Blind Spot Series: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Colonel Blimp Title

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.”

Candy

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.

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11 thoughts on “Blind Spot Series: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

  1. Lovely review of a lovely movie! This was my first introduction to Powell and Pressburger and it really blew me away at how beautiful and humane it was. That scene were Walbrook describes why he left Germany and how he lost his wife always gets me – the quiet power of his feeling.

    I’m so glad you liked it – it seems like a really rare event, when a film can live up to one’s high expectations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, that scene with Walbrook is wonderful — all of his scenes are, really, but that one stands out. It is rare that a movie lives up to high expectations. The only thing that might be better is going in with low expectations, or no expectations in particular, and falling in love with a movie, though that’s pretty rare too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ironically, the Boer War is also an example of the British resorting to unsportsmanlike behavior when confronted by an enemy that didn’t play by the rules. The Boers were a modern guerilla force that used long-range snipers to pick off British officers at a distance, and the British ultimately invented the “Concentration Camp” as a means of fighting them. By 1943, many in Powell’s audience had conveniently forgotten this, but I wonder if he wasn’t deliberately nudging them with the brash Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I knew a bit about that going into the movie, and it adds another interesting layer. As I recall, Candy dismisses the talk of concentration camps as anti-British propaganda, perhaps because he didn’t witness them himself and can’t believe the British would do such a thing; I’d have to go back and check, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome review! This is probably one of favourite films so I love seeing this film get recognized. I wrote about it on my blog a little while back if you want to check out my thoughts! I love how we go through a journey with Candy for several decades, seeing how he has changed and stayed the same. Forrest Gump is my fave movie, and there are definitely a lot of similarities between the two 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree re: Livesey’s portrayal of Colonel Blimp. When the film started, I thought, “Who is this pompous nut?” But I grew to love the character and, by the end of the film, I felt bad that I had judged him so harshly in the beginning.

    I also agree with what Christina Wehner said, above, re: Anton Walbrook’s speech about leaving Germany. It is one of my favourite scenes in any film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly how I felt, on both points. I love the fact that the film loops back around to the opening sequence so that you get to reevaluate Candy in light of everything you’ve just seen.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Blindsided by CARLITO’S WAY | The Matinee | Cinematic Passion & Perspective

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