Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

(Image courtesy of the Criterion Collection via http://members.quicknet.nl/ahum/M20%20in%20the%20movie1.htm)

After seeing the later Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (a.k.a. The Archer's) classic, The Red Shoes, and reading up a little on Scorsese's high opinion of Powell's work, I purchased The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on a whim. Why this film hasn't enjoyed a reputation equal to Renoir's Grand Illusion as one of the greatest cinematic critiques of war, I really can't say. As I said with The Fallen Idol, British cinema gets overlooked too often in America.

Taken from the popular, farcical British cartoon character, Colonel Blimp, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is the ostensibly unchanging face of the British military. From his younger days in the Boer War, Candy matures in a series of conflicts which shapes his expectations for how a war is to be properly conducted. It is a gentleman's game with carefully observed rules. When one party deviates from the script and does something unsportsmanlike, as the Germans do in WWI, it is only fitting that the behaved party emerges victorious.

As Candy's German friend and foil, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) represents a much more flexible view of war. He too is brought up on the idyll of a gentleman's war -- it is this principle that first brings him into contact with Candy, dueling against his personal belief to defend the honor of the German Army, who Candy offends while visiting Berlin at the turn-of-the-century. It is there that both men meet Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), the woman Theo marries and Candy longs for throughout his life.

Given that the film was released in 1943 -- in the throws of the second World War -- Powell and Pressburger (credited as screenwriters on the picture as well) tackle the evolution of war with an inredibly prophetic scope. Even a fair and balanced criticism of the British Army in a film that is neither blindly patriotic nor scathingly treacherous could not be accepted at the time. Winston Churchill despised the film and wanted to see it banned. But that sort of knee-jerk reaction completely ignores the valuable criticism of war and British culture Powell and Pressburger offer.

Nazism, aside from being the ultimate evil, represents a complete end to the gentleman's game. Candy remains confident through the end of WWI that the Germans lost because they refused to play by the rules. His view of war running like clockwork already seems antiquated then, but when taken in with the full, horrific implications of the Nazi regime, Candy's idylls are entirely invalid. His friend Theo notes that the British are no longer fighting to win -- they are fighting for their entire "existence." And should they lose, there will be no other values but Nazi values for a very long time.

Beneath the political skepticism (Kerr delivers one of the film's best lines: "Good manners cost us . . . 6,000 men killed and 20,000 men wounded—and two years of war. When with a little common sense and bad manners there would have been no war at all.") and razor sharp dialogue, Powell and Pressburger also deliver one of Technicolor's early masterpieces. While their color cinematography is not quite as inspired as in The Red Shoes, their work alongside DP George PĂ©rinal (who worked on The Fallen Idol) is no less assured, from the opening shot of the M20 motorcycle (which seems to have informed David Lean in the opening of Lawerence of Arabia) which pulls out to reveal the British Home Guard in all its pomp and splendor.

What makes it all work is The Archer's decision to transform Blimp from a contemptible joke -- a chararicature -- into Candy, a full-blooded tragic figure. He's still bound, like Blimp, to the old guard's failing ways, but there's a profound sadness to the demise of how things were. They handle their satire with absolute sincerity, though not without a sense of humor.

The title of the film could be seen as misleading -- we never see Blimp/Candy's onscreen death. In fact, the film ends with him very much alive. But that would be an all too literal reading of "Life" and "Death". At the film's conclusion, Candy finally recognizes just how much the world around him has changed. England is no country for old gentleman soldiers, and while this evolution is inevitable, The Archers seem to mourn this passing, despite the absurd decadence and contradictory idea of so-called civilized war.

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