Friday, December 15, 2017

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

(Written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr and Anton Walbrook. Tagline: "To Beat Nazis, You Must Become Nazis" - contributed by the Bear, 2017.)

Security by Col. Blimp
a Colonel Blimp cartoon by David Low

Who Is "Colonel Blimp?"

The Red Shoes led the Bear to look for more movies by the British duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Before there was The Red Shoes, there was the curious wartime Technicolor film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Colonel Blimp was a humorous cartoon figure born in 1934 with whom British audiences would have been familiar. The inventor claimed to have been inspired by hearing British officers in a Turkish bath arguing that cavalry officers should be permitted to wear spurs inside tanks.

The opening credits suggest the Victorian origins of Colonel Blimp's character by use of a needlework tapestry in which the names of the featured players are embroidered. In the center is the rotund, red-faced mounted figure of Colonel Blimp himself, clad only in his signature Turkish towel.

The movie opens with a military exercise in which the Home Guard is to defend London from a simulated attack scheduled for midnight. A clever young Army officer decides to jump the gun by six hours, since "the real thing" isn't played by rules.

Despite the efforts of a young female military driver (English beauty Deborah Kerr in one of three roles) the dastardly sneak attack succeeds, and the aged Home Guard commanding general and his staff are captured - in a Turkish bath.

How Colonel Blimp Got to Be Colonel Blimp

The viewer's sympathy lies with the young Army officer, who has a realistic view of World War Two. The overweight General Clive Candy - in his Turkish towel - goes red-faced and sputters through his moustache about fair play, and we laugh at the ridiculous figure with his outmoded view of war.

Then the movie takes us back 40 years to see a lean and dashing officer who has won the Victoria Cross in the Boer War. Upon receipt of a letter informing him of German lies about British atrocities, he goes on a personal mission to Berlin to refute them.

Deborah Kerr in a Colonel Blimp role.
He meets a beautiful English governess who penned the letter (another role for Kerr) and insults the German officer corps in a beer hall, which leads to a duel with Theo Kretschmar-Shuldorff, played by Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermantov in The Red Shoes).

The Bear will not spoil the outcome, but we learn the reason for the General's ridiculous mustache. The duelists become fast friends and fall in love with the same governess. Candy acts as if he could not be more pleased for the couple, but then we see him at the theater with the sister of the governess.

Let's just say she's no Deborah Kerr.

During WWI, now-General Candy meets a nurse who bears a striking resemblance to his first love. When the armistice is signed, he drinks a toast with his driver and gives a little speech about how the Huns waged a barbaric war, but the British won through fair play.

He marries the nurse and is reunited with his old German friend, who is now interred in an English POW camp.

It is significant that she is 20 years his junior; his living in the past is reflected in his obsession with his first love. (After his wife dies, her portrait humorously takes pride of place in his study along with all of his other trophy heads.) Her last "incarnation" is the spunky military driver "Johnny" we see in the opening and closing scenes. She happens to be the girlfriend of the cheeky Army officer who cheated in the exercise, and one of the last things General Candy does is to make sure he doesn't get in trouble. It is as if he at least finally lets go of his obsession with the girl of 40 years before and allows her to be claimed by the next generation.

At a farewell dinner, the British dignitaries are mostly cool to the defeated German officer, but by the end, they're doing their best to cheer him up about the prospects for him and his country.

History proved them wrong, as the original audience would know, and today's audience should never forget. World War Two was the unfinished business of The Great War.

The passage of time is cleverly marked by the accumulation of wild game trophies mounted in General Candy's study. By the time World War Two arrives, the world seems to have no room for the Colonel Blimp-like General Candy, now a widower, and his quaint ideas. Once again, his German friend is in England - this time as a refugee. His wife (Candy's first love) has died and both his sons are "good Nazis."

The role for Walbrook is poignant because he really did flee Nazi Germany with two strikes against him: Walbrook was half-Jewish and a homosexual. Theo Kretschmar-Shuldorff understands that Nazis represent an existential threat to civilization, and has grown wiser with the years. We feel his pain as he must watch, from the wisdom of bitter experience, his old, naive friend face humiliation.

Nonetheless, General Candy seems to find a place in his old age: commanding the Home Guard. The movie ends with a replay of the beginning, only now the viewer has more sympathy for the obese general with his Turkish towel and ridiculous mustache.

Why Colonel Blimp is Worth Watching

It is another Technicolor feast for the eyes, although not up to The Red Shoes' visual level. This was wartime, after all, and Technicolor was expensive enough. Many scenes are shot on a soundstage before painted backdrops, but that does not detract.

The film starts with a lot of energy and the pace and patter is brisk with some laugh-out-loud moments. It seems almost to age along with General Candy as the terrible new realities of two World Wars take their toll. It is funny, even as we go from laughing at General Candy to laughing with him. It becomes more poignant and even sad as World War Two overtakes it even as it has overtaken its original audience.

Women are depicted as intelligent and capable, eventually taking their place in uniform by the end. There are some choice anti-German lines. Here is an observation by General Candy's wife (Kerr also) as they watch German WWI POWs enjoying a concert.

I was thinking - how odd they are, queer. For years and years they're writing and dreaming beautiful music and beautiful poetry. All of a sudden they start a war, sink undefended ships, shoot innocent hostages, and bomb and destroy whole streets in London, killing little children. And then they sit down in the same butcher's uniform, and listen to Mendelssohn and Schubert. Something horrid about that... 

The acting is very good. Kerr has that fair-skinned beauty that seems to be unique to the British Isles, and we are treated to same kind of set-piece profile shots we see in The Red Shoes. Walbrook plays a far more likeable character than Boris Lermontov, and Roger Livesey's General Clive Candy is humorous and convincing both as the idealistic young hero of the Boer War and the idealistic old fool of World War Two.

To Beat Nazis You Must Adopt the Methods of Nazis

Part of the reason the Bear finds this movie interesting is in trying to see it through the eyes of the British moviegoer of 1943. To the extent the message seems to justify adopting the worst methods of the enemy in order to prevail in an unprecedented kind of war, it is a little chilling. When old General Candy's BBC broadcast is cancelled, his German friend Theo tells him this:

I read your broadcast up to the point where you describe the collapse of France. You commented on Nazi methods--foul fighting, bombing refugees, machine-gunning hospitals, lifeboats, lightships, bailed-out pilots--by saying that you despised them, that you would be ashamed to fight on their side and that you would sooner accept defeat than victory if it could only be won by those methods.

Theo disagrees. He is the expert on Nazis, after all. The message of the movie is Theo is right and General Candy is wrong. To beat Nazis, you must use the methods of Nazis.

By 1943, the Germans had been turned back at Stalingrad and the Japanese defeated in the Battle of Midway. The Blitz was over, but V2 rockets were in the future. It is easy for us to say the tide had turned, but Allied victory was by no means obvious at the time and much hard fighting lay ahead, including D-Day and the conquest of Germany.

Boomers may have an ambivalent historical appreciation for dreadful exigencies like the fire-bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but to see it unapologetically championed in a movie of that time is a little disconcerting. If General Candy were to find himself in today's world, his ideals of limited war and fair play (or at least better public relations) might find a more receptive audience.

The movie ends on a forced, upbeat wartime note, but we are meant to see General Candy as a pitiable relic and his ideals as a thing of the past. The genuine optimism is that for all the loose social media chatter about Nazis, we did not have to become them after all.

At least not permanently.


  1. I was never a big fan of the clever young officer who surprises Candy in the bath: too much of a smart-ass to be really heroic. But in war, the important thing is getting the job done.

    I recommend you continue your adventures in Powell and Pressburger by checking out "49th Parallel". This is an even earlier WWII film, made in 1941, and it follows the trail of a German submarine crew wrecked in Hudson's Bay, as they try to make their way undetected across Canada. I can't quite remember what their full plan was; I think they were intending to cross into the U.S. (which was still neutral) and either get back to Germany or contact their allies, the Japanese. Anyway, they do a lot of nasty things as they travel, there's a lot of gorgeous Canadian scenery and the score is composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Oh, and the cast is great too: Anton Walbrook as a Hutterite leader, Laurence Olivier as a French Canadian fur trapper (!), Leslie Howard as a professor vacationing in the Rockies. I think you'll enjoy it.

  2. It is nice to see a fellow enjoyer of forgotten films. I will continue to purse Powell and Pressburger, and as for your recommendations, I can only say:

    “Very much.”

  3. During the war, while the masses were being encouraged to believe that "it's all good", many of the most senior military and political men were profoundly troubled by the bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombings in Japan. Churchill confessed that a chief purpose of the Dresden attack was "terror and wanton destruction".

    American leaders opposed to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki included Gen. Eisenhower, Admiral Leahy (White House Chief of Staff), Admirals Chester Nimitz and William Halsey, Navy Under-Sec. Ralph Bard (who specifically appealed to the concept of "fair play" -- his words), Gen. MacArthur, US Army Air Forces Gens. Hap Arnold and Curtis Leay, and finally USAF Chief of Staff Carl Spaatz, who refused to proceed with the bombing without a written order, in the end issued by Gen. Marshall's deputy chief of staff, who in doing so characterized himself as "the fall guy". All US senior military personnel understood the atomic bombings as purely a political decision, with no military value or significance. It really seems to be Truman and nobody else.


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