a bit smarter than his British friend.
After a stern talking-to, Candy is convinced to join the newly-formed Home Guard – “our first line of defense!” – and he is once more back in his element: procuring weapons, giving orders, happily forging a brand-new army from raw materials.
As their first big wargame begins, Candy gathers his men: “We’ll show these youngsters there’s life in the old dog yet! Gentlemen, war starts at midnight!”
What I Liked
I had a mixed reaction to this one. For the first half, I was very nearly bored, which is rare for me. Many scenes seemed to be dragged out beyond all reasonable length; pointless digressions killed any forward momentum; stiff and cartoonish characterizations kept me outside of the action. As the film progressed, though, Roger Livesey seemed to grow into the part of Candy, the dim blowhard of the early scenes was gradually replaced with a quieter and more reflective man stymied by the change happening around him, and the broad comedy gave way to a tone of wistful regret. By the last couple of scenes, I was actually in tears.
Roger Livesey works hard, and is mostly spot-on, but the most affecting performance was that of Anton Walbrook as his long-time German friend Theo. His transformation from an eager romantic and patriotic German nationalist to a broken, limping old man seething with rage and grief is entirely believable and thoroughly heartbreaking.
Deborah Kerr plays three separate roles, but she doesn’t get to do very much until the final scenes, in which she plays Candy’s driver, Angela. In those final scenes, we finally see why Candy has been in love with her (in one form or another) for 40 years; she is whip-smart, sassy, warm, funny, loyal, fierce, and quite beautiful.
What I Didn’t Like So Much
As I mentioned above, the first half of Blimp drags. Scenes like the Candy/Theo duel go on for what seems like forever, and could have easily been pruned without doing violence to the later emotional payoff.
Blimp was based loosely on a comic strip, and, in its first third, that origin shows. The film is peopled with shallow caricatures and the action is farcical, approaching slapstick at times. That changes as the story gathers steam, and by the end it seems like an entirely different film. Still, the tone of that first third left me cold, and that was difficult to overcome.
There are elements in the plot (Candy’s mission to squelch those nasty and completely unfounded atrocity rumors, the park-like conditions in the British POW camp, etc.) that play – on the surface, at least – like the most naïve flag-waving hoo-hah, and those moments threatened to further derail my investment in the story. Worse, I couldn’t tell if the filmmakers believed it themselves, or were having me on. The rumors of Boer War atrocities were certainly true – is the film acknowledging this fact and mocking Candy’s naiveté? Are we really expected to believe that Candy served in the Boer War and knew nothing of the concentration camps? Are we supposed to accept the British officers’ assurance that Britain has no intention of bankrupting or dominating Germany after WWI, or is this meant to be ironic commentary by the writers? I’m still not sure. Worse, I’m not sure that the writers are sure. This is my biggest problem with Colonel Blimp: it seems to be ethically confused. At times, we are clearly meant to admire Candy’s staunch adherence to the rules of gallant fair play, but what are we to make of the fact that – contrary to Candy’s stated code of honor – intelligence is only gained from German POWs when they are tortured behind Candy’s back? Why do the “smart” characters – Edith and Theo in particular – urge a kind of realpolitik acceptance of dirty fighting methods (which seem to include torture of POWs and bombing of civilians) as an unfortunate means to a noble end? Colonel Blimp (the film, I mean) seems to want to have it both ways. Ambiguity is one thing, muddle-headed waffling is another.
Deborah Kerr is always an intelligent, radiant presence, but for the first two-thirds of the film, I felt as if Powell/Pressburger didn’t know what to do with her. Only in the final section, in her third incarnation as Candy’s ideal woman, did she really shine and seem like a whole human being, worthy of his lifelong devotion.
Should You See It?
Well… if the tone of the second half was a more logical extension of the tone of the first half, and if it was 30-45 minutes shorter, and if it was a bit surer of its ethical stance, I would say absolutely yes. As it is, modern audiences (including me!) may find it a bit slow going. If you enjoy British films of the 40’s, if you’re not put off by a bit of naïve patriotism, and if you’re willing to stick out a slow beginning and invest nearly three hours, the last act of Colonel Blimp delivers an honestly-won, powerful emotional payoff. If that doesn’t describe you, skip this one.
Next: Loves of a Blonde