The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favourite films, a strong contender for the favourite, but at the very least an immovable choice for the ten I would take to that mythical desert island with the improbable electricity supply. It’s a film that was born out of a cut line in another film, that was made in the face of War Office objections and the personal enmity of Winston Churchill, that spent most of its first forty years in a cut-to-ribbons version that destroyed almost all of the film’s subtlety and glory, but which, since 1983, has been restored to its original length and re-mastered.
I saw it for the first time in 1983, when the restored version was on release, playing mainly in art cinemas around the country. In Manchester, that meant the Cornerhouse, just behind Oxford Road Station. I knew The Archers (the writer-director-production team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) well from A Matter of Life and Death, and Roger Livesey from the same film: here was an actorwho never received the fame and the starring opportunities he should have. In fact, he gothis starring role in Blimp because Churchill intervened to prevent Laurence Olivier being released from the Fleet Air Arm, but Olivier could not have been as good in the role.
The film was originally going to be titled ‘The Life and Death of ‘Sugar’ Candy’, and Livesey’s part is of career Army officer Clive ‘Sugar’ Candy, but a meeting with the legendary New Zealand cartoonist David Low led to permission for The Archers to use the name of Low’s great creation, Colonel Blimp, in the title, and to depict Candy, at the beginning, as the visual Colonel: bald head, walrus moustache, big belly, clad only in a towel in a Turkish Bath, unfailingly polite and unfailingly wrong-headed. It was fitting in that the film was, in part, a satire on the British Army and its hidebound attitudes, its habit of always fighting the current war with the weapons and tactics of the last one, though Low was afterwards gently critical of the way ‘Blimp’ was sentimentalised and made sympathetic when it Low’s creation he was everything but.
The film actually came into being thanks to a line cut out of Powell and Pressburger’s preceding film, One of our Aircraft is Missing. This was an official propaganda film, about an RAF Bomber Crew shot down over Holland and being assisted by the Dutch Resistance to return to England (it’s not in the boxset but I am acquring a copy for later this year).
The crew are a mixture of types and ages and the line that was cut-out was spoken by the crew’s oldest member, a baronet, to the youngest, a working class lad. I’ve seen several different versions of what the line was, but this is taken from a Michael Powell interview in 1981: “”You know, you’re very like I was when I was young and you’ll be just like I am when you’re old.” The editor who cut that commented that there was an entire film in that line, and as this was David Lean, he should know.
The film’s storyline is neatly inverted. It begins at the end, in 1943, with an Army exercise intended to test the London Home Guard’s ability to defend the city. War starts at midnight, which infuriates one Lieutenant, ‘Spud’ Wilson, since German attacks don’t start by prior agreement. Since his girlfriend, Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon is drive to the London Home Guard commander and has let slip things she shouldn’t have, Wilson launches a sneak attack at 6.00pm, capturing the General and all his staff in their Turkish Baths. The General is Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy.
Wilson can hardly keep his contempt for this fat, moustached old buffer out of his manner. Enraged at being held to judgemet by a young man who doesn’t know how Candy got his big belly, why he grew his moustache, the General grapples with Wilson, sending both into the bath. The camera pans along the bath to the young Lieutenant Clive Candy, emerging from the far end, home on leave from the Boer War in which he has just won a good Victoria Cross.
The film moves forward in great sweeps. In 1902, Candy responds to a letter from a Governess in Berlin, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), about countering anti-English propaganda. He ends up having to fight a sabre-duel with Oberlautnant Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorf (Anton Walbrook) in which both duellists receive cuts requiring them to stay in a nursing home for a long time. There, they become friends, and Theo more than that with Edith: they become engaged. Only then does Clive realise he has fallen in love with Edith too, that she is his ideal woman.
By means of a procession of shots (literally) of stuffed animal heads on the walls of Clive’s den, we move forward to November 1918, and the last night of the Great War. Crusty Brigadier-General Candy is tryin to get a train for his leave, and some food, and winds up at a convent housing seventy nurses from the West Riding of Yorkshire, one of whom, Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr) is the spitting image of Edith. After the War, Clive manages to trace Barbara and, despite the twenty year discrepancy in their ages, persuades her to fall in love with him and marry him. He has less luck with an embittered Theo, Prisoner of War of a defeated Army, who then looks with contempt on a soft people who want to become friends again, to build Germany up again as they knocked it down.
That Barbara is clearly good for Clive is plain to see. She travels with him on all their postings, time passing in the turning of the pages of a photo album, tricked out with invitations cards from all over the world, until the pages fall blank, aand we see only a Times personal column add from Candy, thanking all his friends for their support over his irreperable loss. The rows of heads resume.
We reach October 1939. Military chemist Theo Kretscmar-Schuldorf, resident in England since 1935, a widower who has lost his sons to the Nazi Party is being interviewed in front of the Enemy Aliens Tribunal to determine if he is to be interned. Theo speaks, eloquently, in the film’s most spellbinding scene (a tour de force of underplaying by Wallbrook) of why he came to England after Edith died, but only Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy’s intervention, sponsoring, rescues him. The friendship resumes.
After retiring in 1935, Clive’s back on active duty, but not for long. His attitudes are too old-fashioned, too ‘sporting’ and ‘fair’. He just does not understand the Nazis, and that if they win there will be no further fighting against them, not as Theo understands and desperately tries to impress on him. But his driver, Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon, also challenges him, suggesting his leadership and, more practiclly, his contacts, would be essential to setting up the Home Guard as it needs to be.
One final, shorter transition, this time by Picture Post covers and features, takes us to 1943 and the start of an Army exercise. We see scenes deliberately left out at the start, completing a composite picture. We’ve seen Clive Candy’s life, and his seemingly final defeat. But the film closes on a sympathetic moment: Clive’s home has been bombed, its basement become an emergency water tank. Clivestares into the water, rememberinghis promiseto Barbara not to change until the floods come. But the floods have come and he has still not changed… Reminded of himself, the old man salutes the Army, with great warmth.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is nowadays accorded all the respect Churchill and Co. tried to deny it. It is a classic, a British epic, a magnificent structure. I’ve given but a fragment of it above, a straight-line summary of its plot, but none of its life. From start to finish, the film is distinguished by a high class of acting even down to the smallest of parts. It is greatly comic, in innumerable moments of naturalistic asides, and beautifully observed and timed vignettes, not one of which overstays its welcome by even a second.
It is also unashamedly romantic, though its leadingromantic tries at all times to conceal his feelings, just as a military officer of its extended periods would. There is love, most beautifully expressed in Barbara’s shy devotion to her older husband, and devastation at the loss of such a lively young woman so young.
Despite the War Office’s misgivings, the film is resolutely anti-Nazi, and Wallbrook’s soliloquy at theTribunal, with the ambient sound dying away as everybody abandons their duties to listen in respectful silence, is the centrepiece, his quiet bitterness at what he has lost, in particular regard to his sons, expressed by his own, ironic use of the words ‘Heil Hitler’, a reading I doubt more than the tiniest handful of actors could have equalled, and none bettered.
Yet the point they took is easy to see. Though he wasn’t concieved as such, Candy is Blimp: bluff, hearty, bound by the limits of his own experience and the tenets of a public school, and shockingly wrong. Clive receives his final dismissal from the regular Army for his intended words in a cancelled radio broadcast that he would rather be defeated than stoop to the enemy’s methods, and it is Theo, presented throughout as the more cynical yet more practical, and more aware, man, who is the more intelligent and perceptive of the two: the Good German, the man who gets it.
In the end, though, the film is a magnificent achievement, its three principals performing superbly. Special mention must go to Deborah Kerr, playing her first major role aged 22, and mastering three different roles superbly. Watching the film is always spellbinding: I am absorbed in it, watching as all the little tangentsand diagressions dissolve into an inevitable whole, admiring anew all the little set pieces – despatch riders delivering orders, a room of highly decorated men greeting a defeated enemy, Theo’s speech – for their individual grace, and for their mosaic-like quality in a film of genuine brilliance.
In 1995, New York film critic Anthony Lane commented that (Blimp) “may be the greatest English film ever made, not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English”. That’s very true, but Michael Powell previously pointed out that it was “… a 100% British film but it’s photographed by a Frenchman, it’s written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech; in other words, it was the kind of film that I’ve always worked on with a mixed crew of every nationality, no frontiers of any kind.”
In these times, it does us well to think on that.