The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

“You know that, after the war, we had very bad years in Germany. We got poorer and poorer. Every day retired officers or schoolteachers were caught shoplifting. Money lost its value, the price of everything rose except of human beings. We read in the newspapers that the after-war years were bad everywhere, that crime was increasing and that honest citizens were having a hard job to put the gangsters in jail. Well in Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail.”

‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1943, is a British war drama. The film tells the life of Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey, a lieutenant in the Boer War, a brigadier general in the First World War, and finally a commanding officer in the Home Guard in the Second World War. Wynne-Candy is introduced during a practice operation in which a young soldier is tasked with staging a pre-arranged mock invasion of London but changes the conditions and incurs the wrath of the aging, retired officer. This leads to a series of flashbacks tracing Wynne-Candy’s life through the 20th century, flashbacks that gives context to his introduction as bluff and slightly ridiculous old man. Through three wars he falls in love that turns out to be unrequited, duels with a German soldier who then becomes his life-long friend, marries the doppelganger of the woman he loved. Throughout the film, Wynne-Candy muses on the philosophy of conflict, his experience leading him to believe that to sink to the dirty tactics of the Nazis would be worse than losing the war. It’s a brilliant film, in part propaganda but far more nuanced than the American counterpart ‘Sergeant York’. The humanity Powell and Pressburger gives to the three (or five) main characters: Wynne-Candy, his German friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, and the three avatars of Wynne-Candy’s first love, played by Deborah Kerr, not only turns them into richly drawn, real people, but also contribute to the complex message about warfare and nationality the film is trying to relay. For me, this is better and more satisfying then the two directors more lauded ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, a film mainly directed at America. Here the movie is focused on Britain, still under threat from invasion, and as such it hits much closer to home.

Would I recommend it? It’s brilliantly performed, particularly by Livesey as different ages of Wynne-Candy and the three distinct characters created by Deborah Kerr. It’s rousing, beautifully shot and patriotic in a thoughtful and, mostly, unsentimental sense. Watch in a double bill with ‘Sergeant York’.

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