This improbably entitled film is the great epic of the Michael Powell—Emeric Pressburger canon. The directors’ Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes might be wilder and even more stunningly beautiful, but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is fascinating on a number of levels.
Simply as a film, it’s long and ambitious, but seems neither. It’s just under three hours long, and covers three wars, from the Boer War through WWI to the middle of WWII. Yet it’s a personal story, largely that of the just as improbably named General Clive-Wynne Candy, played by the nearly forgotten Roger Livesey (A Matter of Life and Death and “I Know Where I’m Going!”). Clive is first seen as a rotund, harrumphing military man whose great wartimes experiences have made him both valuable and obsolete. We are then thrown back in time to see him as a handsome, energetic war hero in the early years of the 20th century. Without giving away too much of the plot, Clive becomes an unlikely friend with a young German officer (Powell-Pressburger regular Anton Walbrook), who maintains an up-and-down friendship with Clive right up into the present (1943). He, like Clive, has an endearingly borderline-ludicrous name: Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff.
Apparently Winston Churchill did all he could to prevent this film from being made and then from being shown, as it presented a view of older British military men that Churchill deemed unpatriotic. The fact that the plot leans heavily on the friendship with a friendly German didn’t help, nor did the fact that the older Clive could easily be read as a Churchill stand-in. Churchill went so far as to make sure that the directors first choice for lead—Laurence Olivier—couldn’t be made available for the film. Hence Livesey, and the role of his career.
The film presents three distinct eras, but unlike some other larger-than-life films covering a significant chunk of history, this one stays close to the central personal story and doesn’t step back so far as to threaten the flow of the story. We’re with Clive all the way, and like the earlier Gone with the Wind, which this film resembles in much of its imagery, one feels as if one has lived through the battles of war without ever really experiencing one.
Powell and Pressburger were just beginning to experiment with the softer approach to Technicolor that blossomed so magnificently in the next few years, especially under the cinematic eye of the legendary Jack Cardiff. Georges Perinal, who’d won an Oscar for his cinematography for 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad (co-directed by Powell), was the official cinematographer for this film. But working for him as camera operators were two future greats: Jack Cardiff (who won Best Cinematography for Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) and should have won for the next year’s The Red Shoes); and Geoffrey Unsworth, Oscar-winner in the same category for Cabaret and Tess, among other great work. The film has inventive effects and some lovely, evocative camerawork, making the images an exciting alternative to those of other films of its time. One of its greatest successes is keeping a style that takes us from past to then-present in a way that brought the past to life and gave the then-present a classical aura.
Some of the most stunning images belong to the young Deborah Kerr, making her debut as a leading actress, in three parts no less. She features in all three timeframes, twice as the romantic lead. Those of us who mostly know her from her work in the 1950s (The King and I, Tea and Sympathy) may not know her soft beauty as a very young lady, or the impressive range of her acting, which takes quite a turn into the modern in the last segment.
This is also a great film for discussion in the “what might have been” category. What kind of film would it have been if the directors had had their way, and Olivier had played the lead? My own guess is that it would have been quite a different film, but not necessarily a better one. Olivier is quite the individualist on screen, and his presence is often electric and his energy centripetal. As in all his leads, he would have had trouble blending into the rest of the film, even one as strong as this. Livesey completely rises to the challenge of the part, but is more of a piece with the whole work than Olivier would have been. This film, with its lead, also gives us a chance to see what filmgoers are missing if they don’t know Livesey’s work. He’s very British, and is [fill in the blank] in a very British way that might not have engaged the American mind and heart back then. But looking back from our present time, I think that his solid, authentic, salt-of-the-earth leader works well with the films in which he stars.
This film also provides another look at Anton Walbrook, whom some may know only for his work in The Red Shoes, where he plays a rather ruthless, controlling and conflicted impresario. His German military man here, like Clive, goes from young and brash to older and wiser. In this case, he’s much wiser than his British friend, (spoiler alert) who can’t adjust to the demands of the new (read Nazi) warfare, and who is stuck in the past, believing that right (alone) is might and that 19th century roles are just fine, thank you veddy much.
When we think of epics, we think of Lawrence of Arabia (which this film resembles in several ways), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, or even the French Les Enfants du Paradis. All of these are serious dramas. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is somewhat different. In some ways, it’s straightforward drama at times. Yet in other scenes, the flavor is pure satire with the lightest touch possible, a high-wire act few films have ever pulled off. If you enjoy exploring the work of two great directors, like Deborah Kerr, enjoy war movies, appreciate good acting, or just like experiencing good cinema, this restored masterpiece is well worth the time.