Friday, November 11, 2011

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) by Powell and Pressburger

Clive Wynne-Candy's dedication and commitment to the British Army is displayed in several incidents over a forty-year career, from the Boer War in Africa in 1902 through the beginning of World War II. Along the way, he befriends a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, whom he meets while on a diplomatic mission to Berlin, and three women who bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's warm-hearted ode to the British military is a wonderfully inventive film, bearing their signature style: keen use of vivid color, witty dialog, and memorable, likable characters. Told in flashback, Blimp starts in 1942 as portly, walrus-mustachioed, old Major General Candy (Roger Livesy) is enjoying a nap at his London club. War games are scheduled to commence at midnight as part of a training exercise for the Home Guard, but an ambitious young officer wants to get a jump on things by "capturing" the commanding general beforehand. His unit raids the officers' club that afternoon, catching the old man asleep after a steam bath, wearing nothing but a towel. Candy, red as a boiled lobster and sweating profusely, is flabbergasted at the officer's effrontery. He wrestles the much younger man into the Swedish pool. When Candy emerges at the other end, it is 1902, and the pudgy general is a dashing, young colonel, as clever a use of any flashback you will ever see.

"But the war starts at midnight!"

As the story continues Clive Candy is back in England for some R&R, having seen duty in Africa during the Boer War. When he hears that a German officer he knew there is spreading malicious lies and attributing atrocities against the natives by the British, Candy goes to Berlin to confront the culprit. Here he meets an English schoolteacher, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr in the first of three roles). Together they go to a beer house where an amusing confrontation with the propagandist results in Candy insulting the entire German Army. The military code of the day demands satisfaction in the form of a duel. The German officers draw lots and Candy finds himself up against Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Both men are wounded fencing, Candy above the lip, causing him to grow a mustache to hide the scar. Over the course of the film it grows bigger and bigger. The two soldiers become friends as they recuperate together in the hospital, attended to by the beautiful Miss Hunter. Theo only knows two phrases in English: "very much," and "not very much."

Clive Candy and Edith Hunter in Berlin.

En garde!

The dueling scene is quite interesting as it reveals the protocol of such engagements: a neutral referee, in this case, a Swiss officer; the seconds; the choice of weapons. All the accompanying participants bear their own dueling scars on their cheeks. The tension builds slowly, then the duelists take their positions. We don't get to see the actual combat; however, as the camera pulls out a window to Edith, waiting patiently in a hansom cab, but we soon learn the results. In fact, there is no on-screen violence at all in the film.

Theo falls in love with Miss Hunter, who stays behind in Berlin to marry him, while Candy returns to England, realizing too late that he too loves the girl. Livesy does a fine job revealing the character's loneliness and distress. He has the army to occupy his thoughts, but he will admit later in the film that he never managed to get over Edith, his ideal woman. It's a poignant reminder to us all that an opportunity not taken, seldom comes around again.

In a clever sequence to connote the passage of time, separate animal trophy heads appear on Candy's wall following gunshots to show how he diverted his attention during this period. Today, organizations like PETA would be aghast at the technique, but circa 1940, it was an acceptable approach in film. We next pick up the story in November 1918, amidst the battle-scarred landscape of the Western Front in World War I. Whereas before, the film's action was bathed in brilliant color, the scenes here are washed in browns and ashen to denote the tragedy and dehumanizing nature of war. 

This sequence better than any other in the film shows Candy's antiquated ideas about war. His is an out-dated code of honor, where soldiers act like gentlemen. He expects prisoners to respond honestly when interrogated. I'm not sure this was ever the case, but the directors get their point across: Candy is fast becoming an anachronistic fool when it comes to modern warfare. His life is about to change when he meets a Red Cross nurse, Barbara Wynne (Kerr, again), who he'll marry upon his return to England after the armistice.

The WWI outdoor scenes are done on a soundstage, with the backdrops and sky clearly paintings. Still, it is cleverly done--a jeep and motor cycle with side car even ride through mud and puddles.

Candy on the Western Front.

The film jumps to World War II. Both men's wives have long since passed away. Theo hopes to emigrate to England to escape the Nazi party, which he abhors. Candy vouches for his friend's character, enabling him to receive asylum. The best acted scene in the film takes place here as Walbrook explains to a government official his reasons for coming to England. The camera doesn't move, and in a long soliloquy, Theo laments his wife's death, and the fate of his children, who have joined the Nazi party. He is a man defeated by life and feeling alone and useless. Walbrook speaks in a low monotone, his eyes vacant and sad. You understand that his mind has taken him somewhere else, far away into past. This sympathetic portrayal by the directors understandably garnered Winston Churchill's ire. Amidst war, and with the terror of the London Blitz still fresh, he wanted no German portrayed favorably.

Theo: You know that, after the war, we had very bad years in Germany. We got poorer and poorer. Every day retired officers or schoolteachers were caught shoplifting. Money lost its value, the price of everything rose except of human beings. We read in the newspapers that the after-war years were bad everywhere, that crime was increasing and that honest citizens were having a hard job to put the gangsters in jail. Well in Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail.
Anton Walbrook as Theo.

Despite Churchill's reservations, the film served as fine propaganda. Theo voices the film's main message to British audiences when in a later scene he gently scolds his old friend, telling Clive he's not realistic about Hitler's intentions. To defeat the Nazis, he says, Britain must fight just as dirty as the enemy. Referring to the First World War:
Theo: I don't think you won it. We lost it--but you lost something, too. You forgot to learn the moral. Because victory was yours, you failed to learn your lesson twenty years ago and now you have to pay the school fees again. Some of you will learn quicker than the others, some of you will never learn it - because you've been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman, in peace and in war. But Clive!
At this point, Candy, too old to actively serve, keeps his hand in the new war effort in a leadership position in the Home Guard. His driver is Angela Cannon (Kerr, again).

It's easy to see that the camera loves Kerr, and the directors give her plenty of closeups. She is quite lovely. Just 22 at the time of filming, it is a wonderful performance, requiring three different accents. Kerr's first of six Oscar nominations for Best Actress wouldn't come for another six years, but her work here was worthy of consideration for a supporting award, but she was passed over. A greater omission, however, would occur three years later when the Academy neglected her outstanding work in her second Powell and Pressburger film, Black Narcissus.

One of the film's pleasures is its costumes. Kerr as Edith wears elegant Victorian-era attire: colorful dresses with fur collars, hats with exotic plumes and feathers, lace facings; and in one scene her wide-brimmed hat bears a stuffed black bird. Her spectacular red hair is curled and pushed up on her head. As Angela she wears smart khaki. And both Livesy and Walbrook look magnificent in their pre-WWI uniforms, festooned with medals, red piping, epaulets, capes and helmets.

Kerr as Edith Hunter.

Kerr as Barbara Wynne.

Kerr as Angela "Johnny" Cannon.

There script contains several moments of witty dialog, usually involving Candy. Here's just one example:

Candy: The Kaiser spoke - and the Prince of Wales spoke ...
Edith: Spoke about what?
Candy: Nobody could remember.
Livesy would star in two future Powell and Pressberger films: I Know Where I'm Going and A Matter of Life and Death. But the role of Clive Candy would be his career best. Both he and Walbrook "age" wonderfully in the film, capturing the mannerisms and walks of old men. And the transitional makeup for both characters is perfect. 

Powell and Pressberger would do better work later, more challenging and more powerful, but Blimp is a wonderfully fun film, and the first to really showcase the lovely Kerr.

The Home Guard:

The Home Guard was a defense organization of the British Army comprised of nearly 1.5 million volunteers, mostly men unfit or too old for regular military service. It was initially formed to act as a secondary force in case of German invasion to the British Isles.  Following the London Blitz (September 1940 to May 1941), the threat of invasion subsided, allowing The Home Guard to relieve  regular army personnel for duties in France and elsewhere. It took over guarding airfields and factories. Initially ill-equipped, it eventually received arms and uniforms as depicted in the Blimp film. It effectively lasted from about May, 1940 until the end of 1944.


  1. A fantastic post on a wonderful film. Theo's monologue alone would make this a classic film.

    1. Thanks, Stefan. The film is a lot of fun. Had I not searched out P&P films, I never would have known Livesy or Walbrook.