It’s not often that being hated by Winston Churchill was a good thing, but it probably was for 1943’s The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. The wartime leader refused to allow Laurence Olivier out of service to star in the film and along with the War Office was adamantly against the film, which they apparently worried would undermine the war effort. However it probably helped publicise the movie and went some way to making writer/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s names.
Colonel Blimp was originally a 1930s comic strip that parodied the kind of jingoistic, pompous, old-school, army gent (which was one of the reasons Churchill and others were wary of the movie), although the film itself is a totally original tale not based directly on the comic. It follows Clive Candy, who we first meet as a stodgy old man in a Turkish bath, who’s horrified when uniformed men storm in to capture him, even though he’s adamant that “War begins at midnight!”
The movie then flashes back and takes us through Candy’s life up to that moment, from the end of the Boer War up to World War II. During that time he meets three women, all played by Deborah Kerr. The first is Edith, who Candy falls for but doesn’t realise it until she’s become engaged to his German friend, Theo, a man he first meets when they are scheduled to fight a duel over a diplomatic incident. Then there’s nurse Barbara, who he ends up marrying, and finally there’s his WWII driver Angela, who unsurprisingly reminds him of his former loves.
Mixed in with this is Candy’s friendship with Theo, which is tested by both the First World War and the upcoming Second, as well as the fact the career army man seems increasingly out of touch with the modern army. It was a brave move to make a film in 1943 that takes in a lasting, moving friendship between a Brit and a German, but particularly at the time it was a powerful reminder that Germans were people too, and not all of them wanted anything to do with Nazism.
Candy truly believes in a very old-fashioned idea of gentlemanly war, where everyone follows the rules and it’s better to lose than to win outside the laws of proper British conduct. As the British face up to the reality of Nazi Total War, Candy finds himself increasingly sidelined as an out of touch old duffer, but while his friends rally round, he may have to accept his idea of being British is dead, and may never have really existed.
Churchill needn’t have worried, as the movie is definitely pro-war, ultimately suggesting that no matter how honourable and quintessentially British someone like Candy seems, his day has past when it comes to fighting somebody like Hitler, who had few qualms about targeting the innocent or conducting things in an honourable fashion. The movie is smart and subtle, often suggesting that Candy’s ideas about the ridiculously noble, stiff upper lipped British Army never really existed except as an ideal, and it’s essentially been an illusion he’s been labouring under – an admittedly honourable one, but a delusion nonetheless.
It’s a really good film, which may be an imposing 163-minutes long but never drags thanks to its ever-evolving script, wonderful characters, clever thoughtfulness and great cast. It’s difficult not to feel for Candy, especially as his encroaching age and old-fashioned attitudes begin to ensure he’s pushed to the side. It’s a complex melancholy where you know his type of noble old duffer has to go, but you’re well aware how terrible it is for him to be told everything he’s always believed is no longer relevant or wanted.
The HD release looks great, thanks to a great transfer and a complete restoration that took place last year. Colonel Blimp has always been renowned for its Technicolor cinematography, showcasing Powell & Pressburger arresting visual sense, which gives everything an almost hyper-real feel. However while Technicolor has always looked great and produces an astonishingly vibrant image (particularly for pure reds, greens and blues), it does degrade and proper restoration is one hell of a job, but thankfully with plenty of cash and expertise they’ve done an excellent job on Colonel Blimp.
The difficulties largely stems from the fact Technicolor worked by running three strips of film through the camera, each recording a different colour, before mixing them together to get the final print. Proper restoration isn’t just a case of removing pops, cracks, nicks and mildew, but doing that for three separate strips of film and then ensuring those three strips sync up perfectly, even though they’ve all aged and shrunk at different rates. It’s a massive job, but thanks to computer technology it can be done so that things line up flawlessly (in fact better than when it was done manually in 1943).
There’s a featurette on the disc looking at exactly what they did, and it really is impressive how they’ve brought the picture back to how it originally looked, without adding in the sort of over-processed sheen that happens with some cheaper and less professional restorations. It’s well worth watching the featurette, which is hosted by Powell & Pressburger obsessive Martin Scorsese, to see exactly what they did.
The disc also includes the 25 minute documentary ‘A Profile of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, which includes interviews with the late cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Powell and Pressburger biographer Ian Christie and fan of the film Stephen Fry, and looks back at this very influential film.
It’s a good release for a great film. Along with The Red Shoes, A Matter Of Life & Death and Black Narcissus, it sits at the pinnacle of Powell & Pressburger’s amazing achievements in film. There really has never quite been anyone like them, either for such unusual, intriguing scripts or such a wonderful way with imagery. It doesn’t hurt either they really knew how to pull amazing performances out of actors. The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp certainly isn’t your usual war movie, but it’s a smart, moving film, with a far subtler look at British conflict than you’d expect for a film made in the middle of the greatest war there’s ever been.
Overall Verdict: A beautiful restoration for one of the greats of British cinema. Colonel Blimp is at once melancholy and optimistic, an elegy for a Britain that even the film knows never really was. It’s a moving cry for people to face reality, all told with romance, drama and humour.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac