Sunday 8 April 2007

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

The first time we meet Colonel Blimp, he's Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy and he's being held as a prisoner of war in some army wargames that the opposition has impudently started six hours early because they've been told to make it the real thing, and by that they've assumed that they can cheat. He's rotund, has a wild moustache and he cuts the young officer in charge a new one. We get to see in a long flashback what made him into the man he is, starting forty years earlier when he was merely Lt Clive Candy.

Lt Candy, played by the delightful Roger Livesey, gets himself into all sorts of well meaning trouble, starting with a trip to Berlin to help assuage combat German propaganda about British activity during the Boer War. He's asked to back off by the British embassy because the Prince of Wales is about to arrive on a goodwill trip, but he manages to get himself caught up in a fight that ends with him being challenged by 82 members of the German army.

He ends up duelling Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, played by the equally delightful Anton Walbrook, who doesn't believe in duels but is a man of honour, apparently over the lady who invited him to Germany in the first place, governess Edith Hunter. The outcome is that Kretschmar and Candy are birds of a feather and become lifetime friends, which caused a little trouble itself given that the notion of a decent German officer in 1943 was not deemed appropriate. Churchill apparently asked for the film to be banned on that front.

This may be entirely some sort of bizarre association on my part, but there's something about Powell and Pressburger movies that always suggests stuffy old boring English film. I keep putting off watching them but when I do watch them I tend to fall in love with them. They're not stuffy and they're not boring in the slightest, whether they're about ballet dancers or nuns in a convent in the Himalayas. They may be old but they seem to transcend time also and be both new and old at the same time.

In this instance, I found Colonel Blimp to be a complete joy. The period of Englishness that he exudes is long gone but much of it is so relevant to my personal way of thinking that I found an empathy that I haven't found in a long while to a film character. Notions like growing a moustache just to outdo a German rival are completely me as is the bizarre mix of adherence to tradition while not giving a hang about what anyone else thinks.

There's depth here: not just as far as depicting history, but in extrapolating how it affects the future. In particular there's a major lesson for Candy about how war changes and the methods to fight it have to change too. There's plenty of insight into Candy, not least through the use of Deborah Kerr playing not just Edith Hunter but also the other two women who make an impact on his life. He changes physically while she never does. All the Powell/Pressburger films I've seen have been superb, but this may well be the best. However I have a feeling I'll feel the same way about the others when I see them next time too. Wonderful!

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