The Film: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
The Principals: Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr
The Premise: It is World War II, and a group of eager Home Front soldiers decide they’ll stage an impromptu training exercise. They want to capture their colonel, who is luxuriating in a Turkish bath. They succeed, and with some shock and amusement we’re introduced to our hero: Col. Clive Candy (Livesey), who is a plump, bald, walrus “What what!” caricature of an English soldier.
Sputtering and indignant, he wants to know what they’re doing interrupting his bath. Dammit, he’s a soldier, and their colonel! The exercise wasn’t meant to begin until midnight! The young pups belittle his bathing, his weight, and his mustache and insist they’ll never be so old and lazy as to sit around in a Turkish bath.
Humiliated and belittled by his young pup officers, he points out that he wasn’t always that way. So, go into 1902, when Clive was a dashing young British soldier, on leave from the Boer War, and had enough piss and vinegar to cause a diplomatic incident in Germany.
The film traces his long and illustrious career in the British army. Candy does stints in every major campaign, is posted all over the globe, and even does a tour in the WWI trenches. Being a soldier is all he knows. By the time World War II rolls around, he is the man we meet in the bath, a figure that’s loveable, tragic, and all too familiar.
Is It Good: It’s excellent. Don’t let the silly title put you off, or its whiff of dusty history. Colonel Blimp is a little bit of everything — social satire, romance, war movie, comedy, and drama. It’s actually a story we all know and have seen play out in our own families. Candy isn’t a character we recognize anymore except in cartoonish caricature (though I think there’s still quite a few of them kicking around England), but we’ve all met versions of him. He’s the crusty grandpa or uncle who did stints in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and maybe even the Gulf before being put out to pasture, unloved and needed no more. He’s like a more polite and sophisticated version of Gunny Highway in Heartbreak Ridge. It’s a character I suspect will find a reworking in our generation, as so many men have done such long stints in the Middle East.
But this movie isn’t just about tough old soldiers. It’s also the bitter story of the upheaval of the 20th century, and the lives that got caught up and smashed up. Candy gets caught up in a silly propaganda affair in Germany that results in his sparring with a German man named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Walbrook). The two eventually become friends, but as you can guess, it’s a friendship that is sorely tried by the outbreak of not one but two world wars. While Clive is a bit of a caricature, Theo is a complex and poetic figure who doesn’t take the path you would expect. It’s very poignant.
Oh, and they also fall in love with the same girl. And so do we.
She’s their ideal woman, and she becomes a constant in their lives, but in an unexpected, charming, and magical way. It’s a story technique that’s been lifted in a few films (unknowingly, I imagine) but few have done it so heartbreakingly well.
Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely. When I wrote up A Matter of Life and Death, lots of readers and friends urged me to check out this one. I’m a fan of Powell and Pressburger, but this is one I’d put off for ages because it just didn’t sound very appealing. A renewed appreciation for Roger Livesey and a sudden overdose of Anglophilia — and yes, it was due to the Royal Wedding — finally persuaded me to put it on. (It’s on Netflix Instant Watch, by the way.) And it’s wonderful. It’s the performances that carry it, and keep it from being too dry or too over the top. Livesey finds the gentle humor in Candy and what he represents, but he also makes him utterly human and lovable. Why this man wasn’t a legend of the British stage and screen, and interred in Westminster Abbey beside Sir Laurence Olivier is beside me. (I personally prefer his warmth and broad, sunny looks, but that’s probably sacrilegious to say.)
Deborah Kerr is absolutely luminous in this. She has a tricky role as The Perfect Woman, and in lesser hands, she would have been stiff and inhuman. But Kerr is perfect — warm, charming, adorable, and spirited. She’s the go-getter, the zeitgeist that’s moving almost too fast for Theo and Clive to see.
And if you’ve only seen Walbrook in The Red Shoes, as I’m ashamed to say I have, he’s a revelation here. I bristled when he walked on the screen — “Oh, that guy!” — but he’s as different from Boris Lermontov as can be. I need to seek out some of his other films.
And yes, it is a beautiful film. Be amazed at the costumes and make-up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film of the 1940s that did so well with a bald cap — and in color to boot.
Random Anecdotes: Winston Churchill tried to prevent this movie from being made, because he felt it mocked a particular British type. He went so far as to deny Laurence Olivier a furlough from the Navy so that he couldn’t play Clive Candy, but granted him for one for Henry V. But that’s ok, they got Livesey.