Active Ingredients: Narrative structure and emotional tone; Technicolor cinematography
Side Effects: A bit overlong; a few choppy edits
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s gorgeous Technicolor masterpiece The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film of such visual sophistication and flawless construction that its technical achievements nearly overshadow its bittersweet, complex but unshakable love for its characters. Nearly.
The true miracle of Colonel Blimp is precisely this marriage, a marriage of artistic and moral sensibilities that “The Archers” themselves represented. Though their films proudly proclaim “Written, Directed and Produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,” they benefit from the distinct skills each man brings to the partnership. As principle screenwriter, Pressburger adopts an ambitious forty year scope and a tricky flashback structure to chart the blustery youth and slow decline into irrelevancy of Colonel Clive Candy, the embodiment of a pre-modern, gentlemanly British attitude towards militarism; as principle director, Michael Powell teases out the script’s deft and heartfelt emotional shading, embracing both the cartoonishness and the sad nobility of the rotund, mustachioed Colonel. It’s surely due to the contributions of both artists that the film feels so sprawling and yet so focused, so fleshed out and yet so direct, so exuberant and yet so melancholic. As a result, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp stands as a testament not just to the collaboration that shapes a film, but to the network of forces that shape a man’s life.
At the center of this emotional epic of love and war is three of their generation’s most brilliant actors: the barrel-chested Roger Livesey as Candy, the noble Anton Walbrook as his German counterpart and life-long friend, and the radiant Deborah Kerr playing three women who impact Candy’s life from 1902 to 1942. Though only Kerr literally portrays three distinct characters, in a sense Livesey and Walbrook also deliver tricky and perfectly pitched triple performances as naïve boys, embattled men and nostalgic old coots, finally awarded the maturity to reflect on the scope of their lives. Wisely, Powell and Pressburger ground the film’s themes of the joy and eventual evaporation of idealism not in external conflicts, but in the spaces between these central characters.
Watch, for example, how a gliding camera (and even some wry, meta flashback humor) flips the conflict between youth and old age in a single shot. Or how a series of close-ups brings Livesey and Walbrook from adversaries in a duel to friends with no words exchanged.
As the woman who sets each man down the path of his life—and two ghostly echoes of that same figure—Kerr adds emotional depth to the story and a spirit of benevolence to the film. The cumulative effect of these relationships makes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a film equally about love, friendship and loss.
The ease of the film’s tone, however, belies the bravery of its message. It was released to a beleaguered British public in 1943—Churchill even tried to suppress the film—who must have been unprepared for such a sober look at the death of moral certainty at the hands of their current enemy in World War II. The lesson it takes Candy the whole of his life to learn is that fair fighting and the righteousness of colonial conviction will not be enough to survive in a modern world. In comparison to the evils of Nazism, Colonel Blimp’s pomp appears quaint and dangerously oblivious. Churchill may not have wanted his country to confront the fact that the war’s biggest causality could be the idealism and the very way of life of the British.
And yet, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is never bleak, never dour, never condescending. It respects the lesson Candy learns, and expresses its love for the character with all the vibrancy of the film’s rich colors. There’s an aching and palpable tenderness across the whole film, from its script, to its trio of rich performances, to the painterly and slightly surreal effect of Jack Cardiff’s legendary cinematography. Like The Archers themselves, Colonel Blimp is a perfect marriage of each of these elements, a brilliant and poignant collaboration of life and art.