Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the story of a man who looks back at his life while dwelling on those he met along the way. The film explores a man’s life through three wars as he fights for honor while finding love and friendship that would shape his outlook on war and service. Starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an extraordinary film from the team of Powell and Pressburger.
It’s the middle of the second World War as a training exercise as a young lieutenant named Spud Wilson (James McKechnie) goes after a female officer to capture aging general named Clive Wynn-Candy (Roger Livesey). During a scuffle, Clive recalls his days as a soldier back in 1902 where he had fought the Boer War. During a leave to Berlin, he meets a woman named Edith (Deborah Kerr) as he takes her to a popular café. At the café, Clive deals with a man named Kaunitz (David Ward) who had been spreading anti-British propaganda leading to a scuffle between the two over Edith. The incident reaches authorities as they decide to settle a matter by having Clive engage into a duel with a German officer named Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook).
While the duel left Clive and Theodor with minor wounds, the two become friends as Theodor falls for Edith. With Clive returning to England, he goes into a hunting expedition before joining first World War where he’s a general leading troops to war. With a corporal named Murdoch (John Laurie) as his assistant, Clive learns that the war is over as he believes that the right team won as they defeated the Germans without using unsportsmanlike methods to fight. During a stop at convent, Clive sees a young woman named Barbara (Deborah Kerr) whom he falls for and later marries. After the war, Clive tries to re-establish contact with Theodor although Theodor snubs him at a POW camp after the Armistice. Theodor accepts Clive’s invitation for dinner in England where Clive and British officers try to make Theodor feel easy about what they will do for Germany.
Years pass where Clive is forced to retire in 1935 while Theodor seeks refuge to England four years later following the start of World War II. Clive helps out Theodor as the two old friends reunite where Clive introduces Theodor to his driver Angela (Deborah Kerr) who bears a resemblance to both Edith and Barbara. While Clive was able to get back to active service, a chance for him to speak about his own methods of war to the BBC was cancelled as he learns that he’s forced to retire again. With the suggestions of Theodor, Murdoch, and Angela, Clive heads the Home Guard department in his hopes to restore honor in the rules of engagement.
The film is a look into a man’s life in service as his ideas about honors of war are tested by three different wars in the span of 40 years. Yet, it’s also a film where the ideas of war change through different times and methods as this one man is being challenged by everything around him. During this long journey, he would meet a German officer whom he would become his friend despite being opposing sides. He would also meet three different women in different times as they each bear similar resemblances to each other. Through these people and wars that he would encounter, he still wants to maintain some honor in the belief that war can be won in gentlemanly ways. Still, he would have to ponder about whether he still matters to the world of military service that he’s been devoted to.
The screenplay by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a wonderful study of character as well as the fallacy of war from the perspective of officers in opposing side. While both Clive and Theodor each have different ideas of war, both would face some form of disillusionment. The latter of which becomes lost following the arrival of Nazism as he seeks to find refuge in one of the most devastating monologues ever given. While the film is mostly dramatic, there is a lot of humor in the dialogue about military service and social things as the screenplay is truly witty with an air of satire and fantastic dialogue.
The direction of Powell and Pressburger is truly mesmerizing in the way they present the film as more than just a man’s journey through 4 decades and three different wars. Featuring montages told through newspaper articles and the game that Clive Wynn-Candy has killed when he’s not in war. The film doesn’t make itself into something that could’ve been far more sprawling despite its 163-minute running time. Instead, Powell and Pressburger chooses a more intimate approach to the story while opening the film right near the end as it focuses on a training exercise to capture an aging Clive.
In one take where the old Clive is battling a young officer in a pool, the camera moves onto that pool where a young Clive steps out. There’s a truly magical element to what Powell and Pressburger did while they create amazing compositions that are truly hypnotic to look at. Notably the scene where Clive and Theodor first meet at a duel where the camera remains still into the preparation and then cuts into a shot from above as the two men square off for a brief moment. The approach to framing and the way they allow the camera move gives the film a very entrancing tone to it while knowing when to use humor in a light-hearted manner as well as the dramatic moments without being over the top. Overall, the duo of Powell and Pressburger create a truly outstanding film about a man’s life of military service.
The cinematography of Georges Perinal is phenomenal for the Technicolor look of the film from the gorgeous yet lush colors of many of the film‘s interiors and exterior settings. Particularly in some dramatic moments where the colors play up to the emotion of the film as it is truly some amazing work in the Technicolor film stock that was used in the 1940s. Editor John Seabourne Sr. does an excellent job with the editing in giving the film a methodical pace to play up with its humor and drama as well as utilizing fade-outs for its transitions and rhythmic cuts for the montages in the film.
Production designer Alfred Junge does an extraordinary job with the set pieces created from the Berlin café to the posh home of Clive that he lives in the later years of his life which exemplify the different periods in the film. Costume designer Joseph Bato does a superb job with the costumes from the frilly dresses wore in the 1900s to the evolution of the British uniforms which adds to the film‘s Technicolor look. The sound work of C.C. Stevens and Desmond Dew is brilliant for the way it captures the intimacy of the duel scene as well as raucous world of the Berlin café. The music score by Allan Gray is a true delight for its sweeping yet upbeat orchestral pieces along with more somber, swelling arrangements that play up to the drama as well as adaptations of the music of the early 1900s and military music pieces.
The film’s ensemble cast is truly terrific as it features appearances from Roland Culver as Clive’s Boer War superior Colonel Betteridge, David Hutcheson as Clive’s friend Hoppy, David Ward as the British-insulting German Kaunitz, Jane McMillican as Nurse Erna, Muriel Aked as Clive’s aunt Margaret, John Laurie as Clive’s very loyal assistant Murdoch, and James McKechnie as the youthful yet energetic lieutenant Spud Wilson who tries to capture the aging Clive for a training exercise.
Deborah Kerr gives a truly spectacular performance in three different roles of women who would shape the life of Clive Wynn-Candy. For the role of Edith, Kerr sports a very stylized yet prim approach to an English teacher that becomes Clive’s companion only to fall for Theodor. In Barbara, there is a more low-key innocence to the role as she becomes a woman who stands by Clive. In the role of Angela aka Johnny, Kerr brings an enthusiastic energy as a young officer who helps out Clive while being a friend for the aging Theodor as it’s definitely one of Kerr’s great performances.
Anton Walbrook is fantastic as the German officer Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff who would become Clive’s best friend despite not seeing him very much. Walbrook brings charm to a man that shares Clive’s feelings about honor in combat only to become more disillusioned in the changing times as Walbrook has this very heartbreaking scene describing loss. Finally, there’s Roger Livesey as Clive Wynn-Candy as Livesey gives a marvelous performance as a man that reflects on the journey of his life. While having to put on all sorts of makeup and such to portray a man in the span of 4 different decades, Livesey lives up to the challenge by showing a man with great enthusiasm only to struggle with his usefulness as it’s definitely Livesey at his best.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a sensational yet enchanting film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Featuring a remarkable cast led by Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, and Deborah Kerr plus the dazzling Technicolor cinematography of Georges Perinal. It is definitely one of the best studies of war and service ever told. Notably from the duo of Powell and Pressburger as the film stands as one of their great achievements. In the end, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a captivating yet exotic film from the duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Powell-Pressburger Films: The Spy in Black - (The Lion Has Wings) - Contraband - (An Airman’s Letter to His Mother) - 49th Parallel - One of Our Aircraft is Missing - (The Volunteer) - A Canterbury Tale - I Know Where I’m Going! - A Matter of Life and Death - Black Narcissus - The Red Shoes - The Small Back Room - (Gone to Earth) - The Tale of Hoffmann - (Oh… Rosalinda!!!) - (The Battle of the River Plate) - Ill Met by Moonlight - Peeping Tom - (They’re a Weird Mob) - (Age of Consent) - (The Boy Who Turned Yellow)
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