Saturday, April 25, 2009

Target #269: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

TSPDT placing: #147
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) was produced at the height of World War Two, and that such an illustrious Technicolor production was completed amid both nightly London bombings and the opposition of Prime Minister Winston Churchill is a testament to the consummate professionalism of The Archers, producer/writer/director team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Certainly one of the more magnificent British productions of the 1940s, the film starred Roger Livesey as Clive Wynne-Candy, an illustrious veteran who with the onset of WWII, to his dismay, finds himself ignored by those who should be respecting his military experience rather than dismissing it. Livesey (a replacement for Laurence Olivier) plays Wynne-Candy in three stages of his life, authentically and sympathetically tracing his fluctuating disillusionment with "honourable warfare" through years of hard-earned living. The portrayal sidles a delicate line between geniality and parody, and as a lifetime-spanning dramatic performance, it's easily on par with Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941).

The film's title was borrowed from a comic strip by David Low, in which the titular Colonel Blimp was presented as dim-witted British reactionary, a bloated old man with a walrus moustache who issued absurd political commands from the comfort of a Turkish Bath – "Gad, sir," he once says, "we must have a bigger Army to protect the Navy, and a bigger Navy to protect the Army." As a political candidate, Low's Colonel Blimp proposes "shooting down politicians and establishing a Dictatorship of colonels to safeguard democracy." Contradictory and anachronistic, a symbol of both jingoism and complacency, the character epitomised Low's dissatisfaction with contemporary British politics. Powell and Pressburger's version of Colonel Blimp is substantially more sympathetic, tracing in flashback the leading character's transformation from a young, impetuous Boer War soldier to a pot-bellied veteran with an outmoded belief system. As the times changed, our Colonel Blimp didn't. But a new World War demands a new set of rules, and if Britain is to survive she must embrace the dishonourable tactics of her enemy.

I originally decided to watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a tribute to the recently-deceased cinematographer Jack Cardiff, but I apparently got the film confused with a later Powell and Pressburger production, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Cardiff did, indeed, serve as a camera operator in 'Colonel Blimp,' but the praise for the film's breathtaking Technicolor photography must go to Georges Perinal, who captures and savours every vibrant hue, transforming each frame into a vivid cinematic canvas. If for no other reason, then the decision to shoot in Technicolor was worthwhile for capturing the stunning green eyes and red hair of Deborah Kerr in her first major role. As Clive Candy's "romantic ideal," to which all other women in his life must aspire, Kerr demonstrates such beauty, elegance and independence that you just about want to marry her – not once, but three times. Antony Walbrook also does an excellent job as the impressively-named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, Candy's German duelling opponent and later best friend.

Powell and Pressburger, to their credit, didn't deal in stereotypes. Even in propaganda pieces like 49th Parallel (1941), the enemy Germans were portrayed as ordinary humans, with their own hopes and ambitions. Likewise in 'Colonel Blimp,' the character of Kretschmar-Schuldorff is inherently good, despite his occasional disenchantment towards the "winning" side. Note, for example, how readily Candy and his adversary reconcile their differences in the Berlin nursing-home, not with violence – as was forced upon them by their respective nations – but through mutual understanding; its with some irony that the filmmakers satirise how easily individuals, but not countries, can reach a satisfactory compromise. The manner in which Powell and Pressburger goodnaturedly (and even nostalgically) poke fun at the stuffy ceremonial formality of traditional warfare reminded me of the exploits of fictional French patriot Brigadier Ettiene Gerard. Pressburger must certainly have been aware of the stories, since he worked in a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle {and while we're on the topic, watch out for Arthur Wontner and Ian Fleming, who had previously played Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, respectively}.

Currently my #1 film of 1943:
1) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
2) Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder)
3) Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (Roy William Neill)
5) This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir)
6) Journey into Fear (Norman Foster)
7) The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson)
8) Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (Roy William Neill)
9) Hitler’s Children (Edward Dmytryk, Irving Reis)


Jump_Raven said...

I love this movie Andrew. Who cares that the message is shoved down your throat. It's so well done and you can rarely go wrong with Powell and Pressburger.

aeuzop said...

War starts at midnight!

I'm completely in love with this film.