A sometimes goofy, sometimes profound sprawling epic chronicling the 40 years of service of a stuffy British officer. A rare non-propagandist war film made in the 40’s, with Britain in the midst of the fight, Powell/Pressburger’s challenging picture both aggrandizes and mocks the superiority complex of upper class British soldiering.
Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook
By Alan Bacchus
Roger Livesey’s astonishing performance anchors this ambitious film. Playing Major General Clive Wynne-Candy, a ridiculously pompous name if there ever was one, from the opening scene in 1939, on the eve WWII we see Candy as a bald rotund retired soldier getting into a rockus with a younger reckless officer, then astonishingly transform into a svelt, handsome young man 40 years younger in 1902. It’s hard to believe the two people are one in the same, a transition which brings to mind the cut from the older and bulging Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta sitting in front of his dressing room to his fit fighting weight years prior in Raging Bull. In fact, as per Martin Scorsese’s reverent commentary on the Criterion Collection disc, De Niro, prior to shooting his film, consulted the filmmakers on Livesey’s performance.
After going back to 1902 Powell/Pressburger chart the 40 year journey of Candy and the two key relationships in his life which shaped the man. The first significant event is a trip to Berlin to confront a German journalist and former student colleague writing and publishing anti-British propaganda. His meeting with him is less significant than meeting his Berlin contact Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), sparking an instant attraction. His confrontation with the writer sees him forced into a duel of sabres between he and the writer’s representative Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Walbrook).
The duel makes for the film’s central set piece a lengthy procedural sequence showing the highly organized process through which the Germans organize their fights. In fact, Powell/Pressburger never even shows the duel, instead craning the camera up and away from the action just as it starts. A bold directorial choice, one which Scorsese cites as influencing the famous steadycam long shot leading up to Jake LaMotta’s title fight. Like Blimp, Scorsese cuts away from the fight just as the lead up ends – and in both cases it feels absolutely right not to show the action.
In Blimp, we come to see a friendship blossom between the two combatants, first as mutually injured soldiers sequestered in the same hospital for weeks. Even when Kretschmar-Schuldorff professes his love to Edith (Clive’s girl) Candy never fights for her because he honours his friendship as much as his love for her.
While the film hops through the years before and after WWI, the obsession with Edith grows, to the point when he dates her sister, then marries a nurse who looks identical to her and and later in the life, scours the country in order to hire another lookalike to be his secretary. Boldly Deborah Kerr’s plays all three characters we see in the film, Edith, his wife Barbara and the secretary Johnny. Again, the depiction of this lengthy obsession for love we can’t help find influence in say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The war time political story is framed by the evolving friendship between Candy and Kretschmar-Schuldorff, at first becoming gentlemanly opponents in battle and later on two sides of a moral divide during the German reparation period after WWI. Of course we know now the effect German officer imprisonment had on Adolf Hitler, thus the thoughtful and politically independent depiction of this is admirable. In fact, because of this strong political statement the film was disapproved of by Churchill and the British government causing the full version of the film to go unseen for years.
But now fully restored to pristine detail, and in bold technicolour, the film sparkles as a masterstroke of British filmmaking.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.