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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook
Directors:  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  163 Minutes
Release Date:  October 29, 2002

“Strange, isn’t it?  Arranging a duel for two men who have never met each other?”

“It happens sometimes.  Marriages, too.”

Film ****

Colonel Blimp is not a man, but a comic image, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is not about the image, but the man who conjures it up.  David Low’s popular cartoon character was known and beloved by Britons during the war years, yet Powell and Pressburuger’s character of Major General Clive Wynne-Candy has become a beloved character even by those around the world who had no familiarity with Blimp.

When we first meet Candy (the terrific Livesey), he seems the epitome of aging British pomposity; a warrior who has outlived his ability to wage war.  It is 1942, and England has been under siege by the Nazis.  The twice-retired general commands the home defense, and is prepared to begin a military training exercise with the regular army starting at midnight. 

The regular army jumps the gun, however, and storms the Turkish baths where Candy and his fellow aged soldiers are relaxing.  Enraged, the general protests that the war wasn’t supposed to start until midnight.  His young challenger argues that the Nazis are more interested in winning the war than abiding by any such nonsense as a gentleman’s agreement.  He belittles Candy for his age, his rotund stomach and his walrus-styled mustache.  The two struggle in one end of the pool as Candy asserts, “Forty years from now, you’ll be an old gentleman, too!”  Then, in an ingenious flashback, the camera tracks to the other end of the pool, where a young Clive Candy emerges in the year 1902!

This movie is both a delightful comedy of manners and a thoughtful exploration of the differences between the young and the old.  At the beginning, we are invited, possibly even encouraged to chuckle at General Wynne-Candy as an old buffoon.  By the time we see him like this again at the end of the picture, our perceptions have changed.  We have walked the proverbial mile in his shoes.

More than a mile, though…almost an entire lifetime is explored in Blimp’s 163 minutes.  From his reckless misadventures in Germany, where he makes a lifelong friend of a dueling partner in Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Walbrook), and falls in love with an English teacher Edith Hunter (Kerr, in the first of three roles for the 20 year old newcomer), only to lose the former to the latter, to his escapades nearly 2 years later in the first World War where he meets Theo again, but this time, his friend is a conquered enemy, to the finale of his career in World War II where he has to come to terms that his values no longer apply in a world where Nazis exist, Powell and Pressburger leave nothing unturned in their examination of this man’s journey from youth to old age.

Much like Grand Illusion, Blimp recognizes the passing of an era where wars were fought by gentlemen who recognized rules, order and discipline as tools for victory.  Grand Illusion learned that lesson in the first World War, but Candy does not.  He relishes the fact that despite the German’s use of poison gas and other unsavory techniques, the British still won.  As Theo would later point out to him, Candy paid a price for not learning the moral of the first war in time for the second.

There is hurt in the aged Candy’s eyes when the young soldier mercilessly blasts his ideals and values, but he DOES have a point.  The Nazis broke every promise, abandoned every treatise, and generally used England’s old fashioned devotion to honor as a weapon in their favor.  The new war may have required less of men like Candy’s experience and more of the young officer’s impudence and willingness to change in order to win.

But the film is a well-rounded portrait of the man…it focuses on him not only as a soldier, but as a romantic as well.  He cheerfully gives up Miss Hunter to his friend Theo in his youth, only to return to England realizing far too late that he loved her, too.  The rest of his personal life is a quest to find Edith again, which culminates in his meeting of Barbara Wynne (Kerr again), a nurse serving in the first World War.  He marries her and adds her name to his.  By the time he and Theo meet for the third time, both women are deceased, and Theo is amused that Candy’s driver Angela (Kerr a third time) bears such a resemblance to the other women.

The impudence of youth invariably gives way to the experience of old age, but inside every old man is a young one, still filled with fire and passion unhampered by the years.  The face of age may mask that fact sometimes, but this terrific movie dares to look beyond the lines and into the mind and heart of a man and finds character, not caricature.

NOTE:  This film has often been truncated over the years for television release and even shown in black and white.  Criterion’s DVD restores it to Technicolor glory and it’s full, proper running time.

Video ***

Criterion did a remarkable job with a transfer of a 60 year old film.  This marked the first color production for Powell and Pressburger, and it’s a lovely looking movie, though not quite as distinctive as their later efforts with Jack Cardiff as cinematographer (he DID serve as a second unit cameraman on this picture).  The print is free of debris and dirt, and colors look extraordinarily lively and rich (particularly Ms. Kerr’s radiant eyes and hair color).  A tiny bit of flicker is noticeable from time to time, showing a bit of aging and inconsistency from the negative, but it seems to have been cleaned up as much as possible, and the overall presentation is still pleasing.  A solid effort.

Audio **

Like most mono soundtracks, this disc offers one that is perfectly suitable if unremarkable.  Dialogue is clean and clear, noise is minimal to none, and dynamic range is fair.  No complaints…it’s a completely serviceable offering.

Features ****

With Criterion features, it’s as much about quality as quantity, and this disc boasts exactly what you would want for this movie.  It starts with another terrific and in-depth commentary track by Martin Scorsese with the late great Michael Powell (as recorded originally for the laser disc), which is as solid and informative as you would hope for (Scorsese, in addition to being a great filmmaker himself, is also one of our country’s premiere movie buffs!).  There is also a good 24 minute documentary profiling the film, a selection of Sir David Low’s original Colonel Blimp comics, and finally, rare production stills and behind-the-scenes photos from Mr. Powell’s own collection.  For the film student, Criterion once again makes an already good thing even better.

Summary:

Few things inspire as much anticipation in me as a critic as knowing that another Powell and Pressburger classic is coming to DVD from Criterion.  These terrific and important films continue to be well preserved and presented, and given the red carpet treatment they deserve on disc.  No film fan should pass up the opportunity to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or to learn why it’s considered one of the greatest of all British films.