During a training exercise for the Home Guard in World War II England, a group of young soldiers decides to “attack” the opposing side before the mock-war is officially set to begin. Among the men they “capture” at a Turkish bath is Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey). He’s furious that they would disobey the rules, but Spud Wilson (James McKechnie) argues that their sneak attack is more in keeping with the real conditions of warfare, where rules mean nothing to the enemy and victory must be won by any means necessary. Wilson has little respect for the bald, paunchy old major-general, who tells him that he’ll be an old gentleman too in forty years’ time. “In 1983, at least I shall be able to say that forty years ago I was a fellow of enterprise,” the younger man replies — which promptly gets him knocked into a pool.
The film then jumps back four decades to 1902, when the major-general was Lieutenant Clive Candy, just returned to England from the Second Boer War. From there, it follows him forward to the 1940s, charting his evolution from an energetic, jovial young soldier into the stuffy, irate old man seen at the beginning. Along the way, he befriends a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook); their first meeting is an inauspicious one, as they have to fight a duel after Candy insults the entire German army, but their friendship proves enduring and rewarding. He also falls in love, first with a forward-thinking governess, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), and subsequently with her doppelganger, Red Cross nurse Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr, again), while a third lookalike, Angela “Johnny” Cannon (yes, Deborah Kerr) becomes his driver during World War II. Through everything, he clings to his cherished, deeply ingrained ideas about honor and fairness and good sportsmanship — ideas that seem increasingly outmoded as war becomes a state where, as Wilson puts it, “anything goes.”
The title of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp refers to a cartoon character created by David Low in 1934, a “pompous, irascible, jingoistic, and stereotypically British” old military man who made “confused and childlike pronouncements on current events” from a Turkish bath. While Candy initially appears to be a caricature in this vein, the rest of the movie fleshes him out, humanizes him. He may be naive and out of touch with the harsh realities of modern warfare and politics, but his underlying principles are quite admirable; the problem is that they simply don’t work against a foe like Hitler’s Germany. If he had his way, his belief that defeat is better than fighting dishonorably could prove fatal to humanity at large. (Throughout Colonel Blimp, I was reminded of Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day. A classic English gentleman, he shares Candy’s ideals — honor, fair play, and so on — and wants to do right by Germany after World War I, only to become a pawn in the Nazis’ game as a result.)
Candy is the product of a different world, a world where two men are still expected to duel — albeit in some secrecy — when one insults the other’s army, and that duel is fought with sabres and governed by a rule book. Even as early as World War I, he’s starting to become a bit of an anachronism. When he declares that the inefficiency he’s witnessed wouldn’t have been tolerated in the Boer War or Somaliland, an American soldier has no idea what he’s talking about. “Those weren’t wars. Those were just summer maneuvers,” another American says. As the years continue to pass, the world around Candy changes rapidly while he stays the same, except that he grow stodgier and more set in his ways, unwilling or unable to recognize that things are no longer as they once were. Something noble and important has been lost, probably irrevocably, which makes this often amusing film profoundly sad as well.
Like many stories that span several decades, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is both a personal tale and one that looks at a larger historical picture, and it finds just the right balance between the two. It also benefits from excellent performances, especially that of Roger Livesey, who was only in his thirties at the time but is completely credible at every stage of Candy’s life. Anton Walbrook, too, does a fine job as his character ages and develops, while Deborah Kerr manages to make her three parts distinct from one another. (It’s interesting to see the way women’s roles evolve over the years, as illustrated by Kerr’s characters: Edith laments the lack of opportunities for women, Barbara takes part in World War I as a nurse and Johnny contributes to World War II by serving as Candy’s driver.) I had high expectations for this one, because I love Powell and Pressburger and I’d heard nothing but good things about Colonel Blimp, and it certainly lived up to them.
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.