Friday, 27 December 2013

The art of war... The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

'No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth…' Anton Walbrook to Winston Churchill (allegedly…)

Of all the war films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger perhaps none challenged the notion of propaganda quite so much as Colonel Blimp. They didn’t want simple preaching but to engage their viewers in their own rational support for war. There are no simple atrocities, no easy clichés and there are even Germans to admire: following on from Eric Portman’s character in 49th Parallel – a brave soldier doing what he must for his country.

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook
Perhaps Pressburger’s European view gave them “balance” but I don’t think he was alone in thinking that in order to truly win support for the war you had to help people really understand it and not just generate hate. You also had to respect the opposition and to differentiate professional soldiers from the Nazis: ”the single most evil concept ever bought to life by the human mind”.

In Colonel Blimp extra spice is added by the Archers’ ostensible attack on the traditionalist “Blimps” running the forces who were more wedded to misguided concepts of honour than the need to fight like-with-like against a new generation of enemies who are entirely unrestrained by principle and the Rules of War.

Blimp in the bath
Naturally, elements of the establishment were confused... The fact that Colonel Blimp had been a cartoon strip specialising in buffoon-bashing didn’t help and nor did the good Colonel’s vague resemblance to Britain’s larger than life Prime Minister…But it was never that simple: it never is in the films of Powell and Pressburger.

Colonel Blimp starts off showing us the old and the complacent: stubbornly sticking to the way things should be done… but then it shows us how this man came to be. Turns out he was far more daring, far more dashing than even the young Captain who decides to humble him by attacking six hours before their manoeuvers are due to start.

Protean charmer...
Powell cleverly swims us back in time after Blimp, (Clive Wynne-Candy - played by protean charmer Roger Livesey) pushes this upstart into the bath at his club then emerges out the other side forty years and several dozen promotions lighter. He’s a hero from the Boer War recently awarded the Victoria Cross and  he sets off to Germany in order to help a young Englishwoman who has sought his help in silencing a pro-Boer propagandist: Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr – we’ll see more of her…).

Deborah Kerr 1 and Deborah Kerr 3...
Candy can’t help but get into trouble driven on by chivalry and his sense of duty. He ends up having to fight a sabre duel with a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) another who respects honour above his own life and even his natural distaste for the duel. This scene is so well done, as the build-up is shown  in painstaking detail…all the rules of the Prussian duel-book are followed and then, as our two men engage with elegant flashing blades, Powell’s camera lifts up and far above the gymnasium, as snow falls in picture-book silence over the scene around the hall.

The duel...
Cut forward a few hours to a hospital in which both men are recovering, Candy from a slice across his upper lip – eight stiches - and Kretschmar-Schuldorff from a gash on his forehead – 12 stitches… a score-draw, honours almost even. Edith is persuaded to stay on to help provide a cover for Clive’s unauthorised adventure: the fight is to have been over her honour and not the respective armed forces of Britain and Germany. How elegantly the rules are obeyed by both sides.

Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr
If it wasn’t clear by now, it soon is apparent that these two military men share similar values. In spite of speaking little of each other’s language the two soon become firm friends with Edith as an interpreter, card companion and romantic interest… Clive is too unaware to notice but even as he congratulates Theo on his engagement to Edith he realises that he has made the most awful mistake…

Clive leaves but he never stops loving Edith. As the year’s roll on and into the War to End All Wars… he keeps seeing her face and eventually marries a Yorkshire nurse Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr), after the war, who looks very much the same.

Deborah Kerr 2 and Roger Livesey
Clive encounters Theo in defeat at a prisoner of war camp and the two eventually re-connect as Clive and his other victorious friends try to persuade the German that there’s life after defeat…

Time shifts forward shown by the growth of Clive’s hunting trophies in his den… a succession of Zebra, Rhino, Elephants and other now endangered species attach themselves all showing the locations of their “bagging”  -  a clever device: how else to show the extent of Empire?

Livesey and Laurie
Another shift to 1943 sees Clive considerably older and now relegated to the Home Guard. He’s still aided by his former driver from the Great War: Murdoch played by the great John Laurie…without whom no P&P film would be complete! His new driver is altogether younger and better looking:  a redhead called Angela "Johnny" Cannon (Deborah Kerr again…).

So, women have gone from agitating for men to help them, getting stuck in as war nurses and finally to active combat (albeit as a driver) – so equal they even have men’s names…

"Johnny’s” boyfriend is the over-eager young man who shows Clive and co that you now need to break the rules of war in order to win and this is a message reinforced by Theo as Clive encounters him again as a refugee trying to escape the Nazis.

Theo is detained by suspicious immigration officers and gives a moving account of just how low his country has fallen under the rule of men he barely considers German. This was highly personal not just for the Austrian Walbrook but also for the Hungarian Pressburger whose grandson, Kevin Macdonald, confirms just how close to home the feelings expressed were.

Wake up calls...
Theo too feels that Clive and many Britons needed to adjust to the requirements of fighting total war against an enemy that would do anything to win: never mind kicking off early. Clive cannot take it in and refuses to accept his redundancy even after he gets side-lined… Yet, it’s the death of the Blimp but not of the Colonel … his self-respect is re-focused and he knows there’s still a place for his values only if he puts his faith in those of the younger generation.

Like all Powell and Pressburger films, Colonel Blimp leaves much to ponder but by treating its audience with such respect it leaves them thinking even at a time when the government just wanted them fighting. Yet the majority of those who saw the film would have been on the Home Front and would have needed such rational fare to help sustain them through the closing years of this bitter conflict… a time when the game genuinely did change and Britain did indeed have to find itself anew in the World that remained.

The admirable Anton
The three (five!?) leads are magnificent, Deborah Kerr playing three women kind of based on one, with such conviction that you might be confused if you didn’t already know her face so well. Anton Walbrook acts in such powerful silence that he draws the eye in almost every scene: so sad and angrily-dignified, he sees much more than Candy, having lost early enough in life to learn the skills of adaption.

Then there’s Roger Livesey, initially so unrecognisable as the dashing Laird of Kiloran from I Know Where I’m Going, but who clearly relishes the chance to play a character with less depth and more journey… Were P&P addressing the nature of heroism? Was Candy too insensitive to be a real hero or just blinded by absolute certainty and belief in the greatness of his country?

Old and middle-aged Candy
The Archers, as always, manage to celebrate Britishness whilst also poking holes in its contradictions. But you’re always more hurtful to the one you love and above all they believe in the fairness as much as the fighting spirit: trusting in both.

All filmed in amazing Technicolor by the magical Jack Cardiff, Colonel Blimp looks freshly minted in the recently-released Blu-Ray edition. It comes with an old-fangled DVD and a half hour documentary on the film along with comments on the restoration from Archers mega-fan Martin Scorsese.

I haven’t seen the film for a while and it’s never looked better: Powell and Pressburger on Blu-Ray…you know it makes sense!

It’s available from Movie Mail and all Amazons at very reasonable prices…


  1. An excellent review of an excellent film. Roger Livesey is one of my favourite actors. Well done on this thoughtful, reflective and splendid synopsis.

    1. Ah and what a knight good Sir Livesey would have made!? Thank you Sir Gawain, 'tis a meditation on the very reasons we take to horse and one a noble warrior such as thyself would well understand.