Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Steve Crook offers some corrections in a letter
A downright amazing movie, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a lavish Technicolor production made at the
height of WW2 in an England suffering from dire shortages. It was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's first collaboration as
The Archers 3,
and for a wartime production, its theme is very atypical. At a time when practically every film was
packed with jingoistic messages, often demonizing the enemy, Powell and Pressburger chose to make what is perhaps the
most civilized movie about war, peace, and national chauvinism ever.
In WW2, General Clive Wynn-Candy (Roger Livesey) is caught off guard in a Turkish bath when the 'enemy'
in a war game exercise decides to behave like real Nazis and take him prisoner hours before the game is supposed
to begin. Flustered and humiliated, Candy tells the story of his career, starting in the Boer War. An honored soldier,
he took it upon himself to go to Berlin to refute charges of British war crimes, fell in love with a governess abroad,
Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), and fought a duel with a Prussian officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). He
loses Edith to Theo, but is shocked to find her double, Barbara (Kerr again) back in England, 16 years later. WW1 is a trial of
Wynn-Candy's ethics of fair play and chivalry. After the armistice he approaches Theo, now a prisoner of war, and is
dismayed to be rebuffed by him. Almost twenty years later, the two rivals cross paths again ...
Colonel Blimp started as a completely satirical comic strip oaf, an overweight, walrus-moustached conservative military officer
whose pomposity was used by artist David Low to skewer snobbish upperclass complacency and obsolescent ideas. Powell and
'Blimp', Clive Wynn-Candy, isn't satirical at all. The present-day part of the plot is a short episode where Candy does indeed
realize that he has to change his values, but the majority of the picture is a flashback where it's shown that his values -
chivalry, fair play, friendship - ran deep and true. We gain a full understanding of the character - by the end, he's not
loveable because he's a fool, but because he's a good man, some of whose ideas are out of date.
How The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp could have been filmed and released is a head-scratcher, and can only serve as testament to
the creative power of the two wonder-men and their backer J. Arthur Rank. Some observations and speculations:
It's in Technicolor. This grossly expensive and resources-consuming process stretched budgets in peacetime. But in war-torn
London ... ?
It's beautifully produced. Colonel Blimp is one of the loveliest-looking Technicolor films to date, and more
artful than most Hollywood films. There are many large and elaborate sets designed by Alfred Junge, and scenes shot on a
lavish scale. Hundreds of German officers are in a POW camp when there could have been just a few.
It's 2 hours and 43 minutes long. The average feature at the time was half that length.
It's not in line with the war effort. A British film with a German soldier as a sympathetic lead character was unheard of
during the war. When England was fighting for its life, Germans were generally represented as ice-cold Nazi ideologues.
Theo Schuldorff is just as civilized as Clive Candy, and he gets the girl, too. By showing an Englander and a German
who had been enemies off and on twice in the past 40 years, Colonel Blimp insinuated that the two
countries would be friends again soon - not an attitude the War Office felt comfortable playing out on movie screens.
Powell & Pressburger chose what they thought was a safe theme - that traditional English fair play was unsuitable
when dealing with an enemy like Hitler. Here's where they must have thought they were stretching reality for the cause of
patriotism, by asserting that Candy's English Army had always fought in a proud tradition of total ethical conduct. That war
is ever waged on such civilized terms - by anybody, is a wretched myth that never dies.
Instead, Colonel Blimp was probably despised because it suggested that England should fight 'dirty'. War propaganda
offices need total unity and clarity in their messages to the public; in its civilized way, Colonel Blimp sent
mixed signals. The War Office probably felt Powell & Pressburger were courting counterproductive
controversy. When Laurence Olivier was making an abstract cheering section movie out of his Henry V, extolling the
conquering nobility of the British upper classes, Colonel Blimp suggested that a common-sense commoner - a soldier in the
humble home guard - knew better how to wage war than did the professionals.
Finally - and this is what must really have ticked off Winston Churchill - Colonel Blimp shows the BBC censoring
General Candy's speech, following orders from higher up. The film assumes that the facts being told the wartime public
were pruned and revised by the War Office. It doesn't matter that the filmmakers brand Candy's ideas as
wrong, and dangerously obsolete. Any suggestion that there would be any dissent or confusion of ideas in the War effort
must certainly have been seen as detrimental by the beseiged government.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was probably granted a release because cooler heads in the government wisely
realized that suppressing an expensive movie by their most prestigious filmmakers, would show that free speech
was indeed regulated, and hurt morale far more.
As it plays now, Colonel Blimp is a film England should be proud of. The young warrior (James McKechnie) who breaks
the rules of a war game is no thug, as are the criminals in Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen - a movie that
the same issue, in the same country, in the same war. Instead, the healthy rebel is the new England, seen as
efficient, up to date, and hip. He's even associated with Swing music. He's a home guardsman, a civilian soldier, and
represents a country that the authors hope will soon drop its classed system.
Clive Candy is bright, spirited, and given a deeply-felt performance by Roger Livesey. He's also a softie in matters of
love, an uncalculating kind of guy who discovers too late his heart's desire. When we meet him he's already a grandly-medaled
combat hero proudly wearing his decorations, and a fencing champion to boot. But everything we see of his career is sort
muddle. American WW2 icons were hard-drinking, two-fisted patriots who loved their mothers; English hero types tended to
be ultra-efficient warriors who talked in clipped phrases and exercised total command and control. Clive Candy fumbles
his way to Berlin, and unintentionally creates an incident. His sham romance, invented so the embassy can save face, backfires
when he falls in love just as his new German friend steals his girl. In WW1 we see him, an acting Colonel, having a hard time
just moving around his area of operations (compare that to John Wayne in
In Harm's Way) and politely questioning some German prisoners, who
obviously aren't going to respond. 1
Candy walks up to a friend, a defeated German officer surrounded by hundreds of fellow officers, and is shocked when the
friend chooses to snub him and show solidarity with his countrymen.
Roger Livesey's age makeup is astonishing, as the story takes him from a trim 30 to a corpulent 70 with complete credibility.
There's some clever usage of body doubles in the Turkish bath, but that fat face is Livesey's, and it's tough to figure how it was
done. It makes Orson Welles' work in Citizen Kane look like Halloween makeup.
Again, Powell & Pressburger's sensibility can be felt in the film's sense of magic. Their later fantasies would take all sorts of
cinematic liberties with reality, but the touches here are more like an acknowledgement of the 'magic in life', so to speak.
The transition from 1942 back to 1902, with its echoing underwater voice, uses a real Turkish bath to effect a substitute 'wavy
dissolve'. As in
I Know Where I'm Going, a prophetic promise made by lovers comes true,
and signals to Candy that it's time to change. 2
And then there's the romantic notion of having the three female characters played by the same actress, Deborah Kerr in
her first major role. Haunted by his lost opportunity in Berlin, Candy falls in love with her double back in England, and later chooses
a driver out of 700 candidates, for the same reason. It's quaint and charming, mainly because Kerr's characters are nicely
drawn, even though the view of womanhood might depress female viewers. 1902's Edith
is a vibrant woman who bridles at the thought of settling down to be a wife and mother, but that's exactly what she does.
Barbara we know less about, and mostly through Clive, but their marriage is at least affectionate - the scene of them before
the fire has a simple pleasant calm that sums up their relationship. 1942's Angela Cannon
is a tough cookie and perhaps the best of the bunch - unlike the retreating Edith, she backs up her talk with action,
by racing to try and warn her General.
Between its German beer halls and its British Turkish baths, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp takes in a remarkable
breadth of content and conveys a feeling of time come alive in manners and attitudes from Edwardian times to the nights of
the Blitz. To the propagandists of the Home office, the film was almost certainly an inconvenience, but in film history, there
isn't quite anything like it. It tells Britain's story from the viewpoint of 'Our Colonel Blimp', and instead of a
laughingstock, makes him an unofficial national hero.
Criterion's DVD of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp betters the earlier laserdisc on all counts. That eye-opening
release showed the full-length cut of a film that had been seen only in pieces (and often in black and white) in the United
States. This new DVD retains the original Michael Powell - Martin Scorsese commentary, and cleans up the color and the
print to near perfection. A Carlton docu spells out the
remarkable nature of the film and its controversies, a perspective that a modern viewer needs. There's a
generous section of original David Low Blimp cartoons, which come across as the Doonesbury of their day. An
excerpt from Low's autobiogaphy serves as liner notes and rounds out another admirable Criterion package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp rates:
Supplements: Commentary, essay, Featurette, galleries of stills and cartoons
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 19, 2002
A link to the
The Powell and Pressburger Appreciation Society, courtesy of Steve Crook.
1. Oddly, this scene refutes the main theme that the Brits always choose fair play, as the South
African Captain with the scarred face, is clearly going to give the prisoners the works as soon as Candy leaves. When
Candy claims that honor and fair play are essentials to the British Army, he's lying to himself - an army with those kinds
of official and unofficial rules would do what the Captain does - wait until the stuffy command officer leaves the room.
2. In the light of I Know Where I'm Going!, this magical prophecy sticks out as
core Pressburger material, and gives the ending of Colonel Blimp a very emotional kick for Powell-Pressburger fans.
Savant saw A Canterbury Tale last summer, a marvellous film composed entirely of magical events imposed on a 'normal'
wartime reality. This English-Hungarian collaboration expressed facets of the English character, not seen elsewhere.
3. or so the Carlton docu says. Steve Crook informs me that One of Our Aircraft is Missing was the
first official Archers film.
4. Some corrections and factualizations of Savant's guesses, from Steve Crook:
Hello again Glenn. One of the members of the P&P email group pointed out your
review of the new Criterion Blimp DVD. Very nice, I'll add
a link to it on the web site.
However, Blimp wasn't the first Archers film. The first was
One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). That was also the first
to have the magical title "Written, produced & directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger".
You mention the "Hundreds of German officers are in a POW
camp when there could have been just a few." In fact many
of those "German officers" are really tailors dummies - but
you have to look very closely to spot it :)
Another (slight) correction - Spud (James McKechnie) is meant to
be regular army, not home guard. They are brought in to help the
home guard exercise.
But it's not made at all clear in the film.
We're not sure exactly what Churchill's objections were. It's
not even certain he ever saw it! He was advised that the
film was "detrimental to the Army" so he tried to stop it
being made. P&P were interviewed by someone from the Ministry
of Information (the propaganda office) and they politely
asked P&P to reconsider. They asked if they were being ordered
not to make it. "Of course not" said the man from the ministry.
So they went ahead and made it.
When it came to distribution, Churchill again tried to hinder
that by refusing permission to let it be shown. But he was reminded
that we live in a democracy (even during WWII) and he didn't
have that power. Many cinemas advertised it as "See the film
they tried to ban" :)
He did block the export licences which is why it wasn't seen
in the States until May 1945 (it released here in July 1943).
Then the US distributors didn't like the length so it was only
the heavily cut version that was shown. They also "straightened
out" the plot and started it with Candy just about to go off
If you want to read further I can recommend the book by Powell
& Pressburger, edited by Ian Christie. It includes memos from
Churchill and shows how the script developed by showing the
original & final versions. - All the best, Steve Crook
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson