If you’ve not yet seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, currently on nationwide re-release, then you really should treat yourself. It might be the best part of three hours long, but the time really does fly by. Starring the phenomenal Roger Livesey, it’s a moving yet warmly humorous portrait of Clive Candy, a British career soldier, starting from his youth in the Boer Wars, through his active service during the First World War, and ending with his forced retirement in the Second. During this time he falls in love with two different women and takes a shining to a third – all played by Deborah Kerr. He also duels and later befriends a German military officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), with whom he shares much in common.
It’s difficult to say quite how brilliant the film is without simply gushing forth hyperbolic praise. The performances are fantastic: Livesey is simply superb, portraying a fully rounded character (in every sense) as he ages down the years from youth through middle age to over-the-hill has-been. It’s also a beautifully crafted film, as all Archers productions are, despite wartime shortages hampering the production.
Basing its central character on a well-known cartoon figure of the day that famously lampooned the British Army, it is said that Winston Churchill wanted the film banned for fear of it demoralising audiences and spreading dissent. The first few scenes suggest he was right to worry. Candy is very much Blimp personified – old, overweight, full of bluster and pomp, and completely out of touch with the modern world. Furthermore, the sympathetic portrayal of Candy’s German friend in the middle of World War Two was a remarkably brave decision, earning the film the disapproval of the British government.
But that’s exactly where the brilliance of Colonel Blimp lies.
Despite the romantic interludes with Kerr’s characters, the key to the film is really Clive and Theo, both soldiers from another age when soldiering was an honourable career and war was governed by a gentleman’s code of conduct. The portrayal of a friendship between two men united in a shared belief of common decency and honour despite being on opposing sides – a belief that transcends borders, politics and language – speaks very much to traditional British values of fairness. By the film’s beautifully bittersweet ending the two are also united in their obsolescence, and Candy finally comes to realise and accept this.
But Powell and Pressburger have built up such strong sympathy for Candy, I think it’s clear they are not out to criticise the British Army or the men who led it at the time. It may well have been a warning, but it was an absolutely respectful one. Instead I think they tried to show that the values that Candy cherished were still worth cherishing, even if they were no longer applicable on the battlefields of Europe. The fighting may have got dirtier than the campaigns of old, but that simply made it even more important for the British to hold on to their humanity and stay true to their beliefs. Contrary to the concerns of Whitehall officials, is that not in fact a fiercely patriotic message?
Blimp reminds us that behind every man and woman there is a personal history, a story that shaped their lives and beliefs, and we ignore that story at our peril. In an age where our sense of community is at risk of crumbling away, I wonder if Blimp is actually more relevant today that it ever has been.