One of the towering achievements of British cinema from one of the medium’s most formidable directing duos.
Dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
1943 | UK | Drama/Comedy/War | 163 mins | 1.37:1 | English, French & German
Not rated – likely to be PG13
Cast: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook
Plot: The passions and pitfalls of a lifetime in the military, from the Boer War through World War II, are shown from the exploits of pristine British soldier Clive Candy as he rises through the ranks in the British military.
Distributor: MGM / ITV
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 2 Nov 2016
What a remarkable picture this is! It deserves all the praise and adulation, and with its restoration kickstarted by The Film Foundation on the insistence of Martin Scorsese, who saw a butchered version as a kid on television, and later in his life, sought to bring back the original cut to life again in its pristine glory.
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the medium’s most formidable directing duos, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is only their second feature together. They would of course go on to make such great movies as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), but Colonel Blimp might just be the crème de la crème of their filmography.
The film starts off in what seems like a military camp, and turns into a chase sequence as several soldiers try to pip a woman bearing critical news to a destination.
An old general comes into the picture, played by Roger Livesey (aged through makeup) … and we are transported back in time, to forty years ago, in one of the most fascinating uses of flashbacks in cinema, where Livesey’s character, Clive Candy, is a young lieutenant in the British army.
Colonel Blimp is an intimate epic that is hard to classify—it is a war movie, a comedy, a character study, a tale of romance, a tale of great friendship, and an elegy of growing old and of the passing of time. It is also an ideological and political film, with Churchill infamously lending no financial or logistical support to its production.
“War starts at midnight!”
Made during WWII, Colonel Blimp is certainly one of the towering achievements of British cinema. And in retrospect, it is a film that speaks to us in very fundamental ways, despite its sheer ‘Britishness’ and Livesey’s bizarre accent.
It’s about living in a world that is continually shaped and defined by ideas, and one’s place in it—do you stand by your values, or do you change?
The film chronicles Candy’s rise in the army, forging his greatest friendship with a German officer, and his relationships with three women (all remarkably played by the then 22-year old Deborah Kerr), representing three different generations as the film charts Candy’s life from the Boer War to WWII.
The performances are splendid, and there are many unforgettable scenes—one of them involves a sword duel with its intricate lead-up inspiring the long take of De Niro’s character warming up and strutting to the boxing ring in Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).
Best of all, Colonel Blimp doesn’t feel dated or overdrawn. Running fifteen minutes shy of three hours, the film is tremendously engaging and despite packing so many things into one picture, it is never complicating. This is earnest filmmaking at its finest, and I can feel the magic of cinema radiating.