Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp"

First of all, he never dies in the movie, so I don't know what's up with the title. Second, he's not a colonel -- when we first meet him he's a lieutenant, and then a brigadier general, and then a major general. Presumably he was a colonel at some point in between. Finally, no one ever refers to him as Blimp.

"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" may have a head-scratching title, but it's a fine movie nonetheless. It turns out co-screenwriters/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- who made many films together under the name "The Archers" -- picked up the name of a popular comic strip by David Low. It's an original story, though, with little relation to the cartoon character other than a physical resemblance.

The character's name is actually Clive Candy, although it later becomes Clive Wynn-Candy after he marries. The movie plays out in a flashback structure, with a framing device set in the present (that is 1943, when the film was made). Major General Wynn-Candy, commander of the British Home Guard, is captured at a Turkish bath by an unscrupulous young lieutenant, who has begun a training exercise six hours prior to the command of, "War begins at midnight." The young officer's reasoning is that in order to win this war, the British military must leave behind its gentlemanly rules for the underhanded tactics of their German foes.

Wynn-Candy objects -- his creed is that "right is might," and that winning without honor is worse than losing -- and he tussles with the much younger man. The time then shifts to follow Wynn-Candy's career over the last 40 years.

These flashbacks are divided into three sections, set in 1902, 1918 and 1940. Montage sequences separate them to show the passage of time, marked by increasing number of animal head trophies appearing on the walls of the avid hunter.

The first, and longest, sequence is also the best. As a young lieutenant just returned from the Boer War, Candy (Roger Livesey) is shocked to hear that a German mercenary is spreading unsavory propaganda about the British. He travels to Berlin and meets with an English duchess (Deborah Kerr) working in Berlin. He confronts the mercenary and manages to insult the entire German army, which causes more than 80 German soldiers to draw lots for the honor of dueling him.

As it happens, the German chosen to duel him is Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Both end up rehabilitating from their wounds in the same hospital, and become great friends. Candy nearly has his upper lip sliced off in the duel, and to conceal the scar he grows a long mustache, which becomes his trademark. Both men find themselves in love with the duchess, but Candy withdraws gallantly so that they can marry.

Only later in life does he learn how much he regrets this decision. Moving into the 1918 section, Candy is now a brigadier general in World War I, and happens across a young nurse (also played by Deborah Kerr) who bears a striking resemblance to his former love. He arranges to meet after the war, and they marry despite a 20-year age difference. Now named Wynn-Candy, he goes to a prisoner of war camp to reunite with Theo, who has been captured. Their meeting is stilted, as Theo believes Germany will now be humiliated and subjugated by the conquering British.

In the final sequence, Theo has fled the Nazis in Germany. With his wife now dead, he considers England the closest thing he has to a home. He meets again with Wynn-Candy, who has a young female driver (Deborah Kerr, again) who looks just like both their dead wives. Wynn-Candy is set to give a speech on the radio about the fall of Dunkirk, but political influence causes it to be cancelled and the general forcibly retires.

Interestingly, this somewhat mirrors the real political tensions caused by the making of the film. Winston Churchill, who may have thought Colonel Blimp was a thinly-veiled caricature of himself, reportedly tried to have the movie canceled during production.

The physical transformation from 30-year-old lieutenant to 70-year-old general is totally convincing, especially for a film made in 1943. Livesey was actually 37 at the time of the film, but gets the manner and movements of an older man down to a T.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Colonel Blimp," although at the end of the film I'm not really sure it has added up to much of anything other than a lively tale. Livesey gives an engaging performance, but we never really get to know Wynn-Candy beneath his officious facade.

3 stars

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