Sunday, January 31, 2010

Film: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp


Another offering in my occasional listing of movies you should see, but may never have known existed.

Roger Ebert's review The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:

"[T]he movie transforms a blustering, pigheaded caricature into one of the most loved of all movie characters. Colonel Blimp began life in a series of famous British cartoons by David Low, who represented him as an overstuffed blowhard. The movie looks past the fat, bald military man with the walrus moustache, and sees inside, to an idealist and a romantic. To know him is to love him….

The movie has four story threads. It mourns the passing of a time when professional soldiers observed a code of honor. It argues to the young that the old were young once, too, and contain within them all that the young know, and more. It marks the General's lonely romantic passage through life, in which he seeks the double of the first woman he loved. And it records a friendship between a British officer and a German officer, which spans the crucial years from 1902 to 1942.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film of balance and insight--a civilized film, which even in a time of war celebrates civilized values. What it regrets is the loss, in two World Wars, of a sense of decency and fair play that had governed the European military classes. Near the film's end, the German refugee corrects the sentimentalism of the old general, telling him from first-hand experience that Nazism is the greatest evil the world has ever known, and saying there is no point in playing fair when the enemy plays foul, if that means you lose, and evil wins."



My review: Made in 1943, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a fascinating, entertaining, and important movie for several reasons. The movie tracks the life of British officer Clive Wynne-Candy (Colonel Blimp) from his return as a hero of the Boer War through his service in the Homeguard during World War Two. 

Although the title is borrowed from the famous British political cartoon character, the portrayal of Blimp here is far more nuanced. Cartoonist David Low created Blimp as vehicle to satirize British upper class stupidity. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a Blimp who befriended a German officer in 1903 – after having fought him in a duel. Blimp maintained his friendship with that German, Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff, right through WWII after Theo became a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Roger Livesey was marvelous playing Blimp in three stages of his life. Deborah Kerr played three roles: Theo's wife Edith, Blimp's wife Barbara, and finally as the young WTC driver for the aged Blimp. The movie's best performance is turned in by the Austrian actor Anton Walbrook in his role as Blimp's German friend. His monologue, shot as a continuous single scene close-up, to the British Enemy Aliens Act review board explaining why he has left Germany and wants to live in England is genius personified. 

The movie is cinematically brilliant as well. The build up to the duel is masterful. Be sure to watch the Criterion Collection version for the Martin Scorsese commentary as well as the 20 minute documentary.

Watching it from this vantage point sixty years after the fact, the movie struck me as a very clever work of war propaganda in addition to being very entertaining. (I'm not criticizing that; it was 1943 after all.) The movie's underlying message was that this new war could not be fought according to a sense of British fair play (mostly an imagined sense anyway). Blimp never gets the message until the movie's ending scene, which lends a strong sense of pathos to his character. 

At the time, however, Churchill was wild and tried to suppress the movie because of its sympathetic portrayal of at least one German. Typical Churchillian blockheadedness – he wanted everyone beat over the head with a simplistic portrayal of all Germans, revealing his upper class elitism by refusing to recognize that most people are smarter than that and will be more effectively taken in by nuanced propaganda. Fortunately, the producer stood behind the movie and played it in his own theaters across England with the pitch "come and see the banned movie."


Amazon: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - Criterion Collection

Netflix: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The film on Criterion Collection web site.

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