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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Criterion 173
1943 / Color / 1:37 /163, 140, 120, 93 min. / Street Date October 22, 2002 / $39.95
Starring Anton Walbrook, Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, James McKechnie
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Production Designer Alfred Junge
Edited by John Seabourne
Makeup George Blackler, Dorrie Hamilton
Original Music Allan Gray
Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Steve Crook offers some corrections in a letter , below.

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 Pressburger's '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 actually covers 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 of a 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 to Berlin.

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

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