Friday, 19 July 2013

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Due to a trip to Barcelona and particularly the bad case of cellulitis I caught there I have been very quiet on my blog for the past two weeks. Now my foot is recovering and the infection + antibiotics are ravaging me to a less extend so I am back to writing again.

Throughout the past two weeks I have been watching “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (TLDCB) in small installments. This is a bit of a monster at 2,5 hours so I had to break it up in pieces to fit it into a busy schedule.

TLDCB is an epic story about Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), a British officer of the upper class, told in flashback from the “present” of 1942. The flashbacks take us to 1902 in the aftermath of the Boer war, 1918 at the end of WWI and the moments leading up to “present” day of WWII.

Colonel Blimp was a caricature of the old school British officer going around at the time. He would be old, overweight and entirely out of touch with modern warfare and sentiments and more of a joke, really. What Powell and Pressburger wanted to do was to tell the story behind this person, make him a real character and much more sympathetic at that. 40 years earlier Candy was in perfect touch with reality, even a bit ahead of his time. He would rush headlong into a conflict and deal with it on the run instead of following the book. What happens is that the world moves along, but the circles in which Candy moves do not. He is at heart an imperial officer with a code of honor, a very British self-confidence that easily comes about as arrogant in its self-reliance. You simply do not get a more British stiff upper lip than under the impressive moustache of Clive Wynne-Candy.

The story is that of Candy and what made him the person he is, but it is also almost just as much the story of Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff  (Anton Walbrook), the German officer Clive meets in Berlin in 1902. In my opinion Theo is a much more complex character and his life is far more dramatic than Clive’s. Where Clive basically wades through life looking for a war or simply something to shoot while he is continually looking for someone like his lost Edith (Deborah Kerr), Theo moves with the time. He gets the girl, yes, but his not cushioned like Clive is. WWI has a much more direct impact on him, not only because he is on the losing side and has to spend time in a prison camp in England (which for the record looks more like a resort), but because he is returning to a broken country, not as an upper class officer, but as a nobody, an unwanted. He changes career and becomes a civilian, raising his children in the disaster zone which is Germany until the Nazi take over. When things turn from bad to worse he loses his children to the Nazi party and his wife to illness. Broken he leaves Germany for France and eventually at the outbreak of war ends up in England, an Alien Enemy with no rights what so ever. Theo is bitter, but also more clear-sighted all along, because he has to face reality, so where Clive and Theo start from the same location with the duel in 02, they end up two very different people in 42. Still best of friends, but separated by 40 years of reality.

Curiously Theodor  Kretschmar-Schuldorff  was played by a native Austrian (Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück) who had also fled the Nazi regime to end up in Britain, where he made a career out of being “the German” character. Certainly it lends credibility to the film that the German actually speaks German.

Another very curious character is “the girl”. Throughout the three stages there is a girl involved in the lives of Clive and Theo. In 02 this is Edith Hunter, a very independent minded English girl who has escaped the constraints of life in England to become a teacher of English in Berlin. She is the girl Theo gets married to and Clive only too late realizes he is in love with. This is Kerr incarnation number one.

In 1918 the girl is a nurse picked out of the crowd by Clive because of her resemblance to Edith. This girl, Barbara, becomes his wife as a proxy for Edith. The resemblance is quite obvious as this is Kerr incarnation number two.

In 1942 Clive, an old, widowed general has hired Angela "Johnny" Cannon, a very strong minded girl, to be his driver out of 700 applicants, the reason of course being her resemblance to Edith since this is Kerr incarnation number 3.

Deborah Kerr is therefore more a symbol and a number of milestones in Clive’s life than an actual person. But that does not mean she is not remarkable. It is no coincidence that of the three leads she would go on to become the biggest star. If you do not agree I challenge you to see or revisit “From here to Eternity”. I personally find her outstanding.

The film as such is more impressive than actually good. This is the first color film in a long time for me, so suddenly seeing army trucks and motorcycles driving head over heels in full Technicolor feels like a jolt into modernity. This does not look old at all and 1943 suddenly feels like present day. It is really impressive what color does to the feel of a film and in this one it is very cleverly applied. I love it.

Secondly the scope is big. We basically get an overview of the first half of the 20th century, the big events but also the cultural changes, the look of people and places and of sentiments, from Victorian aloofness to 40’ies down and dirty can-do mentality. Waltzes to jazz. I love this aspect as well.

Thirdly this is a war time British film and naturally very pro-British, yet it portrays a sympathetic German, the most reviled creature in Allied propaganda, and has an entire sequence taking place in a Berlin café with everybody speaking most civilized if stereotypically stiff German. At the same time it makes fun of the lovable, but ridiculous blob of an old school English officer type. How dare they in the midst of a war? That took some balls to allow themselves to be this multidimensional in telling the story. It would have been so much easier to just tell a one eyed flag waving propaganda film about a war hero (Read: Sergeant York), but Powell and Pressburger manage to go that level deeper and give more flesh to the characters against all odds. I like that very much.

Yet, despite all this I frequently found myself asking what exactly the point of the movie is? An epic 2,5 hour movie ought to lead somewhere and this is where this film fizzles for me. It tells how General Candy got to be who he is and that he did not used to be this old fart and also that the future is now and it is time to make way for a new generation, but that all seem a bit thin.

This film has a lot of nice wrapping. It is beautiful and interesting with fascinating characters and is big in scope, but at the end of it I am not sure I got to a new place. But, alas, I spent a pleasant time with Clive, Theo and Deborah Kerr in all her incarnations. Good show, old chap!


  1. Sorry to hear about your foot troubles. I have something of the same reaction to this film as you do. The acting is the main thing here. I always enjoy Anton Walbrook alot. I haven't seen enough of him. I need to catch the British version of Gaslight.

    1. Yeah, the foot is a mess... at least I can walk on it now.
      I like almost everything about this film except that the point is rather thin. Can you really make an epic movie out of telling that these days you have to play dirty to win?

  2. For me, the point of this film was not any of the characters, but rather to tell the story of the first 40 years of the 20th century from the perspective of an Englishman and a German. Both were the epitome of the "officer and a gentleman" that had been lost going into World War II and I think people were yearning for the past. (Witness also the similar relationship between the German and the Frenchman in Grand Illusion.)

    I agree that the portrayal of the German as sympathetic was surprising, but I believe they were making a distinction between "German" and "Nazi".

    I went into this not expecting much of anything and I ended up liking it, so for me this was a pleasant experience. The length didn't bother me, although I can see how if you've been watching from the beginning of the list most of them would be short compared to that. Not to depress you, but there are around 90 entries in the list that are longer than this film. Having watched all of the more than 3 hour long ones before seeing this film probably made it seem not that long in comparison.

    1. I am not worried about the length of these movies, since i chop them up anyway, besides plenty of action in this one to make it interesting throughout. I am sorry if i gave that impression. I am even sorry i got a bit negative. I do like this film. My concern was that the life of Candy is not actually that interesting. The world around him is, but he is stuck, fighting gentleman wars and shooting animals. I found myself wondering where his really takes Candy, if that is really the story the film wants to tell. Well, it does turn out that the story is that the time for his kind is over, but it took a lengthy way to get there.

  3. I like this film more than you did. Unlike Chip, I watched this early on, in fact, within my first month of blogging The List.

    I see the issue with the length, but there's a very real possibility that it needed to be this long for the time in which the film was made. It would be easy to see this as an anti-Empire, anti-British, anti-war film. Since it was made in 1943, that's potentially dangerous. In fact, Churchill attempted to get the film banned. That length may have been necessary to show that Wynne-Candy was still a good member of the country, and so too is Spud. In fact, Spud is right--the attitude that Wynne-Candy has is what's dangerous. In a modern war, there's not nearly as much room for that sort of outmoded honor. And getting that point across might well have required the extra time in 1943.

    I love the fact that Powell and Pressburger gave the most important speech to a German.

    1. I actually agree with all that, absolutely. My concerns are those mentioned above. There is a lot of wonderful wrapping in this film, the montages of passing time, the color, the story of Theo, Kerr in all her incarnations and all the very British banter throughout. This is a very enjoyable film and i did have a good time. I just, well, thought that the core story was a bit thin. That is all the complaint i have, really.

  4. It is rather long, isn't it. But the images and characters created are quite memorable.

    1. Yeah, but mostly so because it feels a bit drawn out as if it fizzles a bit. But then again, there is so much good stuff in it as well.