No 80 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
I really love Powell and Pressburger. Another great things to come out of this little film challenge is that I have discovered so much of their back catalogue (and Billy Wilder’s – also excellent).
I went in to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp with high expectations, and I wasn’t let down – from the beginning the film has a wonderful sense of class. The film begins with a tapestry, into which are weaved the names of the principal cast, followed by the rest of the credits - which are presented in a way which was very much of its time and which makes me think of that wonderful period of cinema – of Errol Flyn and Arthurian legends. Of a time when everything was less gritty and a bit more fantastical. This vibe is also (though to a lesser degree) prevalent throughout the film, solely due to the stylistic touches of the age. I love films which are almost entirely shot on sound stages. They give the outdoor shots a wonderful artificial feel, like it's an escapist fantasy…
We crash straight from this air of nostalgia into something a bit more savage. There is a war on.
The troops are ordered to play some war games and attack London. War starts at midnight. Though they decide (rather arrogantly) that those darned deceptive Nazis would never wait until formally invited to attack. So, they arrive in London 6 hours early, ready to surprise the military top brass who issued the command and who are all preparing by having a relaxing lie down in the Turkish baths.
An argument breaks out between the soldier who has ordered this advanced attack and General Wynne-Candy, who had planned the simulations. Oddly, despite the fact that Candy is a high ranking officer, and despite the fact that he has clearly broken the rules, the soldier continues to attack and belittle Wynne-Candy, mocking him for his gut and his moustache (both of which are mighty fine things to own) and so Wynne Candy pins down this young upstart and tells him his life story.
And so – Wibble Wobble Wibble Wobble – welcome to the flashback which makes up most of the film, starting 40 years ago in 1903.
Once we get to flashback and meet the young Clive Candy, it finally becomes clear that it is the fabulous actor Roger Livesey, best known (to me, at least) as Dr Frank Reeves in A Matter of Life and Death: as the film – and the ageing make-up - progresses, he remains recognisable, but when you face him as an old man, he isn’t recognisable straight away… a sign of good make-up.
It is in these flashbacks that we find out that Powell and Pressburger have managed to sneak a really bizarre love story into this film. In fact a two-pronged love story, as it is both a story of romantic love (which borders on the creepy and stalkerish) and a story of companionship, of love of friends.
Clive Candy is a Boer war hero, but he is also brash and impulsive and he goes to Berlin on the invitation of a Miss Hunter in order to correct some of the anti-British rumours which are being spread. Whilst there he manages to insult the entire German military and is challenged to a duel.
Whilst I’m aware I have massively paraphrased a fairly lengthy series of events, none of this build up is important. There are two things that I want to point out:
How bloody awesome a time it must have been when arguments could legitimately be resolved with a duel.
As the film progresses through World Wars 1 and 2, it becomes clear that the Boer War was the best time to be in the British military. Yes, the uniform isn’t a touch as practical as camouflage and khakis, but bloody hell all that red and polished brass looks pretty damned cool.
So, in the aforementioned duel, we meet his opponent - a randomly elected member of the German Military with the wonderful name of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (played by another P&P regular, Anton Walbrook). Both are injured and the pair develop a friendship as they recover in their hospital. It is this friendship which is pivotal for the film. Well, that and the fact that both Theo and Clive fall for Miss Hunter (played by Deborah Kerr).
The film underplays Clive’s love for Miss Hunter - mainly because he himself doesn’t realise it exists until it is too late and she has married Theo. what I love is that in modern romances, this love triangle would have been really played up, and could have really threatened their friendship. However, this is set in the times of The British Stiff Upper Lip, and of toning down personal emotions for the greater good - Candy realises that his friendship with Theo is stronger than his affections.
But... trouble is ahead, for whilst their friendship survives the romantic entanglements, there are much bigger challenges in store.
Clive Candy is a Brit but Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff is German, so come 1914 the two men find themselves on opposite sides of a fairly massive war. It is a really interesting conundrum, and one which I had never really considered before until it was raised in Jules et Jim… what do you do when your friend becomes your military opponent?
However, this question is another which isn’t raised until later, because Candy, our protagonist, is such a chipper man that it seems he hasn’t even considered it. He spends the whole time wandering around battle grounds and looking for his good friend Theo, making sure (one supposes) that he is still alive.
This is a film of sections, and the World War one section is a mixed blessing where we get one genuine delight and one big disappointment. Let's begin with the delight.
A Scottish soldier called Murdoch. Who is that wide-eyed Scot assisting Clive Candy on his misadventures? Why it's only bloody John Laurie! As the film moves from World War 1 to 2 - and subsequently the Home Guard - I like to think that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is really an epic prequel to Dad’s Army. The Life and Times of Private James Frazer. This thought makes me happy.
However, all the Murdoch joy is dampened by a properly racist ‘Yessir massah, oh Lawdy’ caricatured black solider in the American military.
I suppose it is a victim of its time but it seems a completely unnecessary and disappointing decision. At least the rest of the American military are also clichés, brash and cocky (a re-occurring theme as they also appear as such in A Matter of Life and Death’s heaven scenes).
During the war, Candy meets a nurse called Barbara Wynne and it is here that the slightly odder part of the film plays out - as Miss Wynne looks EXACTLY like Miss Hunter (well they would do, Deborah Kerr plays them both). Part of me thinks that this isn’t really healthy. It feels like Vertigo, it feels like a creepy obsession. He spends the whole time telling Theo that he’d love her… but I’m glad that the two never meet, as I reckon Theo would be pretty weirded out about how his friend married his wife’s IDENTICAL CLONE.
This obsession plays out even more, and even more creepily because when Barbara dies, Candy gets a chauffeur… a soldier called Angela 'Johnny' Cannon. A proper gutsy feminist tomboy soldier who happens to look EXACTLY LIKE MISS HUNTER. Again! Naturally Theo is a bit shocked by this but then, he comes to accept it fairly quickly.
If this obsession got any worse it would get to the point where Candy might peel Deborah Kerr’s face off and wear it as a mask!
Whilst the film does play with this idea of friendship on rival sides of the war, you have to remember that the film was made in 1943 and we can’t have a likeable major character (which Theo definitely is) be a Nazi.
So, World War 1 sort of strains Theo and Clive’s friendship – but Theo escapes Nazi Germany and goes to England where the two old men regain their friendship. It is here that the film covers some really bold and evocative points. In both of these we see the full acting prowess of Anton Walbrook, and he is really excellent. Firstly he delivers a wonderfully tragic and moving speech about why he wants to be allowed into England and then he speaks to Clive (who is still wonderfully arrogant) about how war has changed. It is a speech to Clive but it is also a speech to the audience of 1943 – it is saying that everything we, as a country, had experienced before paled in comparison to the Nazi threat. It is moving, it is passionate and it is a wonderful piece of acting.
It's these moments that really shine. The film doesn’t really have a story as we’re just following a life. We see how the characters and relationships blossom and develop but we don’t have the standard three arc structure. Yet the film remains fascinating and fresh through both the marvellous characters and the wonderful style of Powell and Pressburger. They really are great directors and have the most wonderful touches (see, for example, the taxidermy heads springing up around Clive’s den to show the passing of time). They invent fascinating characters and they tell very daring and complicated stories.
So by the end of the film, when we revisit the opening scenes through the eyes of Johnny and Clive we have a completely different alliance – we no longer want the cocky soldier to trick the pompous bloated aristocracy, we want him to have respect for the work that Candy has done. We also get to see the same scenes from different angles, telling the whole story of what has happened… it makes me think of the genius 50’s bit in Back to the Future 2 – only it was made 45 years before…
Powell and Pressburger really were ahead of their time.