With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger concoct a war film which features almost no acts of war. There is not a shot fired nor a saber rattled. They pull the camera up and out of the one fight scene in the film in favor of showing a nice, peaceful shot of a model of Berlin in winter, with idyllic snow falling via an overlay that makes everything look like a snow globe. The film cares more about the in between bits than it does the macho adrenaline stuff. It favors a more ideological look at the concept of what war does to a man, or what man does to war.
Made while WWII was still raging on and the Blitz still an open wound to the British soul, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an odd duck and a controversial one. It features as its most intriguing character a “good German” who grows to be friendly with the film’s main character, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). Livesey is fine, great even, at portraying the bluster of his proper English soldier as he climbs the martial ladder from the Boer War through WWI and into WWII. It is in a furlough from that first war that he meets the heart of the film, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). They are the participants in that duel that happens off-screen, and in their recovery process, they become fast friends. Walbrook plays his good German with a reserved dignity that allows him to absorb all the bravado from Livesy and reflect only his good elements. It’s a performance not at all similar to his in The Archers’ later The Red Shoes, but equally great.
I admit to being more than a bit confused in the early goings and I mistakenly believed that to be the fault of the film. In fact, it is actually a highlight. There are three sections to the film and each starts in media res, so it took me up to ten minutes each time to really orient myself in the situation. This feels deliberate, though, as it was almost always at this point that the “war” stuff was over and the character stuff began. I’ve gotten to paragraph three and haven’t even mentioned Deborah Kerr, who plays three roles over the course of the film’s three time periods. The first becomes the model for the following two, as she marries Walbrook and leaves Livesey to realize she’s his perfect woman only after he lets her go. Later, in WWI, he spies a woman who looks and acts just like her in a convent-cum-hospital and later still she plays his army chauffeur. Each role is not quite like the last, but Kerr imbues all of them with a life and verve that befits her 20 years but also a grace that belies them. It’s no wonder that Powell and Pressburger went back to her for Black Narcissus four years later.
The last section, in World War II, syncs up at a certain point with the opening of the film. It is here that all earlier confusion is given context and meaning, and it brings the entire film into clarity. This is not just the story of a man, it’s the story of the British Military. From “right is might” proving that following the rules will undoubtedly lead to winning the war in WWI to the bombed out shell of Livesey’s decadence filled with water while he languishes in the Home Guard and is made to look like a fool by his younger, brasher comrades. Clive Candy is a man who doesn’t change, and his way of life has been made obsolete by forces beyond his control. Whether this film is a lamentation or a celebration of that fact is probably left up to the viewer, but there is no doubt about its powerful effect, its effortless charm, its love of Britain, and its compassion for people of all backgrounds.