Friday, June 18, 2021

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

UK, 163 minutes
Directors/writers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Photography: Georges Perinal
Music: Allan Gray
Editor: John Seabourne Sr.
Cast: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Albert Lieven, Arthur Wonter, A.E. Matthews, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, John Laurie, Harry Welchman, Ian Fleming

Things I didn't know: "Colonel Blimp" was a British political cartoon that began in the 1930s. The character was an ancient harrumphing military veteran with a walrus mustache, potbelly, and reliably fatuous opinions on issues of the day, which he brayed from the comfort of Turkish baths. So that explains why this UK Archers production has no one named Blimp in it (I don't believe the word or name even occurs across this lengthy picture). What's more, the character who is obviously set up as his type, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey with literally a stiff upper lip—you'll learn why, and also why the mustache), is still in good health at the end of the movie and quite alive.

This epic, lively, and colorful picture came out in the depths of World War II. The death it seems to be talking about is more of a Colonel Blimp-like idea: faith in German honor. A lot of people had a hard time shaking that off. It's one reason the Nazis were so effective. Only a few years before, French director Jean Renoir was celebrating the class solidarity of aristocrats across national lines in La Grande Illusion, showing the respect and decent treatment officers accorded one another even in P.O.W. camps. That's the world Colonel Blimp knew, and it's the world Clive Candy knows too, a veteran of the Boer Wars and the Great War and in the present day with duties in the Home Guard, protecting against the air raids of 1940. His best friend in all the world is the German Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who Candy must face in a duel of honor before they find their way to fast friendship.

Don't worry, it's all explained. This picture has a complicated frame story, followed by episodes from Candy's life and career over the first decades of the 20th century, often interacting with Theo. The movie has not one, not two, but three roles for Deborah Kerr, who acquits herself quite well in all of them. But mostly, in 1943, it seems particularly at pains to get an urgent message across. It's as if the Archers—coproducers, codirectors, and cowriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—were still mad at Neville Chamberlain or anyone who ever trusted German honor in the period after World War I. Renoir made his picture in 1937, Chamberlain was crowing about "peace for our time" in 1938. You can't really fault the Archers, in 1943, for believing it worse than naïve to take German Nazis at their word after all they had seen by that point. In many ways, Colonel Blimp is sly but plain enough as anti-Nazi propaganda for a wartime audience.

But in many more ways it is exploring the older tension and affection between England and Germany that started in the colonial era under the guise of competing civilizations, playing friendly poker bluff games like "I see your Shakespeare and raise you a Beethoven" on the way to erecting a narrative in which the seagoing English were coolly rational in temperament compared to the surging passions and emotionalism of the romantic landlocked Germans. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is at the very tail end of that cultural narrative. After World War II everything about Germany particularly changed radically.

It's a strange movie for its time, in brilliant color but almost recklessly sounding its stark black and white message—don't ever believe a German Nazi. In retrospect that was a pretty good idea all things considered. Theo has his low point after World War I, assessing the terms of peace and seeing already the roots of authoritarianism in his native land taking hold. One of his most poignant scenes, closer to the present day of the frame story when he is attempting to emigrate to England, is his sadness that the two boys he raised with his wife (one of the Kerr roles) grew up to become Nazis. As always, Anton Walbrook plays it low-key and manages to quietly exceed all expectations.

Though it's long, the picture is nimble and full of explosive action and tender moments, expertly filling out a range of tones—a regular movie-movie. Deborah Kerr is one of those midcentury actresses (Olivia de Havilland is another) whose presence somehow escapes me in memory. It's as if I can never recognize them right away. That makes her especially effective in her three roles—the wives of both principals and an ambitious young soldier—which are all distinct from one another too. Blimp is not even above slapstick, particularly in the present-day story which is full of 1940s wartime high spirits.

I should note this one had to grow on me—or maybe I was just in the wrong place to see it before. As always with movies closer to three hours than two you finally have to give in to them. Sometimes resentment or drowsiness wins, I admit. But get yourself right and pour a cup of coffee. This one has a lot of impressive moviemaking skill in a many different ways, and a message that particularly resonates with our own time. Don't you ever go trusting a Nazi.


  1. Apparently, the Nazis are making some kind of comeback in Germany right now as a National Socialist Underground. They kill and/or demonize immigrants (Turks, Syrians, etc). Less popular than Trump's GQP fascism but maybe more violence?

  2. BTW, I will see this. Love the history. WW2 as Last War of High European Imperialism.