In 1961 Joseph Heller released what has ever since been regarded as the greatest literary statement on the absurdity of war, Catch-22. But a couple of decades before, as the war still raged and the imminent danger of Hitler’s forces was still only a channel of water away, director Michael Powell and his screenwriting co-director, the Hungarian émigré, Emerich Pressburger, were creating what is still undoubtedly the greatest movie made about the same subject. The reason why The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a more significant statement than Heller’s masterpiece is not simply that unlike America’s public, who were coming to terms with Catch-22 at the same time as coming to terms with Vietnam, M.A.S.H. and developing the nation’s post-Kennedy love affair with conspiracy-driven cynicism, Powell and Pressburger, the greatest film-makers of their generation, were presenting their satire to a country in the swell of Churchillian defiance and national martial pride. No; the reason why Blimp is a masterpiece is not just that it came out in 1943 and presented the absurdity of war. It is because it is about so much more than war. It is about the Ecclesiastical inevitability of absurdity.
The film is bright with the pastels of Technicolor, and moves with a sprightly energy most associated with the English movies of the war period; clipped accents, alabaster-skinned heroines, broad shouldered-men in double-breasted suits. But it is a film as modern in its execution as any contemporary to us. And that is why, sixty-nine years after its first release, the Academy Film Archive in association with the BFI have fully restored the magnificence of its look; and given the British public an extended opportunity to see one of the greatest films of all time on the big screen once more.
Blimp opens with the most energetic, chaotic and unruly of war games. Young upstart captain from the Home Guard, Spud, takes the initiative and moves his troops early to capture the opposing commander, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy. As Candy bellows from amidst the steam of the Turkish bath in which they capture him, his large belly holding up his towel, his domed head and handlebar moustache twitching in rage at the impudence, ‘War does not start until midnight!’ And so begins the flashback that tells Candy’s life from a young VC just returned from the Boer War in 1902 to his aged, bloated cast-aside old war dog. He is the Colonel Blimp of the title, a reference to the popular cartoon of the 1930s in the Evening Standard. Blimp stands for the old pompous buffoon who leads his men with the outmoded ideals of European warfare. Churchill hated the film, and must have seen something of himself in the lampoons of David Low’s character. And this is the satirical figure we are presented with at the outset. But what the film goes on to explore is a deeply moving treatise on age, on the passing of time, as well as the nature of conflict, the lingering nature of love, and, perhaps most ambitiously, the birth of the modern age, what Hobsbawm termed the Short Twentieth Century.
The film is broken into threes, bookended by the ambush in the Turkish baths. Firstly we see the young and impetuous upper class officer Clive Candy defying his superiors to rush off to Berlin to find a ‘scoundrel’ who is besmirching the good name of the British Empire by spreading rumours about concentration camps in South Africa. Once there, Candy – whilst almost starting World War One a decade early – meets the forthright English teacher, Edith Hunter, played by Deborah Kerr in the first of her three roles in the film. Candy manages to offend the entire German high command and is challenged to a duel. The scene in which the German and British diplomats discuss the code of rules for the duel is a brilliantly observed satire, played quite affectionately by the ensemble. The actors in Blimp often glisten in the powdery lushness of the Technicolor that Powell and Pressburger, here using it for the first time, were to make a hallmark of their Archers movies. The actors are guided around the screen with balletic choreography, the majestic sets and costumes adding to the ever-so-slightly otherworldliness of this parabolic epic.
The German army has taken lots so many of them wanted to duel with Candy, and the successful candidate is Anton Walbrook’s Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff, (Candy tells the diplomats he was up all night memorising the pronunciation so that when his grandchildren are on his knee and one of them asks, ‘“Grandfather, have you ever cut off anyone’s ear?” I can tell them, “Yes, by god, I once cut off the ear of Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff”’). The scene that follows, where Candy and Schuldorff fence, is one of the great scenes of all cinema. The preparation for the duel – forensic, comical, ludicrous, all acted out with the shortest of gestures – has influenced generations of filmmakers. Scorsese has talked about it at length. The camera pulls up as the swords reluctantly connect, the two men dallying, and the camera continues up and out of the roof of the building through a snow-covered Berlin, strikingly reminiscent of a fairy-tale landscape, a land of chivalry and honour and codes of war. And we become aware that it is the end of that time, of the world of horse-drawn carriages and duels.
In recuperation from their inflicted wounds, Candy and Schuldorff become lifelong friends, Schuldorff marries Edith (to Candy’s heartfelt joy) and Candy returns to England, only to discover that he loved her after all.
The passage of time here, from 1902 to 1918, is mixed with the lonely wanderings of the lovelorn gentleman. But this extremely important part of the film is not thrown together like one could see in myriad other films of the era; no exposed footage of newspaper presses rattling along, or montages of historical events. Jack Cardiff, then just a cameraman learning his trade, shot the sections, which are both powerful and darkly comic, where the walls of Candy’s bachelor pad become bedecked with the trophies of his hunting expeditions – the head of a lion from Africa, 1904, a polar bear from Nova Scotia, 1912. The animals are shot and mounted, the years roll by, the emptiness in Candy’s life – no Edith and no war – goes on.
Candy does eventually marry Barbara Wynne, who bears such a striking resemblance to the love he didn’t even know he had lost, that she is played once again by Deborah Kerr.
It is in the trenches that we first begin to see the next generation coming up – ‘What were those other wars he mentioned? The Boer war?’ says one young corporal as Brigadier Candy rattles off through the mud in a side car; ‘They weren’t wars, Corporal,’ says his sergeant; ‘They were summer manoeuvres.’ Candy (now Wynne-Candy) is already out of touch, though he doesn’t know it. And, importantly, his VC counts for very little. He naively appeals to some German prisoners to give up information, promising them they would be treated as gentlemen by gentlemen. When Candy is gone the prisoners shudder at the threats of the cheek-scarred sergeant who takes over, a South African with a thick Dutch hew to his tongue, no doubt brought up with a cultural knowledge of the cruelties of the British concentration camps where over 26,000 Boer women and children died.
The film is stunningly rich with such insinuations, such depths.
Anton Walbrook’s magnificent performance as the proud, defeated German officer offers a moving insight not only into the difference between the officer class and the grunt, but it is a sympathetic portrayal of a German during wartime that almost got the film banned. After the First World War ends and Walbrook’s Schuldorff, who has spent some years in England as a prisoner of war, looks coldly out of the window of his transport train smoking a cigarette. His speech is as powerful in its omens as anything in Haneke’s The White Ribbon about the coming of what will take the form of Nazism. ‘The childlike stupidity that will soon have Germany on its feet again’ is Candy’s folly, and it is the folly of the games played by the ruling classes; the folly that results in the rise of the Nazis. It is what Walbrook’s character is warning against: the ‘now’ for the film’s contemporary audience of 1943. An audacious message. Schuldorff says with glassy resignation, ‘they won the shirts off our backs and now they want to give them back to us; they are children playing cricket.’
Although Roger Livesy gives a career-best performance as Candy, Walbrook is the heart of the film. David Mamet has said they are his two favourite actors, Blimp his favourite film, the duel his favourite scene. Quite a claim for a writer of such verbose thrillers; but one can see the attraction of the opposite. The film, the script, the direction, is as tight and incisive as anything seen today. When Walbrook delivers his long one-take speech to the British immigration officer at the outbreak of World War Two, describing how his wife begged him to leave Berlin in ’33 but he said no, that she died in ’35, by which point their two sons had joined the Nazi Party and refused to even come to her funeral, by the time the edges of his eyes are burning a moist red we are deep into realms of cinematic genius, perhaps even into areas uncharted. So rarely, as a cinema-going public, do we have the opportunity to witness the utterly perfect synthesis of all the crafts that go into creating a movie. But here we have the coming together of several moments of genius: script, direction, acting, camera work, design, light.
And amongst all this, as Powell and Pressburger present a story that encompasses the alteration of the entire western world in a bright, funny, dazzling, moving epic, we could almost miss that they have also presented perhaps cinemas finest examples of the major fabrics of all male-centred love. The depictions of fraternal love, of male-female friendship, of erotic love, and of fatherly love (Deborah Kerr’s final role is as driver, Angela ‘Johnny’ Canon, ‘picked from over 700 girls’, to the old Candy), are as beautiful and intelligently portrayed as you are likely to find in any film of any era.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film about many things. Hated in 1943 for its not-so-patriotic message, and depiction of a sympathetic German, it is a love story, a film about war, a film about getting old, a film about history, and the future, and the resonance, importance and the futility of now. It is a film, essentially, about life.