This short series is a consideration of my personal Top 5 films by The Archers, being the film production company composed of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, active from 1939 to 1957. It has nothing to do with the BBC’s long-running radio serial about simple farming folk.
The last of the series. The pick of the bunch. The top of the list. An enormously complex and controversial film about which there is much to say, which is why it’s taken me so long a time to cut what there is to say about the Archers’ finest production, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
This film takes pride of place in my Powell and Pressburger box-set, but I also own it in a single DVD format. This last is the complete digital remastering of the film carried out over three years by the unlikely figure of Martin Scorsese.
At first sight, it seems impossible to imagine such a Director spending such a long period of time on the restoration of a still-obscure British film whose theme, if it can be boiled down to simply one thing, is the nature of being English. But Scorsese, who for all his New York Italian background, is a student and lover of the possibility of film and, from his teenage years, has been properly besotted with an immense, British epic film, that he first saw in a ramshackle, unsympathetically edited black and white version that reduced the story by a full hour, destroyed its elaborate structure and messed with its chronology.
Blimp was first released in 1943, at a near three hour length, a magnificent technicolour event, beginning with a renegade Army platoon upsetting an exercise into the Home Guard’s ability to defend London by refusing to wait until “War starts at midnight”, and circling round back to its opening via a series of long flashbacks covering 45 years in the life of the ‘Blimp’ of the title, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy.
A War-themed film made during the War it commented upon, and taking upon itself the provocative title of Colonel Blimp – a notoriously satirical cartoon figure created by David Low – aroused the opposition of the War Cabinet from the moment it was proposed, and the personal and virulent opposition of Prime Minster Winston Churchill, who wanted it banned. Though the Government were unable to prevent the film going ahead, Churchill could and did personally veto the release of the film’s intended star, Leading Aircraftsman Olivier, L.
Without Olivier, the Archers turned to their stalwart and favourite, Roger Livesey, to incarnate the title character, and Livesey turned in his customary brilliant performance in the role, the greatest of his life.
Nevertheless, the film was a commercial failure, and for decades was only available in its reduced form, which cut the film badly both in terms of incident, structure and chronological order. It was not until 1983 that a restored print was made available, returning the film to its original glory, and length.
In the years since, its reputation has only grown but, though critics acknowledge Blimp to be a masterpiece, and arguably the best film ever made in Britain, it’s still barely known to the public, and especially to generations who would find its mixture of manners and morals a very strange thing indeed. That doesn’t make the film any less of an achievement, nor necessarily that they wouldn’t find it to be as fascinating as those of us who are closer to those times.
There’ll be the usual synopsis coming along shortly, but something of the background to the film should be told, to set it in context.
The Archers were a relatively short-lived partnership when the Second World war broke out. Immediately, Powell proposed a propaganda film, made in Canada and aimed at the world which did not yet understand the Nazi menace. Forty-Ninth Parallel was shot along the whole length of the world’s longest open border and follows the attempt of a German submarine crew to escape into neutral America after their U-boat is bombed off the Newfoundland coast. The crew, led by a fanatic Nazi, are a mixture of types, as are the Canadians they meet as they travel westward.
It was a controversial use of material resources in the early days of the War, looking like an obvious boondoggle in difficult times (an impression reinforced when the film’s leading actress jumped ship on the project as soon as she reached the neutral soil of America, sitting out the War in comfort and ease), but it was also effective and its script won Emeric Pressburger the Oscar.
The Archers re-used the theme two years later in One of our Aircraft is Missing, reversing it to present a British bomber crew shot down over Occupied Europe and making their way home. The crew were again a mixture of ages, classes and backgrounds. A line was written for an exchange between the oldest, upper class crewman, and the youngest, working class lad, about how the elder was once like the younger, who cannot see that. It was cut from the film, but an assistant editor commented that there was an entire film in that line. He should know: the assistant was David Lean.
Originally, the film was to be The Life and Death of ‘Sugar’ Candy, with Livesey’s character being introduced in 1943 as an incarnation of the great Colonel, who was never seen outside the Turkish Baths, where he was inevitably wrapped in nothing but a towel about his ample waist: bald head, walrus moustache, big belly, puffing out “Gad, Sir!” as the introduction to his newest inane comment upon matters political. The Archers were fortunate to meet David Low, the greatest political cartoonist of the twentieth century, and receive permission to use the immortal Colonel’s name in the title.
And so to a synopsis, which will be longer than usual, given the length of the film.
It begins at a brisk pace with uptempo music. Orders are typed and distributed by a fleet of despatch riders, riding in formation in leather greatcoats on motorcycles. It’s a superbly choreographed, sit-up-and-take-notice opening, as pairs of riders peel off at junctions and roundabouts until one remains, deep in the countryside, brought to a halt in a farmyard where Lieutenant ‘Spud’ Wilson’s platoon are billeted. An exercise is to take place: the Army are to test the London Home Guard’s readiness to defend the capital: War begins at Midnight.
This exasperates Spud, a response exacerbated by his Colonel’s hand-written instruction to “Make it Real”. The whole point is that it isn’t and can’t be real: the German’s don’t begin and end at negotiated times. Make it Real? Gah!
Wilson rebels, assembles his biggest toughs and starts the war now. He has an advantage, his girlfriend is driver to the Home Guard Commander, General Clive Wynne-Candy, and she’s blabbed the codewords.
The expedition stops at a country pub en route, where Spud is meeting ‘Johnnie’ (real name Angela, but this is War). It starts with a kiss but it ends with Johnnie sidling out of the pub and driving off furiously, leaving an unconscious Spud behind, roaring a splendidly mixed metaphor: “Mata Hari’s gone to warn the Wizard!”
Johnnie gets to London first, trying to warn General Candy, but her lead isn’t enough to prevent the General and his entire Staff being captured hours ahead of time, to the roar of one of my favourite lines in film history: “Brute force and ruddy ignorance!”
Needless to say, the General et al are captured at the Royal Bathers Club, in the Turkish Baths, and the unfailingly polite Candy first appears in all his Blimpian glory, perspiring bald head, walrus moustache, rising belly wrapped in white towel.
The exercise is ruined before it has begun, and the General doesn’t seem to be able to grasp Wilson’s motives in taking independent action, in emulating the enemy. Wilson, who is only infuriated the more by the sight of this ageing, out-of-touch buffoon, snaps back at him in personal tones that he instantly tries to react, but it’s too late. Candy has lost his temper. He advances on Wilson, swinging at him, roaring that the young man is making fun of his moustache but he doesn’t know why (Candy) grew it, making fun of his belly but he doesn’t know how (Candy) got it.
Taken aback, Wilson finds himself slipping as Candy grapples with him. The two go into the bath, Candy’s rant blurring into the bubbles… and the camera passes along the length of the bath to its far end, from which emerges young Lieutenant Candy, home on leave from the Boer War in 1901, newly awarded the Victoria Cross.
This is the true beginning of the film. From here, it will unfold to depict Candy’s life: why he grew that moustache, how he developed the belly. Much later, we will return to the events we have already seen, see how they unfold from the point of view of Johnnie, who is Livesey’s co-star, Deborah Kerr, then a young actress playing three different roles as the story passes from era to era of Candy’s life.
For now though, we have come to the young Candy, in his stylish red uniform, all buttons and helmet and cloak. His course begins in the Baths that will symbolise the man he becomes, an encounter with his old chum ‘Hoppy’ Hopwood, who happens to be carrying on him a letter passed on by his niece’s Governess, whose sister, Miss Edith Hunter, is herself a Governess, in Berlin. Miss Hunter complains that anti-British propaganda, based on the Boer War, is rife, and that it is a pity that someone like the currently renowned Lieutenant Candy cannot come to Berlin to counter this.
Naturally, Clive wishes to do so, though this is in the face of opposition from the Army, who consider that he shouldn’t have anything to do with politics. Impulsively, Clive ignores what is nearly but not quite an order, and travels to Berlin to meet Miss Hunter, who is, of course, Deborah Kerr.
Unfortunately, by the time he arrives, his guns have been firmly spiked by the Embassy, to whom he has reported on arrival. He is not to say or do anything, and that goes for Edith – who has lost her position – too. They meet at a stamtisch, or coffee shop, frequented by the group to which the most virulent of troubleshooters is attached. He is Kaunitz, a rat-like creature familiar to Candy from South Africa. Clive cannot resist twitting him with music that reminds both of them of their shared circumstances. Unfortunately, this draws Kaunitz’s attention and, despite Clive’s efforts to spare Edith the experience, he denounces them to the crowd.
Along the way, Candy manages to insult the glorious Imperial German Army over its connection to Kaunitz, leading to the inevitable demand for a duel to satisfy honour. His opponent, a complete stranger, drawn by lot, is Ober-Leutnant Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorf (played by Anton Walbrook, the film’s third star). In order to conceal the basis for the duel, it is put abut that it is over Edith, who finds herself becoming Candy’s fiancee for the duration!
The duel ends in a draw. Theo takes a headcut, Clive a cut to the top lip, which prompts him to grow a moustache to conceal the scar. The pair are removed to the same nursing home to recover, as is Edith.
If I’ve made this section sound comic in any way, that’s because the film, without neglecting the fact that this is a serious subject, also treats the military aspects with an amused and detached eye. Historically, the Nineteenth Century is seen as a Century of peace, bit only because the wars were small and, in relative terms, local. The military spectacle and its insistence on what, a century later, we can only see as ritual, is inherently comic and is treated as such. This section of the film especially is gloriously funny throughout.
Yet it’s completely serious about its central trio. In the nursing home, the two men slowly become the best of friends. Clive’s bluffness, his certainty that, the duel being over, there is no point to further quarrelling, is the primary impulse, Theo’s willingness to learn English (as opposed to Clive’s hearty disinterest in learning German) is well-picked out. Not for the last time, the film mixes its opulent depiction of the times with an underlying absurdity.
But Edith, compelled to remain in Germany as the purported fiancee of Clive, and better placed to speak German and teach English, ends up falling in love with Theo, and he with her. Clive is genuinely and heartily glad of this: his congratulations come from his heart, but in the moment of congratulation, his own love for Edith surfaces. Noble Englishman that he is, he sacrifices himself for her happiness, and returns to England alone. There, he confirms the reality of his feelings about Edith in the most certain manner possible – by taking her sister to the Opera? A disconsolate Clive retires to his Aunt’s home, and sets up a study there.
The years pass by in a beautifully timed progression as Clive fills up the walls with stuffed heads, shot on military expeditions around the world. Though the subject might not be so innocent now, it’s a witty, amusing method of moving through time, especially as Clive’s last trophy is a German First World War helmet!
Time slows again to catch up with Clive, a Colonel, on the Western Front in November 1918. It’s cold, raining, muddy, and he is trying to arrange transport back to Britain, with his driver Murdoch (John Laurie). The ageing Clive is full of the assumptions of a British Army Officer, and finds himself up against both American troops, with their greater informality, and a South African Captain who has captured prisoners from Theo’s regiment. Candy is unable to get an answer from them, but we are left with the implication that answers will be extracted by the South African, by brutality.
But the emphasis in this sequence runs beautifully elsewhere. The General is fed at a nunnery where a group of young English nurses are billeted: one of them reminds him of Edith. Following an almost mystic moment of silence, when the War ends at 11.00am the following day (over Clive’s assurances that talk of peace is nonsense) we learn that the nurses come from West Yorkshire, that Clive has moved heaven and Earth them, and especially Barbara Wynne (Kerr, for the second time), who, despite the at least fifteen year difference in their ages, he persuades to marry him.
The difference between the pair is remarkable. Clive is far too old and too stiff to be the proper husband to such a young woman, but her love for him is true and she demands of him that he shall not change, not until the Floods come and their home, once that of his aunt, is drowned.
Their honeymoon is interrupted by the discovery that Theo is a prisoner, waiting to be shipped home to a beaten country that will no longer be able to afford the Army that has been his life. But Clive is wrong in his assumption that, now hostilities are over, all will be friends again: at the Prison Camp, Theo snubs him publicly and hurtfully, but later, on the eve of being shipped back to Germany, Theo phones Clive and is abducted, briefly, to attend a formal dinner party.
There’s a lovely sequence as over a dozen guests, military, political, trade, respond to Theo’s introduction by Clive in a series of different manners, and an over-abundance of goodwill to the defeated enemy, with assurances that Britain wants Germany’s place among nations restored. On the train, Theo tells his stunned compatriots of this reception and the disbelief his greeting has engendered.
There’s an odd lacuna at this point. Theo’s realisation of just how these fat, complacent, self-deluding Englishmen think sets off the light of discovery in his eyes, as if he is already mentally working out how Germany can take advantage of this. But the point is never explicitly followed up. You could, of course, argue that Nazi Germany, and Hitler, are the point this reaches towards, but it seems odd to deliver such an association via Theo who, as we will soon see, is no Nazi: far from it.
Once again, time flies, this time through a series of invitations, press notices, etc, again from all around the world, that comes to a cold, silent end on a Newspaper acknowledgement of thanks for the concern of friends of Clive Wynne-Candy in his inconsolable loss.
Briefly the animal heads return, to march to the eve of another War, at which point the film reaches its critical moment, in Theo.
The Second World War has begun, and Britain is taking no chances now. Theo is an alien resident in Britain: he is summoned to account for himself, to explain why he should not be placed in an internment camp. On a single chair, in the middle of a busy room that gradually slows to a stop around him, the camera, halfway into the sequence, beginning to creep slowly closer to him, Theo explains who he is and why he is here. He was an Army officer, thrust out of an Army that existed no longer, who retrained as an Industrial chemist. He has lost his wife, lost his children too, but not to death: they are good Nazis: Heil Hitler. Having found his country gone mad, Theo has taken himself off to the country of his wife, a country of tolerance and humanity that has only ever done him well.
It’s a long moment of hush, around which the film pivots, but it would not be enough to spare Theo without the sponsorship of Clive: dear old Clive, unchanged and unchanging, still too naive to see the new era for what it is. And Clive is unchanged for all his years. Shamefacedly, he admits to being in love with Edith, displays a portrait of Barbara that he expects Theo to recognise, though Theo sees only the wife of his later years, who he’s lost. And there is Angela, Johnnie rather, the General’s driver, who runs Theo home at curfew, and who causes him a certain amazement and amusement, for it is Deborah Kerr yet again.
And Clive’s unchangedness brings to an end his army career, when he is prevented from giving a BBC talk in which he was to espouse defeat rather than resorting to the German tactics.
But Clive isn’t finished yet. He moves to the Home Guard, his progress portrayed in a series of magazine covers, , included among them shots of his home destroyed by the blitz and turned into an emergency water tank, until we return to the beginning of the film.
This time we are inside the country pub when Spud meets Johnnie. We follow her to London, racing to warn the General, and again failing. War conspicuously does not wait until midnight.
But Clive, though distraught and embarrassed, is still Clive. He will pull strings to ensure Spud is not punished for his actions, insists upon Spud coming to dinner with him. And he still reacts with joy to an Army band marching. Unchanged, even though the Floods have come
This is a magnificent film, of a kind that will never be made again. Both Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger believed it to be the best thing they ever did, and there are many of their later day peers who will agree wholeheartedly.
It was unwanted when it first appeared, not least by its Prime Minister (though there is no record that Churchill ever saw the film, relying exclusively on notes as to its composition), For daring to satirise the Army in War-time, for pointing out, wholly correctly, that the British Army has always fought each war with the weapons of the last one, for its temerity in portraying a sympathetic German character, and one more clear and understanding of the modern world than its hero, it was criticised, attacked savagely. It suffered under an exportation ban for four months, which the Archers promptly exploited to the film’s benefit in domestic publicity. And it was still the fourth most popular film of 1943.
America did not see it until after the War, by which time it had already been cut from 163 minutes to 150, and renamed The Adventures of Colonel Blimp, or just Colonel Blimp. Its complex, flashback structure was removed and the film further cut to 90 minutes. Not until 1983 was it returned to its complete form, and since then its reputation has grown steadily. Like Black Narcissus, it is regarded as a masterpiece of Technicolour cinematography.
Michael Powell described this film as “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.” It’s a film to which all nations contributed, and in 1995, it was hailed as “may be the greatest English film ever made, not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English.”
As well as being my favourite film amongst the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Archers, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favourite films ever.