The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

From Forum With No Name:

I'd say it's Michael Powell's masterpiece--his one epic film without an obviously epic feel (it sneaks up on you), and his most ambivalent portrait of a man ever. Deborah Kerr makes you ache for her, and Anton Walbrook is devastating. He has that one scene--where he's telling the immigration offcier why he, an enemy alien, wants to move to England--and he has to explain not only the intervening years, but his 180 degree turn of character (from fanatic military officer to wary and humbled pacifist). He does so clearly, convincingly, and in a way that's unutterably moving. There's years of struggle and heartbreak in that speech.

ted fontenot: I have to say that this is one hell of a movie. I had never seen it before. I'll have more to say later after I see it one more time first. Luckily, I recorded it. Livesey's realization of the character is complete.

Livesey is wonderful; he embodies all the contradictions so perfectly you can't make up your mind about the character or the film (which is what I think Powell intended). You love him the same time you want to smack him upside in the head for being so thickheaded. Kerr isn't just beautiful, she subtly shades the three different characters so that you can differentiate them in your head afterwards (all this at the age of twenty one!). Even the little bits are great--James Makechnie as the enterprising Spuds, John Laurie as faithful Murdoch. But Walbrook was something else.

DH1: I was drawn in from the word go. The opening scene, of the messenger motorcycles zipping around in formation to give word of a military exercise, 'The war starts at midnight', was just fabulously shot. And the way they went from some cheeky soldiers, with an undercurrent of anger as to the current state of the war (released in '43, I have no doubt it was quite real) and that there are no scheduled starts of battles in the real thing so they go ahead and 'capture' the main character in a turkish bath, and he flashes back from being an old, fat officer to being a young, muddleheaded soldier who makes fun of people like he's destined to become was likewise excellent.

I also have to agree with the kudos for Deborah Kerr. Besides being luminous, her grasp of the character was first rate, it's very difficult to believe she was so young.

I suspect David Lean borrowed that motorcycle scene to open Lawrence.

 DH1: Oh yeah. The way much of 'Colonel Blimp' was shot in general, I strongly suspect that Lean was a big Michael Powell admirer.

A Matter of Life and Death used to be my favorite Powell for the longest time (until I resaw Colonel Blimp), and is perhaps the most easily delightful (even over Thief of Baghdad, I think).

ted fontenot: Surprisingly, and affectingly so, although the character may be something of a God's fool, Colonel Blimp is not a buffoon. He is, in the last analysis, a man of character, not a caricature, an admirable being deserving of respect and even of being emulated in certain respects. He is a man of principle, but he’s definitely not hidebound. We come to see his positive qualities as others do. He is admired, even wondrously so, by Theo (he’s surprised to be so captivated), and loved by the beautiful Barbara (and perhaps also by Edith), and it's all because of who he is—a simple, unfailingly solicitous, kind, and fair man who doesn’t have a hurtful bone in his body. Yet, he seems oblivious at what sterling qualities these are. That’s because he thinks everyone is like him. When he begins to dress down the radio interviewer, he catches himself and apologizes. He is courteous, considerate, and open-minded—to the point and extent that others see these qualities as failings. Not usually the modern tempers estimate of the Victorian anachronism. He may not see what his younger wife sees in him, but what she sees in him is this, and one of the finer things in the movie is how that point is made. Not only the brave, but the good and good-hearted, too, deserve the fair seems to be one of the movie’s promises. When Barbara and Candy are sitting by the fire, and he takes her hand as if it is this thing of unimaginable value, the look on Kerr’s face, of love and gratitude and wonder, says it all. Her face is magnificently expressive in that scene. It makes the point; his is out of camera range.

The opening of Colonel Blimp brings to my mind The Palm Beach Story. PBS is screwball through and through, screwball interfering with the romantic; CB is only bookend with screwball, though. But the frantic circular structure brings the comparison to mind. It also reminds me of Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait. Like the main character in that film, a review of his life makes him realize it has been a life justified. But he must change. The roseate tinge of ironic tragicomedyin Colonel Blimp is the slightly ridiculous spectacle of an old man finally forced to lose his cherry—doubt in himself and in his view of the world has finally been sown in him. He, at his age, must change, and his most superior quality is that he will do what he must do. Oh, he’s dead, make no mistake about it.

It’s funny, in a way, that Churchill would so dislike the movie, for Candy is a lot like him. Churchill married a younger woman. He was full of ideals, not the least being the idealization of women. At Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, when it became apparent that the Allies were going to win, he burst out in a cabinet meeting that they, the English, must do something about the Germans starving—the war was over, time to be big about it, hail fellow well met stuff. The rest of the government mucky mucks simply looked at him coldly. Like Blimp, there was always something of the boy who never grew up (in the best sense of that) in Churchill. He loved and lived by the sentiments embodied in Macaulay's poem:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Then facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?" 

Amen to everything you said, ted, about General Candy, but there are moments in the film where Powell really seems to be trying to undercut everything that Candy stands for, or at least, show us the darker side of his obliviousness, or innocence--that may be what Churchill (smart man, I've always thought) was responding to.   That's why it's such a great film, it doesn't go for the easy answers. A genuinely good man, and the film shows not just his virtues but his limitations.

I believe Theo's aware of them--in fact, I believe Theo more closely represents Powell's point of view--he knows the world isn't what Candy thinks it is, but he can't help loving him, nevertheless.

ted fontenot: There's no doubt that Candy's world has passed, if it ever existed. He's outlived his time and he's outlived his kind. May be the knell, too, of a certain British sense of itself. In the early stages of WWII, before America entered the war, I believe it was in Greece, the Germans miscalculate and parachute into the waiting sights of the British soldiers. The British didn't expend much effortjustifying gunning down the helpless Germans as they parachuted in. As one officer said (you'll have to imagine the clipped English accent), "Not cricket, I know, but there you have it." No more Mr. Nice Guy.

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