Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr
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“You bloody fool! War starts at midnight!” declares Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), a blustering, bloated old buffoon of a general, who is rooted in the traditions of British military’s old ways. Shocked by the audacity of the army upstarts who break the rules of his training scenario, he’s a laughable figure to behold, red in the face and grey in the moustache. What makes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp such an astonishing piece of work is that by the end of the film, you realise that you actually rather like the fellow.
It takes three hours to get there, and with reason; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic is based on the cartoon character created by David Low, and it takes time, patience and, crucially, compassion to gradually step away from the caricature and paint a portrait that’s as rounded as his belly. They whisk us back to Candy’s youth, and take us all the way through his career, as the Boer War veteran finds himself playfully winding up a group of German soldiers – and ends up in a duel as a result. That duel, though, turns out to be the spark that lights the fire of friendship between him and his opponent, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook).
Their bond carries the film through several decades, all the way to the year of 1942, when the film was made, and the very notion of portraying an amicable affection and mutual respect between a German and a British officer was scandalous at the time, with Powell having to steal trucks for the production. The finished movie was even banned for a while. Walbrook is wonderful as the Kraut, who, in one of the film’s best scenes, opens up a moving, insightful discussion about the importance of a stable, restored Germany within Europe, the value of welcoming people from other companies, and the impact a friendship can have on a personal and national level.
If all that sounds heavy-handed, though, Blimp’s as light as a feather, floating through the years of conflict with a delicate touch and a hugely winning sense of humour – from the moment Theo and Clive become friends (“Very much!”), there’s a brilliant comedy in the manners and dialogue of the duo, and that chemistry never leaves them, even as they enter old age.
The film also finds the time for a swooning strain of romance, too, as Theo falls in love with Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr, of course), a friend of Clive, whom he later realises he loves too. And so begins a life-long obsession that sees him chase after a young nurse, Barbara, who looks like her (also played by Deborah Kerr), and also hire a driver, Angela (Kerr again), because she reminds him of her derring-do. Both strands are pulled together superbly by Roger Livesey, who delivers a pitch-perfect performance, not only ageing convincingly on the surface, but also conveying every new layer of knowledge that his experiences acquire, every note of regret, every hint of hope, every flash of idealism. The result is an intimate character arc writ large, an extraordinary epic about one single man, turning a foolish, arrogant pig into a prized national treasure. There’s much to learn from him, whether it’s the fact that elderly people were young too, once upon a time, or the fact that identifying and empathising with those from overseas is no bad thing. Balancing that with a constant stream of laughs is no easy feat, but Colonel Blimp does it with ease, its lengthy runtime disappearing in the blink of an eye; this Blimp doesn’t just fly, it soars.
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