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Issue 02, Volume 01


by Shelley Farmer

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is a film of contradictions: it is at once satire and a stirring piece of propaganda, a commercial film with art film aesthetics, a celebration of Englishness whose wisest character is German, a sweeping historical drama with a focus on human relationships, a tribute to the joy of youth with a particular sympathy for the old. The title refers to a character created by British cartoonist David Low. The Blimp of the comics was a pure satire of a portly, jingoistic, and utterly British colonel. Clive Candy (Roger Livesy), a British career military man and the film's answer to Blimp, is softened significantly, becoming a romantic idealist and one of the most beloved figures in British cinema. The film traces the progression of Candy's life, from youth and the end of the Boer War, to old age and the beginning of World War II. Along the way, he meets German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who marries the woman Candy loves (Deborah Kerr), but remains a lifelong friend. Though the film criticizes the British delusion that WWII could be fought as a gentleman's war, it is ultimately a very nationalistic work. In fact, there are moments of such blatant propaganda, such as the sympathy of the English elite for Kretsmar-Schuldorff on the eve of Armistice, that the piece can seem overly propagandistic today. This, however, did not stop Churchill from attempting to halt production of the film, and the version released in 1943 was butchered beyond recognition. (The film was released as intended in 2001, thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese.) Despite these political complications, the film's visual beauty and generous humanity eclipse even its most overt political statements.

Colonel Blimp is a film that is novelistic in structure but also undeniably cinematic. It gracefully depicts the gradual aging of the characters – not particularly common in cinema, where narrower time frames are often favored. Furthermore, the script is delightfully literary, full of monologues and heightened yet unstilted language. Though its scope, structure, and ideas reveal a debt to literature, in its most striking moments the various arts of photography, screenwriting, music, and acting all converge into a distinctly cinematic magic. The film begins and ends with an image of a tapestry, and a tapestry it is. The countless characters inhabit a world marked by brilliant color, gorgeous deep-focus photography, and splendidly precise composition.

It is the sustained harmony of themes and visuals, however, that make the film so satisfying. During the flashbacks to the earliest years, most scenes take place indoors, the colors are heightened and artificial, and the glimpses we get of nature are obviously backdrops. The contemporary scenes, by contrast – such as the invigorating, documentary-like shots of the streets of London from the beginning of the film – often take place outdoors and on location. The man-made settings of the wonderfully artificial early scenes reflect a comfortable world governed by etiquette, both in life and war. The vibrant colors and busy composition in a scene that depicts the growing political tension between England and Germany, and in which Candy rashly insults a German double agent, not only reflect the content of the scene, but foretell the excitement and chaos to come. Meanwhile, the appealing naturalism of the WWII photography reflects the youthful energy of the soldiers, but also the terrifying lack of structure of the new war. Lesser filmmakers may have felt tempted to craft a narrative of decline – from youth to age, from the prelapsarian comfort of the Boer War to the madness of World War II. Powell and Pressburger, however handle each of these various sections with equal skill and sensitivity. Time marches forward and the world alters, but these changes, for better or worse, bring greater knowledge, and create something new and beautiful.

Though Colonel Blimp has an excellent Criterion DVD, it is only on the scale of a theater screen that the film's respect for detail can truly be appreciated. In one scene, a group of men move across the screen like a flock of geese, while Roger Livesy's face, in the background and out of focus, reacts. While seemingly insignificant, moments like these – where choreography and photography coalesce so seamlessly – lend the work delicious texture. For those who had never seen Blimp on the big screen, a recent run at Film Forum provided a rare opportunity to experience the film in its full glory. Viewing the film in a theater was revelatory, like discovering unexpected layers of an old friend. However, even if one must sacrifice the details by viewing it on a smaller screen, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp must be seen, both for its aesthetic beauty and its heartwarming humanity. Sixty-nine years on, it remains one of the crowning glories of Powell and Pressburger's oeuvre – a touching story told gorgeously and daringly.

Directed, written, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; director of photography, Georges Perinal; edited by John Seabourne Sr. Running time: 163 min. With: Roger Livesy (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter, Barbara Wynne, Johnny Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), John Laurie (Murdoch), James McKechnie (Spud Wilson)


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