June 27, 2005

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr

What it's about. The forty-plus year military career of ficticious British officer Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is presented. Candy, a hero of the Boer war, travels to Germany in 1903, where he meets a classy English hottie (Deborah Kerr) and fights a duel with the thoughtful Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Now prone to blustering and big game hunting, he serves Britain in World Wars I and II.

What it is not about. Colonel Blimp, apparently, was a popular comic strip in England circa 1943, and was selected as a title for marketing reasons. No such character is referred to in the film. Clive Candy doesn't die during the film. And for much of the movie, he's not a Colonel. He's a temporary Brigadier General, for example, during WWI. So, the title doesn't translate to the United States in the 21st century. Forget the title, and watch the film.

How I felt about it. Made for a British audience and released at the height of the WWII, this color film has unexpected depth for what is expected to be a wave the flag, get the Nazis propaganda exercise. In fact, the Nazis don't enter the picture until the final reels, and then largely in reference.

To a degree, the film tells the story of Candy's friendship with Schuldorff. The latter's transitions, from a gentleman to an ardent German patriot to an enlightened but saddened Nazi opponent, are arrestingly presented. Candy has no such abrupt personality changes, ostensibly because his mother country has hued the proper political course all along, mid-thirties appeasement of Hitler excepted.

The film also dwells on Candy's relationship to three women, all different roles played by the same young woman, Deborah Kerr. Candy's character ages twenty years between Kerr's re-emergences.

What the audience doesn't see are the front lines. Heroic soldiers, injured soldiers, dead soldiers, are absent. Candy's house is bombed, but no one appears to have been there. Aside from a faux British army having its run of England, little is shown of the stresses of wartime.

What he have here is a colorful film about an officer who gets out of an interesting early fix, and then takes his superior's advice to build a lengthy, moderately successful, and in effect humdrum military career. Tens of thousands of British soldiers die in both World Wars, but our hero spends time at a train station with no trains, at a nunnery checking out the nurses, and at a radio station where he's not allowed to deliver his blustery speech.

How others will see it. Fortunately, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp transcends its lead character. He's but a symbol of British pluck. The film has undeniable energy, a spirit borne by a nation at war but confident of victory, and its accomplished vindication of British values. American audiences will find the accents difficult to follow at times, but will otherwise be rewarded with a handsome, ambitious, and invigorating production.