Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

by on July 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed July 13, Thurs July 14, and Fri July 15 at 1:00 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


A positively essential film. Worth playing hookey from work! Allow Dave Kehr to convince you:

It’s almost impossible to define this 1943 masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was ostensibly based on a cartoon series that satirized the British military class, yet its attitude toward the main character is one of affection, respect, and sometimes awe; it was intended as a propaganda film, yet Churchill wanted to suppress it; it has the romantic sweep of a grand love story, yet none of the romantic relationships it presents is truly fulfilled, and the film’s most lasting bond is one between the British colonel (Roger Livesey) and his Prussian counterpart (Anton Walbrook). Pressburger’s screenplay covers 40 years in the colonel’s life through a series of brilliantly constructed flashbacks, compressions, and ellipses; Powell’s camera renders the winding plot through boldly deployed Technicolor hues and camera movements of exquisite design and expressivity. It stands as very possibly the finest film ever made in Britain.



Keith Phipps for The Onion AV Club:

Like The Godfather or The Bridges Of Madison County, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp is a film whose success is made all the more remarkable by its origins. Though unknown in America, Colonel Blimp had long been a fixture of David Low’s political cartoons for The Evening Standard by the time the film appeared in 1943. A stout, stodgy figure with a red face and a walrus mustache, Blimp had a habit of making grand, out-of-touch pronouncements that Low intended as “corrective of stupidity in general.” In Life And Death, Roger Livesey looks like Low’s Blimp to the tiniest detail when he first appears, objecting mightily when bested in a war game by a young soldier who launches an attack well before the stated start time of midnight, reasoning that the Nazis won’t follow the rules. Gentlemen don’t conduct wars that way, of course, and in tracing that bit of foolish logic back to its source, the film attempts to find an entire life. It’s almost as suspect as making an epic movie to find the source of Andy Capp’s penchant for soccer, beer, and destructive relationships, but Powell and Pressburger bring their combination of good humor, visual flair, and unflinching insight to the three telling episodes that make up the film’s 160-minute run time. (Lifelong admirer Martin Scorseseis among those responsible for making the full version available again.) Livesey’s Blimp begins as a rakish young officer out to repudiate a German spy’s slander about the British military in 1902. Those good intentions earn Livesey a duel, a scarred lip, the admiration of English governess Deborah Kerr, and the friendship of Anton Walbrook, the German officer sent to battle him. In subsequent episodes, WWI devalues the currency of Livesey’s “right is might” philosophy, his relationship with Walbrook twists with the fortunes of the German nation, and two more women played by Kerr change the course of his life. On its initial release, a gesture of misdirected patriotism worthy of Low’s Blimp made the film a center of controversy: Winston Churchill himself tried to stifle its release, fearing it would make Britain look bad in the eyes of the world. He couldn’t have been more wrong. In contrast to its protagonist’s high-minded, outmoded ideals of maintaining honor through war’s darkest moments, the rest of the world looks bad.


Derek Hill for Images Journal:

There is no doubt that Colonel Blimp the film is a sentimental journey. Far removed from Low’s original conception of Blimp as a likeable buffoon, Candy is a roguish romantic who honestly believes in the bond of true friendship, honor of country, and the notion that if you treat a man as your equal he will likewise do the same. These beliefs are tested when the dark stain of World War II begin to take shape. But as played by the wonderful Roger Livesey, Candy is never viewed with contempt nor condescended to by the filmmakers. He is simply viewed as a man out-of-step with an ever-changing world. Powell and Pressburger are never contemptuous toward Theo, either, even when we see the Prussian officer speak of vengeance over the British Empire after he has been held at a prisoner of war camp in England during the last days of World War One. As played by Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, Theo is likewise an honorable man doing what he thinks best for his country. When we see an aging Theo arrive back in England at the beginning of the Second World War, the hostile rhetoric of retribution that he had earlier espoused has been extinguished by the horrifying reality of Hitler. As with Candy, Theo is now an anachronism; the army that he once served in has now become a meaner and different animal.


Much of the film’s power stems from Powell’s imaginative (for the time) cinematic technique. His use of flashbacks (which were removed from the American prints), color, and overall playfulness are what make Colonel Blimp such a rewarding experience. When Candy and Theo meet for the first time for their duel with sabers, Powell has cranked the tension up to an almost excruciating level. Much of the preparation and diplomatic posturing leading up the fight is done for comic effect. But even so, the tension is palpable. However, once the duel is almost underway, Powell refuses to satiate our bloodthirst. Instead, the camera rises above the actors as their sabers clang; it glides through the gymnasium’s ceiling and out into the cold winter morning away from the action. The scene is memorable for its stylistic beauty, but more importantly for its disinterest in the actual duel. Later in the film, when we catch up with Candy in France during World War II on some godforsaken stretch of battlefield, Powell likewise refuses to show us scenes of warfare. What we are confronted with in its place is a feeling of loneliness, despair, and sadness. The once-coveted attributes of honor no longer have a place in the world of modern warfare.



Stephen Fry dicusses his favorite film with the Telegraph:

It seems more of the 1960s than the 1940s… Powell is an extraordinarily daring director. There’s always a touch of the surreal in his films. I first saw them when I was a child and there are images in them which have stayed with me forever, like the extraordinary scene in Colonel Blimp at a German prison camp, with thousands of soldiers lying on a grassy hillock listening to a concert, or the image of his great bald head emerging from a steamy sauna.


And technically Powell was so assured. He swoops his camera with such ease. He expresses something that only exists at the level of the visual, the mixture of colour and movement and the human face. His shots draw you towards people’s eyes and faces – and therefore to their inner lives. It’s no accident that he is a favourite director of people like Martin Scorsese. It’s just pure cinema, which is very rare in British film.


Blimp counts another fan in David Mamet:

My idea of perfection is Roger Livesey (my favorite actor) in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (my favorite film) about to fight Anton Walbrook (my other favorite actor).


I recommend to you Roger Livesey, in just about anything. He was, to me, the British Henry Fonda – the perfect actor, incapable of falsity. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, he and Anton Walbrook portray British and German officers, from the Edwardian period through the Blitz. The film, by Pressburger and Powell, is my favourite. Livesey, as a young man, is dispatched on a diplomatic mission to Berlin. He insults a group of Junkers, and must fight a duel. His opponent, appointed by the German army, is Walbrook. They meet, for the first time, in a duelling academy. As the Swedish judge instructs them in the code of the duel, they exchange looks with each other. We see that each assesses the other, and, having found his opponent worthy (indeed, estimable), apologises for the necessity of savagery, and regrets that personal feelings must be subordinated to duty.


I know what falsity looks like. How exhilarating to see the truth.



Ian Christie, in his book Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger:

Despite Churchill’s fury and advocacy of draconian censorship staunchly rejected by Bracken – there was little that could, be done to deter Powell and Pressburger, other than withholding army cooperation and refusing to release Olivier from service in the Fleet Air Arm. Shooting was completed in only twelve weeks and, for all its length and use of the cumbersome Technicolor process, it cost no more than 200,000. What may have fuelled Churchill’s continued opposition to its export was the suspicion that it was, in some sense, directed against him. At least one American officer serving in Britatn concluded that ‘Churchill’s strength and the he refuses to give ground anywhere is because he himself is a Blimpish character.


But The Archers had a larger target in view than bumbling officers; and in Roger Livesey’s moving and vulnerable performance.., ‘Sugar’ Candy is far from a figure of ridicule or menace. He is more a hapless prisoner of his class tradition, steadfast to the point of obstinacy, unable to re-direct his life, or his love, beyond the first id e fixe. He is the centrepiece in a gallery of familiar stereotypes that are one by one animated with pathos and humour. The England portrayed in Blimp may be the stuff of caricature – the Strand magazine, gentlemen’s clubs, colonial service – yet it is also an England ‘made strange’ in Brechtian fashion by the witty, selfconscious manner of its presentation. With its bold sweep from the! Boer War to the Blitz, it achieves the status of a national epic, yet remains intimate and distinctly ambivalent in its attitude to establishment values. [ … ]


Even at the level of its overall debate about ends and means, the film speculates dangerously (for the time) that a war may not be worth winning if it involves a fundamental sacrifice of principle by the just. Its wit holds at bay the sentimentality that many of its themes evoke; its willful eccentricity takes it far beyond the confines of most cautionary propaganda; but in the end, it is this great film’s elaborate anti-realist, almost allegorical structure that allows it to lament the loss of innocence suffered by both Candy and Britain, and to confront, with childlike wonder, the intonations of mortality.


Highly recommended: a  hilarious pamphlet from 1943, entitled “The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp.



Michael Powell in his book A Life in Movies:

To announce a film called Colonel Blimp was a challenging step to take in 1942. Everybody knew that a great upheaval was due in the High Command and in the War Office. To make a hard-hitting film which lampooned the military mind and said we must pull our socks up if we were going to win the war, at a time when we were losing it hand-over-fist, was a bold enterprise. […] Approved by the Ministry of Information, the script went up to Sir James Grigg, the Minister of War, who had to approve our borrowing of Army material: uniforms, guns, transport, etc … He turned our request down point blank, and sent a memo to Churchill and to Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, telling them what he thought of it. ‘The fat was in the fire.


Emeric’s story was about the friendship that existed for over forty years between an English regular soldier and a German one. This alone scandalised the Establishment when the two countries were at war. But what really put the cat among the pigeons, so far as Grigg and Churchill were concerned, was the climactic scene between the two old friends in 1942, the very year in which we were making the film, in which it is the German, now a refugee from Hitler. who tells his English friend that war is no longer a blood sport,or gentlemen, but a fight to the finish against the most devilish racism ever invented, and that if he goes on treating it as a gentleman’s war he’s going to lose it. […]


[Making the film] was an unforgettable experience for everybody. It is difficult for me to explain what it feels like in a work of art to be borne along on the wings of inspiration. Emeric’s screenplay for Colonel Blimp should be in every film archive, in every film library. The actors grew and discovered themselves with every line that they spoke. We averaged three minutes of finished film per day. We shot over six hundred set-ups. John Seabourne … used to come running from the cutting room to the stage to tell me how excited he was with each day’s work. We all depended upon one another, we all learnt from one another. I was not the only director. There were four directors. I learnt from Anton what an artist is. I learnt from Roger what a man is. I learnt from Deborah what love is.



Chris Fujiwara:

But it’s Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 masterpiece The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that perhaps comes closest to capturing the spirit of their partnership.


The film’s two central characters are British career officer Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) and his best friend, the German officer Theo (Anton Walbrook). Powell and Pressburger put a lot of themselves into Theo and Candy. Theo is, for much of the film, an exile in England, as Pressburger was; in the memorable scene in which Theo pleads to immigration officials to be allowed to stay in England, Pressburger uses the character to express the refugee’s ambivalent relationship to language: “In earlier years the most important principle of my life was: ‘Never lie, always tell the truth.’ … I have not told a lie, but I also have not told the truth. A refugee soon learns that there’s a big difference between the two.” Candy, on the other hand, has the same eternal immaturity Powell, in his autobiography, ascribed to himself. Candy’s brashness leads him to fight a duel with Theo, in which each leaves a “mark” on the other. These incisions, which unite them for life, suggest the mutual cutting Powell and Pressburger practiced on each other: Powell slashed scenes and lines of dialogue from Pressburger’s scripts (“Do we really need that?”) and Pressburger exacted his revenge in the cutting room over the footage Powell had shot. The symbol of their collective identity is, in fact, a puncture: their production company is called The Archers, and its legendary trademark shows an arrow hitting a bullseye.


The bullseye also suggests vision, and reminds us that collaborative creation is a kind of stereoscopy, aligning multiple viewpoints on a work or a theme. In Blimp, Candy’s feminine ideal, encountered in three different incarnations (all played by Deborah Kerr), becomes the theme for the differing viewpoints of Candy and Theo. Theo gets the girl the first time; later, Candy marries her double. Candy’s wife never meets Theo, but she knows him, in a way, better than he does (intuiting, in closeup, that Theo fails to share Candy’s optimism about the post-World War I chances of defeated Germany), and she dies without her husband’s ever seeming to know her.


When Candy shows Theo the portrait of his wife, it’s as if Theo’s look is needed to certify Candy’s vision: Candy’s experiences remain incomplete, unreal, until Theo sets the seal of his gaze on them. With his intuitive understanding, his quietness, and his closeness to femininity, Theo is closer to the women in the film than Candy, and he stays close to the sad, steady heart of the film, while Candy’s life goes by in a blur of action, marked by the mounted animal heads that fill up the wall of his den. It’s Theo, not Candy, who is able to express most movingly a love of England and affirm the necessity of fighting for it. But Powell occasionally puts a cynical spin on Pressburger’s romanticism: told by the third Kerr that her name is Angela, Theo remarks: “Lovely name. It comes from ‘angel,’ doesn’t it?” Powell added Angela’s reply: “I think it stinks. My friends call me Johnny.”


Powell and Pressburger completed each other, as Theo and Candy do: Pressburger needed a collaborator with Powell’s willingness to experiment and his knowledge of English, and Powell needed “a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist.” The force of Blimp comes from our awareness of the multiple sensibilities at work in it, whose mutual exteriority is preserved, not resolved, in the film’s ever-deepening ambiguities …


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