A true masterpiece of world cinema, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is often regarded as being the greatest single piece of filmmaking to have come out of Britain. Its combination of drama with highly inventive storytelling might’ve been the peak of the team formed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who would then go and direct works of art like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, which undoubtedly improved on the stylistic innovations of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but lack its heartwarming humanity.
The film opens during WWII where we meet Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who acts as commander of the Home Guard. When he is captured by soldiers—at a Turkish bath of all places—he goes off in a flashback in which he remembers the greatest glories of his life in the military. The scene then takes us to the Boer War where he unexpectedly ends up befriending Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) a German officer who tried to kill him in a duel. The two men bond over their wounds and end up falling in love with a young woman by the name of Edith (Deborah Kerr).
From its earliest moments the film establishes Candy’s utmost respect for a gentlemanly code which leads to some of his biggest heartbreaks, as occurs when Theo marries Edith, leaving him with an obsession that marks the rest of his life. The plot them moves across the first two world wars and we see Candy’s evolution—or lack of—as he traverses life without the notion that times are changing and the moral codes that once worked, may no longer be upheld under the violent circumstances.
Far from depicting him as a saint, Powell & Pressburger observe Candy without any prejudice instead providing viewers with a balance between satire and drama which almost led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to stop production of the film (he thought Candy was a parody of himself). The movie was shot in the midst of WWII, yet judging from its optimistic, if undeniably bittersweet, outlook on life, the Archers (as the filmmaking troupe was known) deliver a hopeful look in which they remind us that life goes on despite the failures of wartimes.
Besides touching on the very sensitive point of what it was like to a British soldier—which also led the film to be harshly criticized upon its release—viewers of the era might’ve missed the fact that war and being in the army were only peripheral to the theme’s central issues: the heartbreaking obsession of unfulfilled love and the human persistence of pretending mortality is a myth. In the part of Candy, Livesey gives a performance for the ages, a hilarious embodiment, which is even funnier because of how he turns this man into someone so sure of who he is that he sometimes believes the world revolves around him.
How Livesey delivers the dialogue with endless gusto is only overcome by his capacity of conveying pride. When the movie could’ve easily turned him into the caricature of a man, the direction and the performance are so grounded that they instead turned him into one of the most iconic characters in film history. Livesey’s chemistry with Kerr (who plays three roles!) is magnificent, but he is at his best with Walbrook, with whom he develops a chemistry reminiscent of that of the men in Women in Love minus the violent rivalry—at least obviously so.
Walbrook, too, provides his character with a charming soul which never lets Candy’s larger than life presence overcome him. Kerr perhaps gives the film’s most inventive performance given that she turns the role of muse into something earthy (quality that pretty much describes all her work). By having the actress play the three women that shape Candy’s life, Powell & Pressburger weren’t only highlighting the inherent romance of the piece, but were also challenging audience’s preconceptions about obsessive love. This movie was released almost two decades before Vertigo and while less dark in their nature, both pieces deal with our inability to let go of the past. While Hitchcock’s movie was certainly more sinister, Colonel Blimp treats the subject with a much kinder hand. We know that when Candy leaves this Earth he will be thinking of someone who looks like Deborah Kerr.
Although the movie closes with a line that might leave us in a state of sadness, the result is quite the contrary for we are filled with a strange feeling of hope. For all of its life affirming traits, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp also deserves to be praised for the magnificent technical achievement it is and this DVD edition does that wonderfully, beginning by including a new transfer which brings out the Archers wonderful use of color. Also included is a commentary with Powell and Martin Scorsese (who has been quite active in preserving the directors’ works).
Other bonus features include an introduction by Marty (listening to the man talk about movies is heavenly!) as well as a demonstration of the restoration in which the director once again reminds us why preserving film is a priority. A wonderful documentary about the making of the film and an interview with Powell’s widow (Marty’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker) round up what turned to be yet another gem in The Criterion Collection’s library.