The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an overstuffed, slightly underdeveloped yet deceptively complex beast of a film. If todays long-form television existed in the early 1940s, wouldn’t it make one hell of an HBO miniseries? It certainly would, but as it stands the film is pretty damn magnificent. The decades long military career of Calvin Wynne-Candy reveals itself in an extended flashback the a fair number of insights into the British character and soul at the time. While it does not quite have the same towering reputation, it very much is the Citizen Kane of Britain cinema that is slow to reveal its intentions even as it hides its ‘Rosebud’ in plain sight. The first hour is more than a bit slog which I have no doubt will be positively riveting the second time around. This is a movie that takes the viewer a while to get their bearings of what the film is about, but by the time the nearly three hours elapse, it has evolved into an immersive and quite compelling examination attitudes shifts across generations and the myriad costs of war that tends to escalate with every iteration. A second viewing will likely leave me hooked after the first minute. That this was made right in the middle of World War II, featured a significant (and highly sympathetic) role for a German officer, and is critical of the philosophy of “Total War” is nothing shy of incredible. The very creation of a film such as this remains an act of artistic bravery, for which the film was called to be banned by Winston Churchill (just as Cane was blackballed by William Randolf Hearst.) While the film evaded this fate it was still hacked up and truncated for distribution in the rest of the world leaving it pretty much forgotten outside of cinephile circles, Powell & Pressburger enthusiasts and the eventual tenacity of film-archivist Martin Scorsese. Having watched the restored version, I can completely see why there is a bit of a cult for this one.
Calvin Wynne-Candy (a chameleon-like Roger Livesey) is introduced as an old man, completely one-upped by a younger officer that takes a new tactic on a standard training exercise and catches him with his pants down, literally, in a Turkish Bath. The cocky twenty-something lieutenant has no problem letting his spluttering superior feel like a relic of a bygone age and that the rules of the game have changed.
Flashback to the young officer Sugar Candy, a handsome slim, and yes, cocky, young officer in the same Turkish Bathhouse making his own racket while on leave from the Boer War in South Africa. After receiving a letter from a friend of a friend about rumblings and rumours of discontent brewing in Germany, Candy rushes down to play politics and gets mired in a gentleman’s dual with officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. Anton Walbrook threatens to (“Very Much!”) steal the picture entirely out from under Livesey, just as his character manages to steal the heart of Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr, in a pre-Dr. Strangelove move, in one of three roles) right out from under Candy. After their duel, the two officers spend a fair bit of time convalescing in a German hospital in the company of Ms. Hunter and become fast friends. Jumping forward in time the film charts their friendship across the geopolitical adversity both World Wars.
Their friendship is strained somewhat when Theo is a POW at the end of WWI, but strengthened yet again when he is driven out of Nazi Germany by his own sons. In the meantime, Candy is rather oblivious to his obsession with his own chivalry and ever increasing trophy animal heads in his Den, including a massive portrait of the woman he did marry who is also played by Kerr. This as much as Candy’s quest to marry a girl like the one he lost is likely an inspiration for Hitchcock. Furthermore, sometime later in the film, Theo, now retired, makes an attempt to immigrate to Britain and gives a moving soliloquy on what
has gone wrong with Germany under the Nazis. His plea to entrance into the United Kingdom is worthy of Chaplin’s final speech from The Great Dictator.
Meanwhile, Wynne-Candy laments for his own Britain as she slides down the slippery slope of losing her principles and any semblance of moral high ground in order the fight the ever-escalating war with the Third Reich. As the picture finally catches up to where the flash back began hours ago, we now understand, just a bit, the semi-retired General Wynne-Candy. He is putting together a home-defence army for London and sets up the ill fated training exercise (“The War Starts At Midnight!”) At last things are revealed and the film has laid out array of disturbing, yet high minded, ethical cards on the table. But lest it be as dour (and sour) as Orson Welles’ look at American capitalism and rot, Citizen Kane, it goes another unexpected direction and acknowledges that society is doomed to change with the times; that change is the only constant. And ultimately, that we should love and remember the great but forever lost aspects in the history of a culture, just as we will inevitably have to let them go to embrace and temper the future.
Like so many HBO shows start with types and cliches, The Sopranos’ gangsters or Deadwood’s frontier ruffians, but eventually reveal both ecosystem they live and plenty of nuance, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp took a satirical comic strip character, and fleshes him out to something much, much more. The film may be as theatrical and stuffy as its lead character at times, but it was made early on in the Technicolor era and while gorgeous acting styles have certainly changed. Nevertheless, I am certain that further intricacies and insights will reveal themselves over multiple viewings. Damn if we shouldn’t all be watching more Powell & Pressburger films.