Weekend Film Recommendation: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

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Have you ever seen a movie that stuck in your head for reasons you couldn’t fully explain? A film that you eventually realized had a much bigger impact on you than it seemed to when you were sitting in the theater? That was my experience with this week’s film recommendation: 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Made during the war by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka “The Archers”), the film tells the eventful life story of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) over a more than 4-decade span. The borderline-bizarre opening sequence, which might just as easily have presaged a big-budget MGM musical, introduces us to Candy in the winter of his life, where he has taken on the unappealing characteristics of the self-satisfied, out of touch cartoon character known as Colonel Blimp. But with a nice bit of camera trickery, Candy recalls the memory of his salad days, and is transformed into the markedly different young man that he was: Handsome, kind, brave and in some ways boyishly innocent. The film then portrays his adventures through heroic moments, comic situations, romance and friendship, with two other other figures serving as foils. One is a noble German officer whom he meets in World War I (Anton Walbrook) and the other is the eternal feminine: Three different characters all played by Deborah Kerr who stay the same age as Candy ages through life.

There is much to love about this long, multi-layered and richly rewarding film. The craft and humanity of the producer-director-screenwriting team is on full display, making it surprising that this movie is not remembered as often as their other triumphs such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger’s characters are unusually well rounded and evolve over time, which was rare for movies of this period. Indeed, Winston Churchill allegedly opposed the release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because it portrayed a German soldier so movingly that the British public might sympathize with their current enemy (once you have seen the movie, you will realize how ludicrous this fear was).

The thematic latticework of the film is truly compelling. On the surface, the movie can be enjoyed as an exciting life story full of moments of humor and action. But at a deeper level, the film explores how old-fashioned values were unable to meet the demands of the mid 20th-century, how the young can grow up to be very different older people than ever they planned, how loving one’s country has rewards and limits, how men may think they are smarter than women but are almost always wrong, and how we don’t always understand what we long for until it is gone. Wonderfully, the film never preaches a particular simple message about any of these themes. Rather, it gives each character and viewpoint its due, sympathetically and sometimes sadly, without ever taking sides.

Visually, this is Technicolor at its best, with Georges PĂ©rinal painting the screen with one stunning shot after the other. The anchoring performances by Livesey, Walbrook and Kerr are also magnificent, not just individually but in the way they play off each other. Indeed, the performances (and the well-scripted characters) make the film even better than a similar epic movie made in the same era: Cavalcade. That fine movie at times kept the viewer at some emotional distance because its toffy characters were a bit inaccessible; here one can’t help but be drawn into the emotional lives of the people on screen.

There could be no better closing to this review that Martin Scorsese’s description of how this landmark movie was restored to its original, glorious form. Scorsese is not just a brilliant filmmaker in his own right; he is also a lifelong student of cinema and a champion of preserving its past. He first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a child. Even though it was a mutilated version with over 40 minutes cut out and the rest of the scenes re-arranged, and even though he watched it on a small black and white television, he could still perceive Powell and Pressburger’s genius. Scorsese’s 5-minute featurette is an inspiring example of what film restoration can do and also includes intriguing information for film buffs on how Technicolor movies were made.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”

  1. Yes, a great film – Blimp must represent Britain itself, and it is surely no accident he physically resembles Churchill, perhaps the reason the elderly Prime Minister did not want it shown. The Colonel is the stereotype for the men who expect to fight the previous war, or the war before that, and must be thrust aside for younger and harder souls to take over. He was originally a cartoon figure of fun, and much criticised during the war by such as George Orwell.

    Yet he is presented in the film gently and sympathetically, a reminder of what a war for civilization meant, as also was having as a key figure a German acquaintance of the the Colonel, a firm friend who decides he cannot live under Hitler.

  2. Part of what I love about this film is that one can support many competing interpretations, and that is one. I see your points, but one could also argue that the Archers were unlikely to have been implying that Britain was past it during the height of World War II, perhaps more saying a certain aristocratic understanding of war was passing (see also Grand Illusion).

    As for whether the creator of Blimp intended a Churchill parody…seems very possible. I don't know anything about David Low's politics.

  3. Low was a genius too. His metaphor of British trades unions as a kindly, somewhat dim but ultimately strong and reliable ploughhorse is unforgettable. Here is his most famous cartoon, on the dismemberment of Poland after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939.

    Low_Hitler-Stalin-500

    Perhaps Churchill's opposition wasn't so much the physical resemblance as the psychological parallel to Blimp. By the time of the war Churchill was an old man, a Victorian in a world much of which had passed him by. His high imperialism (he opposed Indian independence, which the bulk of the British élite had accepted by the 1930s) and reactionary economics – he was a truly terrible Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s – had gradually eased him into the dinosaur corner. But in 1940 he was the only possible war leader, and had been right along about Hitler. The British were always much more aware of his faults and limitations that Americans, who in the main only saw the indomitable leader.

    1. Low's cartoon still resonate:
      https://www.flickr.com/photos/mattjerrams/1139335
      http://www.theguardian.com/pictures/image/0,8543,…

      I tend to agree with you about Churchill. He started his career in the Victorian British Army, serving in India and Sudan. His views of India and the Empire were very much shaped by those years. Colonel Blimp have have brought about some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. To give him his due, despite being a thorn in their side, he generally followed the advice of his generals, the subalterns who had survived the trenches. In some ways, in regard to a Second Front and "the soft underbellies of the Mediterranean", he may have listened too well to them, as well as his own fears.

    2. I won't disagree with the statement that Churchill was the only possible choice in 1940 and did a good enough job then to eclipse the unending cascade of failures that was the rest of his political career, I'm less impressed than most with his prescience in the 1930s. Appeasement didn't start with the Sudetenland in 1938; it started with the collective indifference on the part of France and Britain to the overthrow of the legitimate government of Spain and the involvement of Germany and Italy in said overthrow. Churchill was quite enthusiastic in doing nothing to preserve democracy.

      1. Britain would not have survived without the incredible Churchill during the early years of WWII, but it was incredible that Britain survived Churchill in the later years of war. Still, he has my vote for most remarkable Englishman of the 20th century,

        1. Alan Brooke deserves a lot of credit for diverting Churchill from some of his more destructive ideas as the war progressed.

          In Brooke, Marshall, and Vasilevsky the Allies had armed forces chiefs of staff vastly more competent than anything the Axis could muster, partly because of the quality of the individuals and partly because of the institutional structure of the various counteris' armed forces. Vasilevsky's role as Chief of Staff of the Red Army was somewhat different than Brooke and Marshall, being more directly involved in operational planning but he also did a lot of the same things. When people talk about how great the German General Staff was, they're thinking strictly in terms of operational planning. When it comes to the less sexy things like logistics and strategic vision, their opponents kicked their ass.

      2. Churchill was agitating for rearmament from 1934. Unlike you, I don't see the Spanish Civil War as an open-and-shut case. Britain and France probably should have stood by the Republic in 1936, but it gradually fell under Soviet control, down to the war-within-a-war against the Trotskyists and Anarchists.

        1. Agreed. The descent of the Republican cause into totalitarian hairsplitting was the result of the Soviets being the only ones who stepped up to help them. It's much the same as the independence movements in postwar Africa becoming violently and destructively communist inspired. When you demand that the only way they'll achieve independence is to accept the aid of the bad guys and destroy as much as possible, you shouldn't be surprised when that's the sort of movement they become.

          So I agree with your assessment but I don't see how that lets Churchill off the hook at all. And advocating for rearmament in 1934 doesn't put Churchill nearly as far into the political wilderness as people like to remember.

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