The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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“Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children?’  Now the women are fighting beside the men.  The children are trained to shoot.  What’s left is the ‘home.’  But what is the ‘home’ without women and children?” asks Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff.

Director Michael Powell first met Emeric Pressburger while working on 1939’s The Spy In Black (Pressburger was asked by producer Alexander Korda to do some rewrites on the film).  Subsequent collaborations on Contraband and 49th Parallel would lead to the pair adopting a joint writer-producer-director credit on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.  They then created their own production company, Archer Film Productions (along with an archery target logo).  Their next production was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, whose title is derived from the satirical Colonel Blimp comic strip but yet tells a completely original story and does not actually feature a character named Colonel Blimp.  I got a chance to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on the big screen at Film Forum in New York City four years ago in a gorgeous new restoration (the screening I attended was introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Powell’s widow and Martin Scorsese’s film editor).  It was an incredible experience from start to finish and serves as a fascinating dual character study.  This review of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is my entry in the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion BluesSpeakeasy, & Silver Screenings.

1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows the lives of two soldiers (one British and one German) from their first meeting during the Boer War to World War I through the film’s present-day World War II setting and the women central to their lives.  Powell and Pressburger assembled a wonderful ensemble that includes Roger Livesey (as Clive Candy), Anton Wolbrook (as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), Deborah Kerr (as Edith Hunter/Barbara Wynne/Angela “Johnny” Cannon), Ursula Jeans (as Frau Von Kalteneck), James McKechnie (as Spud Wilson), David Hutcheson (as Hoppy), Frith Banbury (as Baby-Face Fitzroy), and Muriel Aked (as Aunt Margaret).  Livesey gives a remarkable performance as Candy over the course of 40 years, effectively showing how the times changed but not the man.  Wolbrook shines as the sympathetic Theo, who changes over the course of time due to war.  Kerr is excellent in her three roles as Edith (a long-time friend of Candy’s who was in love with him but eventually married Theo instead during the Boer War), Barbara (a younger doppelganger of Edith’s who Candy eventually meets and marries after World War I), and “Johnny” (Candy’s MTC driver during World War II, personally chosen by Candy due to her resemblance to Edith and Barbara).  Kerr gives each character a distinct personality while still maintaining certain similar characteristics (besides the obvious physical similarities, all three are strong females).

Powell and Pressburger draw strong performances from their main trio of Livesey, Wolbrook, and Kerr.  Powell and Pressburger’s screenplay effectively uses the flashback device to tell the story of Col. Clive Candy and his closest friends for roughly 40 years while examining the different effects and changing nature of war in the 20th century.  Alfred Junge’s incredible production design ranges from grand ballrooms to war-torn areas to a lavish Turkish bath house.  Joseph Bato’s period costumes designs are very detailed, ranging from formal wear to various military uniforms from different time periods.  Georges Perinal’s Technicolor cinematography, as previously mentioned, is simply gorgeous (the new restoration really makes the colors pop).  The cinematography also enhances the production and costume designs, making them even more appealing to look at.  The Oscar-worthy makeup design by George Blackler and Dorrie Hamilton successfully transforms the youth Livesey and Wolbrook, aging them up to 40 years older as the film progresses.  Allan Gray’s terrific score captures the drama, action, and sadness.  Powell and Pressburger’s epic anti-war film is a bona fide classic deserving of all its praise and love in addition to being one of the titles available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection in the U.S.  Do not miss an opportunity to see this film on the big screen!

13 responses to “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

  1. Excellent write-up. This is my favorite Archer film (I can’t imagine what this looks like on the big screen !). I wish Criterion would release A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

  2. The best part of this blogathon has been learning about films I never even heard of. Thanks for a great write up!

  3. “The war begins at midnight!” There are so many good ones, but this is my favorite Archers just because it not only is a tremendous film, but it encapsulates British history, warts and all, with pinpoint accuracy. Thanks so much for participating!

  4. I have not yet seen this but it gets such raves that I have to get to it soon! It looks gorgeous and sounds amazing. Thanks so much for bringing it into this blogathon!

  5. I saw this film for the first time a couple of years ago, and was BLOWN AWAY. Usually, when a film is praised so highly, I tend to go in with one eyebrow raised, but this was every bit as wonderful and thought-provoking as everyone said. Your post has certainly done it justice.

    Thank you for bringing Colonel Blimp to the Criterion Blogathon!

  6. My favorite Archer’s film after Black Narcissus!

  7. Pingback: The #CriterionBlogathon is Imminent | Criterion Blues .....

  8. Terrific film! The way it shows the changing nature (and morality) of military service in the 20th century is fascinating and like nothing else I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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