Movie Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943)

“Colonel Blimp” was a comic character created by David Low in 1934 as a satirical depiction of the Old Fogey who, while sitting in his chair drinking brandy and puffing on a cigar, expounded on all the News of the Day, giving his considered opinion that he knew how to solve everything. Generally simplistic and often self-contradictory, his comments earned derision and the contemporary equivalent of a snarky “OK, Boomer” response. The great moviemaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took the idea of the character, and turned it into the “Most British” of films, and, by humanizing him, one of the greatest character studies of all time.

We open with Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), an officer in the Home Guard (England’s “last ditch” defense force of retirees and the like), relaxing at a Turkish bath the evening before a set of war games / training exercise with another unit comprised of actual military troops representing the Germans. His bath is interrupted when the “German” forces “attack”. Complaining that the games aren’t supposed to start until midnight, Candy is told by the “German” officer that the real German forces don’t follow rules, so they need to be prepared at all times. After an angry exchange, Candy loudly gripes that they make fun of his appearance, but know nothing of how he got that way. He throws a punch at the officer, and they both fall into a pool. The camera slowly pans to the far end, as Candy’s voice slowly repeats the phrase “Forty years ago….” At the far end, the magic of film has brought us to 1902, and a younger Lieut. Candy emerges from the pool.

On leave at the end of the Boer War, Lt. Candy hears of a letter from a young woman, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) saying that the German press has been publishing articles insulting the British Army. Filled with all the brashness and impudence of youth, he heads off to Berlin to track down the source of these articles. He meets up with Edith, and manages to cause an international incident by insulting the honor of the German Army. Naturally, this cannot stand, and a duel is arranged. His opponent, chosen by lot, is Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). It’s not a duel to the death; the insult isn’t that grave. But both are wounded in the fencing match, and go to the same hospital to recuperate. There, the pair become friends despite the language barrier. Edith visits them often. She and Candy fall in “like”, but Candy misses his chance, and she winds up marrying Theo instead.

The second act takes place at the end of the Great War. Brigadier General Candy maintains that the reason the British won is that they played fair and honorably, as opposed to the devious and unfair Germans. He meets, falls in love with, and marries nurse Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr again), and then runs into Theo at a POW camp. He tries to rekindle their friendship; Theo initially rebuffs him but eventually comes around – and comes over to Candy’s home for dinner. Theo is skeptical that his Germany will be treated fairly in the post-war reckoning, but Candy assures him that the Brits always play honorably, and will treat Germany with fairness despite their actions during the war.

The final act brings us forward to 1939. Theo is applying for immigration to England, and mentions Candy as a character reference. Candy is summoned and is delighted to see his old friend again. Candy’s status as an officer still on active duty qualifies him for a personal driver – Angela “Johnny” Cannon (Deborah Kerr, yet again). He’s given the chance to give a morale-boosting speech on the BBC after Dunkirk, but the content – that it would be better to lose the war than to stoop to the tactics used by the Germans – is naturally met with strong disapproval, and Candy is “sent out to pasture”. Depressed, Theo and Angela convince him to devote himself to the Home Guard. Later, as the trio stand outside the spot where Candy’s London home stood before being destroyed by bombing and turned into an emergency cistern for firefighting, Candy muses on how he hasn’t changed while the world moved on without him. A unit of troops marches by on their way to action, and Candy salutes them, passing the torch.

I wouldn’t normally give this detailed a synopsis, but I think it’s warranted in this case. The movie is taking the unusual step of providing a biography of a fictional character unknown to most people (even though they may know his type). It’s also kind of necessary to note the triple role of Deborah Kerr; and one should point out the wonderful makeup work (and acting!) that allows Livesey and Walbrook to appear believable at three different ages.

Also worthy of note is this speech from Theo as he is applying for immigration. It’s one of the most underrated movie speeches of all time:

 

One usually thinks of Great Speeches as being full of bombast as they attempt to inspire. Here, there’s none of that. Just one single take, with a slow zoom in and then out. A calm, measured voice, and no music to accentuate the speech. Even the background sounds keep mum until he’s done.

It’s almost easy to see how Candy acquired his attitude towards the world. He’s part of the school / club / “Old Boy” network of Britain’s upper class, where gentlemen treat other gentlemen in a gentlemanly manner, and are quite insulated from much of what really happens in the world. Witness the detail given to the arrangements for the duel he has to fight. Gentlemen follow rules…. He’s a firm believer in “Right Makes Might”, and that Britain’s fair play is what made them great. Nevermind that the Boer War in which he served with distinction is where his own side invented concentration camps….

The transition scenes between the “acts” reinforce this. He travels the world on hunting expeditions, never seeming to stay in one place for long – unless it’s his country estate, where again he is insulated from the world at large.

The movie is one great meditation on Growing Old, and trying to be relevant and remain useful as the decades pass. While Theo does change over the years (given what he’s experienced, he could hardly not), Candy doesn’t – through no real fault of his own. We shouldn’t dismiss him because of that. Because like every old person, he was young once. And every young person making a snide “OK, Boomer” comment will find themselves being Old and on the receiving end of such dismissals themselves…..

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