The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Up and Away
Andrew Tracy on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

It’s a crucial moment in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and thus all the more conspicuous as it elides the payoff of the long sequence preceding it: as Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) begin their duel in 1902 (heralding the start of their forty-year relationship) after a prolonged dithering over protocol, the camera, while observing them from overhead, pulls back into the rafters, and then (courtesy of a dissolve) into the sky above the wonderfully obvious miniature of the gymnasium, a miniature Berlin in the distance, false snow whipping the lens; reaching its peak, it descends back to the cardboard earth towards a toy hansom cab, in which Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) anxiously awaits the outcome.

A virtuoso shot, and one with more than an echo of the famous “unbroken” take craning into Susan Kane’s nightclub a mere two years previous. But Michael Powell’s willfully grandiose gesture carries far more resonance than Welles’s masterful showboating. Stanley Kauffmann’s rather harsh charge that Welles was “a scene and sequence-maker, not a filmmaker” nevertheless contains an irreducible truth at its core: for a great majority of “ambitious” filmmakers in the first two decades of the sound era, scenes and sequences took precedence over the film as a whole. One need think only of Ford’s overt preciousness of composition in The Informer (1935) or The Fugitive (1947), or Mamoulian’s aggressive playfulness, or Milestone’s uniquely weighty sense of innovativeness to realize that Welles was only the most pronounced (and publicized) example of Hollywood’s erratic but consistent romance with capital-A Art. Innovation in cinema never springs from some pure and untapped creative well. For those thirties and (more dwindling) forties Hollywood producers who counted prestige as a subdivision of profit, these occasional ventures into the Artistic were only good business sense.

For Powell, however, the constrictions exerted by the far more staid British system somewhat modulated the stylistic exuberance he had first begun to exhibit at the end of the ‘30s. This isn’t (merely) cultural stereotyping, but historical fact: Britain’s entrance into World War II exerted a far more wide-ranging and deep-seated effect upon British films than did America’s cinematic outpouring post-1941. The cinema’s shift into propaganda mode, however, did not so much squelch Powell’s verve as channel it, and even develop it. The vivid documentary quality he brought to his remarkable 1937 film The Edge of the World (the beginning of his love affair with Scotland’s Orkney Islands, crystallized in his 1945 masterpiece I Know Where I’m Going!) indelibly marked the rugged outdoor footage interspersed between the all-star theatrics of 49th Parallel (1941) and the flying sequences of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). And the taste for fantasy and artifice which he had first indulged in Alexander Korda’s Wizard of Oz-baiting mega-production The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which became so pronounced with his official postwar classics A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948) (not to mention the surrealist dream sequences in 1949’s fascinating war drama The Small Back Room), first surfaced in the midwar curio that is Colonel Blimp, one of the strangest epics, most bizarre propaganda efforts, and greatest films to ever emerge from the British cinema.

Indeed, Colonel Blimp’s greatness stems from the convergence of these disparities. The grand title connected to the name of David Low’s buffoonish cartoon character, who is most unlike Livesey’s innately dignified Candy; the decades-long tracing of a military career which includes not a single scene of battle, even in stock footage; a salute to British military tradition which depicts it as hopelessly outdated in the modern era of warfare, while simultaneously depicting the new practicality, in the person of a brutal Welsh sergeant in World War I and an upstart young lieutenant in World War II, as inherently unattractive and quite possibly amoral (no wonder Churchill detested the film and tried to have it banned). And threaded throughout this is one of the most poignant and beautiful of all cinematic love stories, which of course features not a single scene of romance and is split between three women: Candy’s pre-WWI love for the fiery suffragette Edith, whom he amiably loses to Theo, realizing his love only upon the moment of loss; his postwar bride Barbara, a gentle and understanding nurse; and his WWII driver Johnny, a vibrant working girl engaged to the aforementioned upstart who humiliates the aged and at least physically blimpish Candy in the film’s opening.

Powell’s reverse-Buñuelian tactic of casting Kerr in all three roles is only the most prominent example of the strain of fantasy he works into his historical panorama. The early sequences in Berlin, culminating in the duel, are marked by scenes of extraordinarily intricate, almost balletically choreographed movement, invariably cut to music: Candy’s taunting and insulting of a German agent in a posh restaurant, the amusingly agitated fervour of scurrying aides in the halls of the British embassy, and finally the methodical preparations in the gymnasium for the duel that will settle British and German “honor.”

Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger (credited as co-director, actually the film’s chief writer) are noticeably arch about the actual meaning of the duel, though slyly nationalistic at the same time: the Germans are stiff-backed and insistent, the British side viewing the whole affair as decidedly archaic but unfortunately necessary. Colonel Blimp looks back to this earlier era not with fond nostalgia for a better and truer time, but with a pronounced sense of its absurdity. Yet underlying that absurdity is a genuine regard for those who, knowing its absurdity, nevertheless adhered to its strictures—which is either the greatest absurdity of all or the true nobility that so often accompanies it. Candy’s friendly and amused smile to his opponent just before the match that may cost either of them their lives—occasioning a quizzical furrowing of the German’s brow—is not only a bit of “typically British” bravado, but a recognition of the idiocy of their position as well as an appreciation of the utter seriousness with which they undertake the playing out of that idiocy. It would take a dogmatically rigid view of such things not to see the equal weight of both sides of that balance, nor the mysterious, dreamlike quality in the midst of the enervatingly precise preparations which elevates this encounter into romance—a romance founded on the entrance into, and acceptance of, the presence of death.

Naturally, death has no real place in Powell’s masterpiece either, despite the promise of the title. The duel will result in mutual injury, mutual recovery, and mutual friendship, but in that one extra-narrative camera movement, Powell subtly unites the many movements operating within his most ambitious film thus far. It is a narrative movement, eliding the outcome of the duel and increasing the suspense by focusing upon those who wait outside. It is a technical and stylistic movement, evidence of a cross-pollinating influence from the American cinematic flair exemplified by Welles. It is a movement towards fantasy in its delicately lovely miniaturization of a snowbound commencement-de-siècle Berlin even as it moves against nostalgia by the preceding disparagement of the duel itself. And as Allan Gray’s music shifts from an urgent swashbuckling theme cast to the clashing of blades to a wistful and melodic one timed to the gentle blowing of snow as the camera reaches its apex, we are moved away from the disparities of these other movements and invited to reflect upon their confluence, on the curious and curiously beautiful progression of life even as death hangs over it. More than anything, Powell’s intentionally conspicuous shot is an emotional movement, an exemplar of the great tenderness underlying his stylistic flourishes, as opposed to the so often forthright assertiveness of his American contemporaries (the Ford of Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley excluded). No one sequence can encapsulate The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, for its beauty exists as a film entire. In moving his film always forward, however, Powell can still find time for the grace notes, for those spaces of reflection that cause us to consider where all the many movements within this single, gentle flow intersect, and bloom.