Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; drama/ war, UK, 1943; D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, S: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr, Ursula Jeans

While on leave from the Second Boer War, soldier Clive Candy is angered when he reads a letter from a certain Edith in Berlin who informs him that a certain Kaunitz is spreading lies there about the English crimes in Africa. Candy travels to Berlin and confronts Kaunitz, but accidentally insults the German army, too, and thus accepts a fencing duel with Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. However, the two become friends and he allows Theo to marry Edith, even though he had feelings for her. In World War I, Candy met a girl who looked like Edith, Barbara, and thus married here. He met Theo again. In World War II, Candy intervenes and thus Theo is granted asylum to the UK, after fleeing Nazi Germany. British soldiers stage a surprise attack, as an exercise, and capture Candy. He is angered, but later on agrees to fight according to the new, dirty rules in war.

One of the cult films of the famous Powell-Pressburger directing tandem, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" is a very good, but still a little bit overrated achievement that is not among the best films of the two directors. It starts out as a typical World War II film, with a military exercise where a young British soldier, Spud, storms a Turkish bath and captures an old general, Candy, who is only wearing a towel, as his prisoner - and makes fun of his "grandpa" moustache. However, this is where the film disconnects from the typical and switches to original: in any other film, Candy would have been just an episodic character who would yield to surrender, but here he refuses - he is not just a face in the crowd, he has a story to tell, among them how he got those moustache 40 years ago. The old Candy uses his bare fist to kick Spud into the pool and then the camera slowly pans away from him to the other end of the pool, where a young Candy emerges from the water, thereby triggering a flashback to his life 40 years ago.

The structure of the film is the strong point: it is divided into three chapters, all encapsulated exclusively during a war period (Second Boer War; Word War I, World War II), emphasizing that an Englishman and a German (Candy-Theo) can be friends throughout those three chapters, even when their countries are at conflict. Still, by taking such an approach, it went too much into width and occasionally too little into depth (the flaws are obvious in the poorly developed character of Barbara, who is almost an extra; we find out very little about what Theo did between the war, and not a single scene is dedicated to Edith's death, one of the crucial protagonists). Likewise, unlike other Powell-Pressburger films, this one is more conventional than it is inventive, with one of the scarce, but noticeable exceptions being the imaginative sequence where a blank wall is shown, then the sound of Candy's hunting gun is heard, and then the stuffed heads of lions, deers and other animals "appear" on the wall, one by one. The films is also overlong and the final quarter degenerates into a too obvious military patriotism (though that is predictable since the World War II was still going on during that time). Still, the "invisible", unobtrusive writing and directing have power, wit and quality ideas (Candy meets his fiance on the last evening of World War I, during a diner in a convent), the actors are all great and the thread of the message can be sensed throughout the film.


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