Wednesday, 12th December 2012

“Every time I revisit The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp it grows; it becomes richer. With every passing interval of time – and that’s what the film is about, after all – it seems to have become more resonant, more moving, more profound.” Those words come from Martin Scorsese who has long been an admirer of those great filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger who would come to share that unique undivided credit “written, produced and directed by”. By way of elaborating on his enthusiasm for what many regard as the first of several masterpieces by these long-term collaborators, Scorsese added this: “You could say that it’s the epic of an ordinary life. And what you retain from this epic is an overpowering sense of warmth and love and friendship, of shared humour and tenderness and a lasting impression of the most eloquent sadness”.

Although the film was a hit with the public in 1943, its critical standing has grown over the years. When it first appeared the famous critic C. A. Lejeune was apparently bemused by it and felt driven to ask what it was all about, and it may be true that this is a work in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In any event when the film was presented earlier this year in a new digital restoration Geoff Andrew had no hesitation in describing what is at its centre. “Among other things,” he wrote, “Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece is probably the greatest study of ‘Englishness’ in the cinema”.

There’s no doubt at all about The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp being an extraordinary enterprise. Powell (born 1908) had already done much work in the British film industry before going into partnership with Pressburger (born 1905) who was an immigrant from Hungary. Following involvement in quota quickies and the like, Powell had made a mark with his solo feature The Edge of the World in 1937. It was in the following year that the two men worked together for the first time, the movie being The Spy in Black. Subsequently they were both involved in Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel (1941), but it was on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) that they first shared the credit as writers, producers and directors. These were interesting films reflecting the times in which they were made, but nothing in them really prepared one for Colonel Blimp.

First of all, Blimp was a British film lasting 163 minutes when most features lasted about an hour and a half. Secondly, although it was in a sense a kind of propaganda movie being concerned with the war effort and what it would take to defeat Hitler, it dared to feature a friendship between the central figure, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) and a German, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). More than that, it portrayed Theo in a thoroughly sympathetic light because Powell and Pressburger rejected the notion that in wartime every member of an enemy nation should be portrayed in a hostile way. Possibly for this very reason, the production aroused the disapproval of the Prime Minister and on 19th September 1942 Churchill sent a personal minute to the Minister of Information: “Pray propose to me the measures necessary to stop this foolish production before it gets any further. I am not prepared to allow propaganda detrimental to the morale of the Army, and I am sure the Cabinet will take all necessary action”. Luckily the film survived this hostility.

Yet another aspect of the film which was daring for its day was to choose a title which referred to the character created by David Low for his popular comic strip in the Evening Standard. Colonel Blimp was a crusty reactionary and, when we first see the film’s Blimp figure, Clive Candy, he does indeed seem a comic outmoded figure. Encountered as an elderly man in a Turkish bath in wartime he appears a veritable old fogey only fit to be laughed at. But, while not concealing this aspect of his character, the film soon goes back to 1903 to tell his story and in this role Roger Livesey gives what was unquestionably his finest performance, As an admirer of Laurence Olivier who was originally to have taken the role, I should in theory regret the change of casting, but I don’t, One critic felt that to call Livesey’s performance great was inadequate because in it he revealed a whole life. Just so. If he finds in the character a true sense of dignity, he does so without ever hiding Clive Candy’s limitations and the youngster we meet in 1903 is a head-strong rash figure certainly brave but also foolhardy and shaped in his attitude to war by the patriotism of the late Victorian age.

These early sequences in the film display a great visual sense (famed photographers of the future, Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth, were camera operators for Georges Périnal) and we find Allan Gray’s music score adding to the sense of richness in the film. But at this stage you might well feel that the material is unlikely to yield a masterpiece. However, everything in this film builds including the use made of Deborah Kerr. She first appears as Edith whom Clive Candy loves and loses, but since she is the woman of his dreams she later becomes Edith’s look-a-like Barbara. That might seem no more than a commercially romantic concept, but Barbara is a nurse and, when later Kerr turns up yet again in the 1943 scenes, she is ‘Johnny’ a military driver. Edith is herself a strong character with a mind of her own, yet the opportunities available to Barbara and ‘Johnny’ evidence the changing prospects for women. Furthermore, Deborah Kerr in these performances brings out the contrasted nature of each.

If that side of the story enables Clive Candy to be someone who learns from his experiences, even more crucial to this is his friendship with the German, Theo, whom he had ironically first encountered in circumstances which led to the two men duelling. In the event theirs is a life-long friendship and Anton Walbrook’s greatest scene comes late on when Theo is a refugee in this country and, despite his nationality, asks to be accepted here. His speech about what he believes England to represent is all the more potent for being put in the mouth of a German.

However, what ultimately emerges from this film is an awareness of a changing world. Often playing down scenes of action (including that duel), this is a film not afraid of talk and ideas. What develops here is a confirmation that Clive Candy’s traditional view of the British military – his belief, even if it was always less than the truth, that war could be carried out by the rules like some game and with no reason to hate the enemy – has become obsolete. If the freedom of the world is at stake then, regrettably, only by adopting the ruthlessness of the enemy can they be defeated and to fight a war with clean hands is impossible. This film is so well realised that Clive Candy ultimately emerges as foolish, limited, courageous, emotional, undemonstrative, outmoded, ridiculous and honourable. The film which neither softens nor diminishes him is level-headed, clear-sighted and intelligent and it achieves a fully-rounded portrait of this man. Consequently this picture is an epitaph for him and for what he (and Britain) stood for, and as such it is wholly worthy.
Programme Note by Mansel Stimpson.

© Eastbourne Film Society 2012